Stereotype suggests that I, as a young queer man, should be in love with Queen Bey, and other strong female artists like Lady Gaga (who Beyoncé has collaborated with previously.) But I’ve always seen her as not my genre, or too mainstream, or not a reflection of my own identity: as a sex symbol to young straight men, or a role model to young black women. She’s the singer who becomes central to the narrative of The Pink Panther (2005); Destiny’s Child sat alongside S Club 7 and the Spice Girls on compilation CDs played at children’s parties. Beyoncé sat as synonymous with Nicki Minaj’s overt, phallic sexuality in Anaconda, or with every other black female artist, like Rihanna, who now beats along in my head with the words of Work.
Over the past year or two, my musical taste has diversified: I’ve shifted from that judgemental person who rejected any music made after 1989 to someone who embraces the amazing work being done by Years and Years, CHVRCHES, and plenty of other artists.
The music video is a neglected medium. Promo videos existing purely as a promotional tool, highlighting a few hit singles from the album and simultaneously neglecting some of its most powerful highlights. Yet some of the most celebrated cinematic visionaries bring beautiful images to the screen, directors like Jonas Åkerlund or Derek Jarman or Xavier Dolan or Gus Van Sant, perfectly synchronising lyrics with visuals that almost act as essential to one’s understanding of the album. Vimeo is filled with plentitudes of ‘indie’ music videos that deserve to be seen.
The idea of a ‘visual album’ seems so obvious, yet seemingly never used. Yellow Submarine (1968) is unworthy of the title; Tim Mattia’s Blue Neighbourhood (2015) trilogy for Troye Sivan’s debut album weaves a strong meta-narrative, yet excludes the rest of the album when it still forms a narrative of sorts, even if it isn’t a ‘concept album’.
Lemonade is intensely visual. Beyoncé weaves between monochrome, 16mm, multiple aspect ratios (including the incredibly tight ratio in the sections set in the 1800s), home movies, and many other visual sources. The flow of the music is interjected with spoken word of poetry by Warsan Shire, and the dialogue of Malcolm X. Shire’s verses are heavy with references to Heaven, redemption and other concepts of the Christian faith. In the opening shots, we see a Bible; in another song, a group of women are baptised in their white robes. It is bathed in symbolism. It becomes almost intimidating to track so many different sequences and narratives and moods. Lemonade demands attention, and demands dissection. It refuses to be cut up into GIF sets of Beyoncé swinging her bat at a car window in Hold Up, or as individual music videos on her VEVO channel, or as individual songs played at will on Spotify; it exists as one cohesive piece.
There are so many standout songs here that I want to add to my Spotify playlist: Pray You Catch Me‘; Hold Up; Love Drought; Freedom. But I can honestly say there is not a single song on this album I hate, or particularly dislike. I’ve had some issues with Tidal, but I respect Beyoncé for it. So often songs become something we consume inactively: a song in the background on Spotify, but we rarely listen to the lyrics. As a visual album, our attention remains focused on what is being said.
Beyoncé has voiced her life into the form of an album – which is surely what the best albums do. More so than when she launched her career with Destiny’s Child, there seems to be more attention placed on the issue of racism, highlighting severe inequalities through Ferguson and numerous other instances of systematic racism. Unfortunately, in early 2016, it seems these cases aren’t blowing up as publicly as they did through mid-2014 and through 2015. The world doesn’t seem shocked anymore. Beyoncé eulogises Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner as photographs held by their heartbroken mothers, simultaneously juxtaposed against the plight of black Americans two centuries ago, a woman of the time holding a monochrome photograph of a black man’s face. In another scene, a hooded young boy stands up to police in riot gear: because we live in a world where Tamir Rice, a boy only a few years older than the boy here, can be murdered because he is seen as a gang member.
Lemonade is dominated by black faces; white faces are rarely ever seen, and only fleetingly. Beyoncé is not taking the stage as a black artist in a sea of white artists, she is taking the stage as a black woman within a community of black people – far from a minority. She highlights black artists, from Warsan Shire to Nina Simone and Quvenzhané Wallis. She holds the power, and not just as a strong woman holding herself up in the face of unfaithful men (read: Jay-Z). She stands on the top of a half-submerged police car in a flooded New Orleans, only to drown under its weight – the weight of an institution; the weight of destructive forces.
In the album’s most powerful song, Hold Up, Beyoncé walks through a Blaxploitation world: filled with cars from the 70s, shot on grainy film to achieve a grindhouse feel, interconnected with a community of black faces; an old man with a saxophone silenced, as with the sound of Beyoncé’s bat shattering the glass. Amidst the cliche flames of masculine action heroes; taking the wheel of a monster truck of dick-waving derbies, she reclaims the power.