When You Play Beyonce, You Play Yourself: A Meditation on “Lemonade”


The last time Beyonce released a visual album, it was an ode to love and marriage, illuminating the perils of romance and celebrating the underlying power of family. This visual album? It isn’t for her man. It is for her.

I don’t want to focus on the Jay-Z cheating speculation that the Internet is thirstily tweeting about by the second. Instead, I want to focus on the gift that Lemonade is. It is an hour of black girl magic, an ode to recognizing that even queens get played and a promise that no matter who dulls your light, you still got your own back. Warsan Shire‘s hauntingly beautiful poetry guides us through the narrative of a woman disillusioned and frustrated with her husband’s infidelity. Yet, the imagery flows beyond heartache and into a celebration of black womanhood. Serena Williams twerks on Beyonce’s side during “Sorry,” a turn-up anthem where Beyonce calls out her husband’s brand of cognac only to drop the line “I regret that night I put that ring on” moments later. “Hold Up” shows Beyonce frolicking about in a canary-yellow dress while smashing car windows and referencing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. She knows she’s the baddest, she says it herself. But, that doesn’t mean she isn’t immune to the searing pain of intimate betrayal.


Beneath the theme of adultery is the concept of family lineage. With reoccurring hints to a cheating father, the viewer is often wondering if Beyonce is referencing her husband or her father… or perhaps both. When Beyonce mentions an unfaithful father throughout the spoken word segments, there is anger and confusion that is equally poignant, thanks to the footage of Mathew Knowles interspersed throughout the piece.

Aside from adultery and familial legacy is a pro-black work of art. My favorite song on the album is “Save Yourself.” I tried to pinpoint what it was that felt so fucking good when listening to those words, when watching Beyonce sashay in a fur coat onscreen. It’s the anger. The raw, unharnessed anger. The words are cut with a Malcom X speech that honors the magical resiliency of black women, a group of humans who are faced with stark adversity on a daily basis. If you watch the full-length speech, you’ll see Malcom X’s sentiment that it is a black man’s job to protect black women. Yet, Beyonce doesn’t need saving. She can save herself. She’s got hot sauce in her bag and she isn’t afraid to use it.


Beyonce is angry. Beyonce is also black. She is an angry black woman and she used that to create art that knocked us all flat on our asses. And it is beautiful. This in of itself is revolutionary. It isn’t often that black women are allowed to unleash their wrath, their shell-shocked anger, their “I’m fuckin’ up all your shit boy” emotions without bystanders clutching their purse strings. Beyonce didn’t need your permission to show her fury. She is unabashedly snarling fighting words in our faces, an image that, as a young black woman, I find incredibly empowering.

After the rage is exorcised from her hourglass frame, her gaze shifts to redemption and hope on a scale that spreads past her marriage. During this phase of Lemonade, Beyonce honors the mothers of slain black men (Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin included) during a track titled “Forward,” a chilling reminder that the pain in this body of work isn’t only hers and it isn’t only relevant within the confines of her relationship. Moments later, she launches into “Freedom,” a song to start a revolution. And what would a revolution be without a verse from Kendrick Lamar? As spectators, we are invited to clench our fists and raise them towards the sky as Beyonce croons, “Imma keep running cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.”


Finally, there is forgiveness, the holiest of virtues. What is anger without resolve, bitter bullets sans apology? It’s poison and despite all the emotions that have been stirred, it is clear that Beyonce has released the venom from her veins, resulting in a liberating rebirth. “All Night” is a sweet love song doused in silver lining. It is the hope that lives within hell. The acknowledgement that trust can be lost and trust can be regained, time and time again. Jay-Z’s grandmother makes a cameo and reveals the hidden meaning in the title. Simple wisdom that we all heard as young children rubbing salt from our tear-stained cheeks. “When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.”

I’m not sure where the line between fact and fiction is drawn in this project and I’m not sure that I can learn to trust America with black lives any time soon. But, I do know that if Beyonce can make Lemonade out of her singed heart strings and political disillusionment, I can have hope.


There is always hope.

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