by kate whaite
It’s hard to know where to start. I remember, vividly, the first time I ever saw Beyoncé. There’s not many things I first saw while watching TRL, enjoying the brief time between when school got out and I had to start my homework, that resonates with me the way No No No, Pt. 2does. Destiny’s Child were another girl group with another shiny video for an R&B song that might make a crossover hit, but what a hit it was.
That was, of course, a very long time ago, and the time between then and now has been, well, a lifetime. That single will be 20 years old in 2017, and that’s usually longer than an act lasts. But in a group or solo, Beyoncé’s never been very far away. 2013’s self-titled album was a bold step commercially and musically, but somehow she’s managed to surpass herself, and the aim for Lemonade isn’t success — it’s achieving her artistic vision.
It’s probably important for me to say now that there’s no way I could have been ready for this. It’s a piece of work that isn’t for me, as a white woman. For perspectives which are more important than mine there are many, many places to look — for a first stop, why not try Jenna Wortham’s NYT contributions on Formation, the lead single, and on the film as a whole (Beyoncé approved)? Did I forget to highlight that it’s another visual album? It’s lush, it’s beautiful, it’s a poetic bricolage whose critical reading is beyond me. After I read Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, I’m looking forward to getting started on Lemonade Syllabus: A Collection of Works Celebrating Black Womanhood, curated by Candice Benbow, so I might have a hope of a chance.
With Pray You Catch Me, the album comes to life on her breath. It’s reminiscent of the beginning of Pretty Hurts. It’s a centering, visceral connection, and the rhythm of it takes you from somewhere else, wherever else, to the beginning of this journey. The simplicity of the song belies the care and craft in it. Its harmonies and key changes are stunning, but feel organic — grown, not made. This isn’t manufactured pop, it’s coral growing into a reef. The song’s quiet repetitions build, struggle and growth creating something hard and beautiful.
“If I didn’t know Beyoncé had a mother, I would not be surprised to find she’d risen from the ocean whole; its tides her heartbeat, the currents driving the whisper of her blood. There is water everywhere on this album.”
Sorry, a party song/lament that feminists everywhere need, speaks of the tears of personal hurt which must be hidden from the one who hurt you.
On Freedom, an anthem of resistance, tears take on new meaning. Tears of a collective hurt that contain the potential to become the explosive foundation of a movement. Freedom sounds like a song that was supposed to be included in civil rights collections like this one, but was made too late. With a feel that is more revival than radio, the tide that waits for no man will have to stand still on her orders as Beyoncé wades in water.
With a comparatively spare piano arrangement, ballad Sandcastles references the impermanence of the plans we make with our partners in the face of the encroaching tide, while Love Drought takes a confessional-style stab at the life-giving power of love.
My favorite song on the album is Don’t Hurt Yourself. This is the statement of an artist in complete control. Where sometimes features come off as exercises in compatibility, in sales, and in novelty, Beyoncé manages to embrace the style and substance of her collaborator, to twist herself into a new being. She’s wearing a mask in order to tell the truth, though – wherever she extends, she’s still recognizably herself, unfolding, revealing new strength after new strength. Jack White working with Beyoncé comes as a surprise to me, but this gritty self-possessed song delivering the ultimate ultimatum has a presence whose genealogy can be traced back to both of them. It’s rock, and roll, and R&B, and a million other things, distilled down to perfection.
Politically — look, I’m not an expert, and I don’t want to misfire in front of my LOUD WOMEN colleagues. What I will say is that it doesn’t take a magnifying glass to find the politics of the work. Even a passing glance reveals disruptions of misogynoir (Hold Up), women’s struggle for financial independence through satisfying work (6 Inch), and statements against police brutality in the visuals accompanying Forward and Formation. It’s there, whether you’re dancing or not.
The woman can follow an ultra-modern song featuring The Weeknd with a country song stretching back to her Texas roots. What can’t she do? Just do yourself a favor. Watch the film. Listen to the album. I promise you’ll learn something, and I’d be shocked if you didn’t like something. I’m with The Read (NSFW, language) on Beyoncé. She is everything. I can’t wait for what’s next.