Monday, 25 April 2016

Beyonce's Lemonade is a powerful mix of music, Jay Z commentary and provocation

Holy hell. What is, was, will be, that?

Beyonce's "visual album" Lemonade was released in an HBO screening in the United States on Saturday night and is available for now only on the family business' outlet, Tidal. 

Why like that? Because when you are Beyonce you don't need to do things like album announcements or send boxes of your album to a record store or have it in any kind of form people can buy right away.

Trust me on this: though it won't be easy for a while – unless you have the music streaming service Tidal or a VPN to get you HBO on the sly in Australia - you're going to want to see this one hour mix of film clip and activist cinema, poetry and song, confronting content and emotional provocation. And then, when you do, try to work your way through its messages, metaphors and meaning.

All this before even getting to your response to the visuals and sounds, both of which are astonishingly rich and varied and drawing from southern American history (in clothes, settings and music from New Orleans grooves and folk country to harder-edged rock and hip hop), as part of a package that could be even better than her career redefining, future classic, self-titled album-with-visuals of late 2014.
Beyonce's Lemonade is a powerful mix of music, Jay Z commentary and provocation
It's fair to say that if this drama is based on real life - that is, her life - or even close to real life, this is the most public excoriation of a husband, and a famous one at that in hip hop mogul Jay Z, ever. Or maybe is a brilliant messing with our heads in an age of over-sharing and over-knowing, saying, "You think you know our lives? You don't know s---".

It's worth remembering that the gossip columns have for years been peppered with stories of Jay Z's supposed infidelities, not one of those allegations ever having been acknowledged by the couple. So these songs, most of which are preceded by short poetic/spoken word sections, are a paring back of a relationship in turmoil and disarray beginning with woman's suspicions that her husband is straying ("In the tradition of men in my blood, you come home at 3am and lie to me.") and the rapid realisation that he is and has, repeatedly ("What luck. What a f..king curse.")

What happens next is neither woman destroyed nor woman triumphant, necessarily, but multiple stages of adult and realistic development. She breaks down his weaknesses and apparent betrayals, holding back neither anger nor hurt at him and the women between ("I don't want to lose my pride, but I'm a f--- me up a bitch.") accompanied by images of Beyonce smilingly taking to various cars with a baseball bat.

She explains her needs and expectations, making it clear she isn't just abandoning this but isn't a doormat either ("Who the f--- do you think I am. You ain't married to no average bitch, boy. You can watch my fat ass twist, boy. As I bounce to the next d--- boy"). And by the way, she says, "And keep your money, I got my own", while fires erupt behind her.

There is reconciliation and reclamation but a realistic, rather than starry-eyed, return to marital happiness with accompanying images of all manner of relationships (multi-racial, straight, gay, young, old) at ease and happiness.

And all this happens with concurrent commentary on the state of black lives in the US and those of black women in particular. While a Malcolm X sound bite asserts "the most disrespected person in America is the black woman", Beyonce is joined by both a broad selection of black women – including at one vigorous and powerful point, Serena Williams – with strong social or visual presence, and then more specifically mothers of murdered sons, unknown and famous, including the mother of Trayvon Martin.

There's more, so much more. Enough to deconstruct for days of repeated viewings. And we've barely touched on the music. Lemonade is not just an album or just an extended film clip or even just a cultural critique and explosion of a famous marriage. But then Beyonce doesn't do "just" anything anymore.