Do you remember the day when Beyoncé “turned black”? I don’t – she’d always presented as a black woman to me – but when she released ‘Formation’ alongside its accompanying music video in 2016, white people everywhere seemed shocked to see her taking an overtly pro-black stance both visually and lyrically, so much so that SNL produced a skit about it that has since had over 20 million views on YouTube. It was just the tip of the iceberg: two months later came Lemonade, the visual album that graduated Beyoncé from artiste to artist and set a fresh precedent for black excellence in the music industry.
The allusions to black history come thick and fast, from the powerful imagery of black women lined up and dressed in white at a plantation – as Beyoncé intones, “Unknown women wander the hallways at night” – to shots of Elimena Castle in Ghana and Fort Macomb in Louisiana, relics of the transatlantic slave trade and America’s Civil War, respectively. It’s haunting and uplifting in equal measure, a reminder of both how far we’ve come and how far we’ve still got to go. In many ways, it feels like an intensely spiritual piece of work, providing a tribute to an ancestral lineage that slavery disrupted.
Of course, that’s not the reason why many people tuned into Lemonade. For the gossip-hungry, the album’s main allure was that it dished the dirt on music’s ultimate power couple, Beyoncé herself and Jay-Z, and confirmed what many had already suspected, that Jay-Z had cheated and their marriage was strained. “Are you cheating on me?” she asks in the poem ‘Denial’, before the film launches into ‘Hold Up’, featuring Beyoncé armed with a baseball bat, destroying everything she passes in the street with a smile.
For an artist who has historically been quite private, Beyoncé’s open anger at her husband was striking. Lines such as “Today I regret the night I put that ring on,” in ‘Sorry’, made you wonder what kind of conversations were had between the couple before it was broadcast to the whole world. Tracks like ‘Daddy Lessons’ suggested that Jay-Z’s actions were history repeating itself. It almost felt as though you were snooping through her personal diary while watching it. Or as if Beyoncé had taken the confessional grammar of reality TV – and made it highbrow.
But, really, the confessions in Lemonade served a much deeper purpose. As the director of the ‘Formation’ music video, Melina Matsoukas, said, “She wanted to show the historical impact of slavery on black love, and what it has done to the black family, and black men and women – how we’re almost socialised not to be together.”
Lemonade was not Beyoncé’s first visual album – 2013’s surprise self-titled project claims that spot – but in its unapologetic celebration of blackness, it marked the beginning of a new era in her career. Everything she has done since has followed the same trajectory, from her Homecoming performances at Coachella in 2018, where she became the first African American woman to headline the festival, to her most recent project, Black Is King, another visual album that celebrates Africa and its diaspora in regal glory. Becky with the good hair could never.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill