When Music Gave You Lemons: An In-Depth Look into Beyonce and her Splash of Lemonade

When Beyonce released her second “surprise” album, Lemonade, back in April, to no surprise, her fans reacted with astonishment. Beyonce was praised to the high heavens as countless think pieces, memes, and social media's comments were made about it. Undoubtedly, there are various aspects of this album that should be praised, but part of Lemonade’s appeal and praise is due to the image of Beyonce and her marriage as well as her hype than it being 100% about the album. 

Beyonce is one of the biggest superstars of her generation , but upon my first and second listen of Lemonade, I find myself in disagreement. Although the album is visually gorgeous, I cannot overlook the fact that, at times, the material heavily depends on the visuals, especially when it comes to the social and political message. I was once told that if a reader has to refer to the author about what they meant, the writer did a bad job conveying their message; I contend that if we have to watch the visuals in order understand the message, Beyonce was irresponsible in conveying her message.

The only explicit political song is “Freedom”, which is due to Kendrick Lamar. Lamar’s verse as well as the mothers of police violence victims being featured: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, is where the political nature is undeniable. Without this, the content of the song is largely ambiguous and can even be argued or, may it is also about, her husband’s infidelity. Beyonce is very explicit and heavily hints at Jay-Z’s indiscretions and her feelings about it, but when it comes to the social aspect, she leans on the visuals and other artists to do the heavy work. Others may not see the issue or think it is a huge one, but for me, if an artist is going to include social and political ideas in their music, not only should they explicitly address it, listeners shouldn’t need the visuals to appreciate the songs.

Because of this, I’d argue that Lemonade’s visuals carry the songs, which struggle to stand on their own. Videos can enhance songs, but they shouldn’t be where most of the enjoyment for the song itself is derived. Yes, it’s a visual album, but that’s an excuse as to why the songs aren’t as strong (or stronger). Lemonade is basically the music version of James Cameron’s Avatar. Although visually stunning, the script was weak and cliché and added nothing new except for blue cat people; Lemonade is also visually stunning but isn’t as engaging or compelling as believed. The fact that both pieces of work concentrated more so on the visual side, which they are heavily praised for and didn’t put in as much work for the other part, isn’t a criticism that should be overlooked. As much as people enjoy the visual beauty of both works, the written content IS important, which I refuse to treat it secondary to what I see. 

“Formation” is catchy and fun, but it’s not political and doesn’t become political because of the video. It’s not a black anthem either. By this logic, many songs can be political once paired with the right video. Is J. Cole’s song “Power Trip”, which is about hooking up with a girl he’s fantasized about for a while suddenly about murder because of its video?

That’s a resounding no.

So, why is it different with Beyonce?

Interestingly enough, over 20 years ago, Mary J. Blige created a similar album with ‘My Life.’ In the article “Mary J. Blige’s ‘My Life’ Turns 20”, author Laina Dawes says, “It wasn’t the lyrics that stayed with us (now older) women over the 20 years since the album was released to the world. It was that extra layer of emotion that fell between the musical notes, her deepest recesses of vulnerability.” Although Beyonce is a good singer, she focuses on the technical aspect far too much. I firmly believe that, when it comes to pop success, an emotive singer will resonate more with fans than a technical singer when given the same material. Does Mary have the vocal range of Beyonce? No. But, she doesn’t need to when fans not only felt her pain but related to it as well. 

On Lemonade, Beyonce lacks the emotiveness to truly carry that emotional punch of a woman going through the stages of grief. I’m not dictating how she expresses her grief, but it’s hard for me to buy like I have for other singers even when their material was fictional or referential, but not specific to a particular person. I’ve gotten chills from artists like Mary J. Blige, Aaliyah, Janelle Monae, and Meshell Ndegeocello. I’ve listened to experiences and thought, “Man, I haven’t experienced this, but I feel it,” whereas with Beyonce I think the song was sung well and the lyrics may or may not be interesting. Beyonce is too obsessed with technicality and image to even go there with her voice. Recall the Grammy fiasco of 2015. Beyonce performed “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” which had gotten rave reviews due to Ledisi’s rendition. Many fans, including huge fans of Beyonce, asked, “where’s the oil?” after her performance. They felt that she lacked the rawness of gospel, which is emotive and spiritual. 

And just like with “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, the songs on Lemonade lack that oil. They hadn’t been anointed. 

Correctly or incorrectly, many assumed that Lemonade was inspired by real life infidelity, which was sparked by an incident in 2014 when Beyonce’s younger sister, Solange, assaulted Jay-Z in an elevator. In the “Flawless” remix, Beyonce dismissed the conversations around the incident as “Of course sometimes shit go down it’s a billion dollars on an elevator”, which refers to her and Jay-Z’s (incorrect) collective wealth. Sure things happen when you have a lot of money like frivolous lawsuits or allegations that hold no ground, but an assault on an elevator by her sister on her husband with whom she is very close to? Regardless of my feelings on Beyonce, I don’t believe most rumors on her, but I do believe something huge happened and it had nothing to do with money, which her remarks don’t dissuade.

