Beyoncé did more than break the internet when she released her sixth album, Lemonade, on April 23. First broadcast on HBO as a visual album, her latest project takes viewers on the journey of a woman with a broken heart. The poetic narration woven throughout the film adopts the words of British-Somali poet Warsan Shire. Whether or not the scorned woman is Beyoncé herself remains to be seen. Ultimately, both Beyoncé and Shire seamlessly tell the story of what it takes for a woman to find sweetness after life hands her bitterness.
The visual album is an hour-long, stunning homage to black, Southern women, in a nod to Beyoncé’s own family roots in Alabama and Louisiana. Lemonade simultaneously reaches backward and forward. We see images of women in Colonial costumes, ceremonial white robes, faces painted in white tribal markings, marching band uniforms and everyday women in their own street clothes. We see black women clothed in their naked glory. It is the perfect visual complement to a soundtrack that feels like Beyoncé’s most honest and personal work to date.
Initially, it feels like the album is about an unfaithful lover (Jay Z?). Lemonade begins wistfully with “Pray You Catch Me,” but doesn’t stay sad for long. In “Hold Up,” we see a grinning Beyoncé adorned in marigold, sauntering down a busy street bashing in car windows with her bat. In “Hot Sauce,” she sings airily, “It’s such a shame to let this good love go to waste.”
But the album is also unmistakably angry. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is a rock-infused declaration of war that warns a cheating husband, “Try this shit again, you gon’ lose your wife.” Featuring The Weeknd on vocals, the sequence for “6 Inch” shows Beyoncé standing in front of a burning house, unbothered. Lemonade is very much the story of a woman who goes through water, fire and blood to come back to herself. The epilogue? Who that self will be after this trinity of baptisms.
Lemonade is also defiance, with the gleeful “Sorry” featuring tennis star Serena Williams twerking as Beyoncé sits on a throne. A woman may be scorned, but she isn’t powerless. Throwing up both a middle finger and deuces, she quips, “Boy, bye” and tells the unnamed boy that she’s not sorry.
Although the songs deal unambiguously with infidelity and romantic love, Lemonade does not exclude a mother’s heartbreak. Perhaps the visual album’s most heartbreaking images are filled with the mothers of slain black teens Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. The women hold up pictures of their sons as tears stream down their cheeks.
Lemonade never fully arrives at a place of joy, but it swings toward acceptance and forgiveness. “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles” are both vulnerable ballads that lament when promises don’t shape out the way we hope. The poignant video of Beyoncé with her husband, Jay Z, provides more questions than she answers. The sequence is soothing even if haunted by the break in Beyoncé’s voice as she sings of heartbreak.
Taken together, the album sonically and visually is a tribute to womanhood and survival, a praise song for the tools our mothers have given us to withstand pain. In “Freedom,” Bey reminds us that winners don’t quit on themselves. Here is the album’s strongest statement, a way past the bitterness of lemons and toward the sweetness of lemonade. The recipe for lemonade is less about ignoring a broken heart or forgiving a cheating partner, and more about being unafraid to feel every emotion listed in the segments of the visual album: intuition, denial, anger, apathy, emptiness, accountability, reformation, forgiveness, resurrection, hope and redemption.
How fitting that it ends in “Formation,” the brassy understanding that acceptance is a journey every woman must take on her own time and on her own terms.
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