It’s difficult to tell which aspect of Beyonce’s new visual album, Lemonade, garnered the greatest response: the sheer creative achievement of it all, or its exposure of the personal life of a notoriously private superstar. The project’s themes are highly personal: infidelity, family issues, bold proclamations of individual identity. However, while Lemonade has been praised as a brave new level of personal honesty from the star, she has, in fact, been discussing and sharing many of these subjects for quite a while. With Beyonce, the narrative of her life has always been best understood not through interviews, reality shows or social media, but through her creative output.
On the most basic level, Lemonade is an alleged linear account of husband Jay Z’s apparent infidelity and her journey to forgiving him. The album begins with “Pray You Catch Me,” a haunting ballad detailing her initial suspicions of unfaithfulness. In “Sandcastles,” we see she’s pardoned his trespasses. A few songs later, the film ends with a final shot of a happy Carter family.
As with most wildly famous couples, rumors of marital strife and affairs have swirled around the Carters in the past. A glance at her catalog reveals that infidelity is far from a new topic for Beyonce. Her 2006 set B’Day (technically her first visual album, for those who remember) includes three tracks explicitly about cheating: “Ring the Alarm,” “Irreplaceable” and “Resentment” (which was originally intended for a Victoria Beckham album).
“Ring the Alarm” trumpets a furious jealousy at the idea of her man’s next girlfriend receiving the expensive material possessions that Beyonce, in fact, deserves.
She gon’ be rockin’ chinchilla coats, if I let you go
Hit in the house off the coast, if I let you go
She gon’ take everything I own, if I let you go
Ten years later, on Lemonade’s “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” the feelings are both more poignant and more nuanced, with Beyonce telling her now husband he’s harming his own happiness by cheating and damaging their marriage.
When you hurt me, you hurt yourself
Don’t hurt yourself
When you diss me, you diss yourself
Don’t hurt yourself
Of course, their relationship is undoubtedly deeper than it was in 2006. When “Ring the Alarm” came out, Jay Z and Beyonce were not married; they did not have a child together. This growth is apparent in the shift from concerns over material possessions to wondering, “Why do you consider yourself undeserving? Why are you afraid of love?” We see hurt and anger, like before, but now pity has entered the equation.
Many of the references to infidelity on Lemonade also seem to be commentary on Beyonce’s parents’ troubles. Tina Lawson and Matthew Knowles first separated in 2009 and later divorced in 2011, at least in part due to the revelation that Knowles had fathered a child with another woman. On “Daddy Lessons,” we hear a father warning his daughter to avoid men like him. It’s an honest admission of his personal failings, given with the hope that there’s a chance he can save his daughter from the pain he presumably caused her mother. But it may have come too late: Beyonce’s first song about her father was 2003’s sappily effusive “Daddy,” where she croons:
I want my unborn son to be like my daddy
I want my husband to be like my daddy
“Daddy Lessons” cuts to Matthew playing with granddaughter Blue Ivy — a message that, for all his mistakes, he is still an important and present part of his daughter and granddaughter’s lives.
These same familial undertones course throughout Lemonade: There are multiple Blue Ivy cameos, Solange is present, and all throughout there’s an exploration of her Southern roots. But Beyonce has been repping her hometown of Houston for as long as she’s been Beyonce. Her 2013 self-titled album gave us her most explicit ode to H-Town with “No Angel.” On Lemonade, however, she dives deeper into her geographic past — her mother’s Louisiana heritage specifically, with a special focus on New Orleans, which also happens to be where her sister Solange currently lives. At one point, Beyonce lies on the field of the Crescent City’s Mercedes-Benz Superdome; at another, a young black man compares his come-up in New Orleans to that of President Barack Obama in “Chi-raq.” And of course, there are the voice-overs from New Orleans celebrities Big Freedia and Messy Mya on “Formation.”
In March 2013, Beyonce released an early version of what would become “Flawless” with “Bow Down/I Been On.” Around the end of the song she raps about “Boudin in the parking lot,” which is such a specifically regional Louisiana reference that I’m certain most listeners today still have no clue what she was talking about. (Boudin is Cajun sausage stuffed with pork and rice popular in the Acadiana region of Louisiana. It is often served at gas stations and roadside convenience stores — hence the parking lot.) Later, Lemonade delivers Beyonce’s first foray in country music with “Daddy Lessons” — the song may name-check Texas, but it also features a hint of Louisianan zydeco.
In what might be the most striking visual of the project, an expansive, stately plantation is populated solely by beautiful black women of all ages and shades, outfitted in white, antebellum-esque gowns, like some sort of utopia of black womanhood born of Toni Morrison’s imagination. It is this show of black female bonds, sisterhood and support that underwrites the major theme of Lemonade. The project is, above all else, a love letter to black women, their strength, beauty and pain. To somehow be surprised by Beyonce’s affirmation and revelry in her identity as a black woman is to have been asleep for the entirety of her career — from her “Bootylicious” days to the consistent present of black women in her music videos and her all-female band.
The biggest pop star in the world is a black woman who loves being a black woman, and it is difficult to fully express the importance of that fact. She is the closest thing we have to a universally adored superstar — and she is a universally adored superstar who goes out of her way to make black women feel seen. It’s no wonder she inspires a fandom so rabid that her acolytes are compared to a swarm of bees.
To be a Beyonce fan is to witness, album after album, the creative growth of an artist who allows us to see more and more of herself — as long as we are paying attention. She continues to sharpen and expand the picture of who she is as a woman and an artist while heightening the quality of her work. It is this feat that makes Lemonade feel riveting and fresh, like it came clear out of nowhere, yet also deeply familiar.
“Freedom,” the album’s second to last track, soars like a modern Negro spiritual. Beyonce, in front of the mothers of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, asks the Lord to forgive her for “Running blind in truth,” for pressing forward full steam, fueled by the belief in herself and the story she has to tell. We should all hope she never stops running.