With that being said, I question the authenticity of Lemonade. I know this statement will infuriate her fans, feminist, black activists, etc, but I stand by my remark. Individually, both Beyonce and Jay-Z are brands, but their relationship—their marriage, is a brand as well. Before their daughter Blu was born, they were largely private and only made songs together. After Blu, they became open about parts of their personal life and, whenever Beyonce releases music or tours, there is always some rumor about Jay-Z being unfaithful. When she isn’t actively supporting her music career, the rumors aren’t anywhere to be found or, at least, they’re in the back corners of the Internet. Due to the fact that the Carters have such tight control of their image, Beyonce rarely does interviews, and when a rumor gets large enough, she shuts it down, I seriously doubt she’s honestly airing her dirty laundry. 

What she did was take control of the narrative and, may have sprinkled some truths in it, but ultimately spun it in a way that ended on a positive note. It’s not wrong to forgive a cheating spouse, it’s a personal decision, but I really don’t think this is an autobiographical or semi-autobiographical album, but as she controls the narrative, she also needs it keep her marital brand afloat. Although Beyonce is exploring themes that go with infidelity, she is the same woman who made a personal documentary that wasn’t really personal or honest; do we really think she’s going to release an album that shows that vulnerable side of her? She gives the illusion of being open and honest with her fans and the public at large without giving away much. I’m not demanding that she reveals the personal details of her life to us, but don’t pretend to reveal the most intimate parts of yourself, when really, you aren’t. And don’t allow people to think that you are.

This leads to the speculation that I’ve read and personally believe that the Carters’ camp fuel these infidelity rumors, especially with Jay-Z (or his camp) saying that he’s going to make a response album. If Lemonade is true, there isn’t any reason to make a response album (unless he’s going to be brutally honest about being a crappy husband). Since their marriage is a brand, a very marketable one at that, fueling these rumors turns a profit for them. Again, after Blu, especially before Beyonce’s solo tour and their joint tour was announced, cheating allegations starting floating around. These allegations come out like clockwork. We can sum it up as them being a power couple, but why don’t the same allegations follow Kanye West and Kim Kardashian—they’re hated nationwide. Or is it because people want to see happy couple miserable? Do these rumors have any truth to them? Are the Carters’ camps fueling these rumors?

Honestly, I don’t know, but Lemonade comes off more as capitalizing off of rumors rather than a cathartic and personal moment for Beyonce as she chose to share her pain. Especially when we take into account that Rihanna and Kanye, two huge superstars who also had their music exclusively released on Tidal, didn’t have the same promo as Beyonce on the streaming service. Days before and after Rihanna and Kanye released, I hardly saw any advertisement for them and I’m only saying hardly because it’s been a while since both releases. But, with Beyonce, her music was on the front page and even in the “suggested tracks” for Prince. I can’t speak for anyone else, but that definitely set off some alarms for me—those two aren’t even remotely similar. Rihanna and Kanye aren’t no named artist, these are influential, controversial, and two of the best-selling artists of all time (fun fact: both outsell Beyonce), but no promo?

My last issue with Lemonade, which goes back to the socio-political nature of her visual album, is the lack of representation of black female police violence victims. Black men dominate the conversation when it comes to police violence, whereas women are largely ignored. And it’s not as if black women make up an insignificant percentage of the victim, it’s a large percentage. Also, black women are very much ignored when it comes to police violence. For an artist who proclaims that she’s a feminist and who is supposed to tell the stories of black women, the omission of black female police violence is gross. There are many cases of black women getting unjustly assaulted and killed, with the one that gained the most traction being Sandra Bland, she is also the most recent compared to those featured in Lemonade, why wasn’t she at least mentioned? Why didn’t Beyonce call attention to unknown cases? Beyonce simply further contribute to the issue in the black community of uplifting and supporting black men’s pain and violence all while ignoring black women’s.

I know that not everyone can be perfect, including myself, but I don’t think that my last issue is really too much to ask, especially when many have proclaimed that this is FOR black women.

“Zia, was there anything you thought was good about the album?”

Yes, like I said, Lemonade has GREAT visuals. Despite the fact that I thought her narration and talk/singing detracted from the album, when Beyonce just sang, I enjoyed her vocal performance. There was also good imagery as far as location, color contrast, themes, and so forth. Although I enjoyed the melodies and vocal performances of some songs, only a handful stood out, such as “Sorry”, “6 Inch”, “Daddy Lessons”, “Love Drought”, and “Freedom”.  

I’ve heard many rave reviews for “Hold Up”, but I was ambivalent about the song myself. Her usages of certain lyrics were cute, but I felt they could’ve been used better.  I had a minor issue with the sound, but what really took my out was Beyonce telling Jay-Z that she’d still be with him without the fame and that other women wouldn’t. I understand the point, but who knows where Jay-Z would be without his rap career and I highly doubt that Beyonce would date the sort of man he used to be.

Overall, I believe that Lemonade is good, not great. I think that people should see and listen to it for themselves and form their own opinion, but I largely disagree with general consensus minus Pitchfork. They gave her an 8.5, but I thought their review was well thought out and supported their rating without going into fangirl territory. My rating: 7.5