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Beyoncé's Lemonade was a sweet moment of free Black womanhood and total agency

Beyoncé's <i>Lemonade </i>was a sweet moment of<i> </i>free<i> </i>Black womanhood and total agency
Screenshot: Lemonade, Graphic: Natalie Peeples
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There is a certain peace that seemingly washes over Beyoncé as she pummels the windshield of a vintage Chrysler with a baseball bat. Draped in saffron yellow, she glides through a busy city block while “Hold Up” mellifluously warns a duplicitous lover that her brand of loyalty is hard to come by. If there’s a high road or “graceful” way to handle a cheating partner, she has little interest in it at the moment. As she creates wreckage out of shop windows and fire hydrants with impunity, a man drives by on an ATV wearing a shirt emblazoned with the words, “In memory of when I gave a fuck.” Many watch this amalgam of radiance and fury in awe, but it’s the surrounding Black women in particular who appear to be more celebratory and empathetic. And it’s likely because in this rare moment Beyoncé is getting to do something that few Black women get the chance to do sans intervention: She’s making peace with her righteous anger. And she did it on HBO.

The world premiere of Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, which aired on April 23, 2016, invoked a familiar, almost vintage sentiment for many who remembered the 1991 simulcast premiere of Michael Jackson’s “Black Or White” music video. The scale was a little different, of course, with Jackson taking over four networks, but the impact was still comparable as the night would not only yield a new short film airing on HBO, but also a full-length album made immediately available on the streaming platform she partially owned, Tidal. (The other platforms would follow years later). The event was a double stamp of cultural relevancy, a flex for an artist who harbored enough power to both show off her newest work on one of television’s most prestigious channels and share her music quite literally on her own terms, through the avenues that would benefit her the most. The temporary exclusivity of Lemonade’s premiere did little to deter its overall success: It premiered at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and was the bestselling album of 2016. Beyoncé became the first artist to see their first six album debut at the very top of the charts.

A feat like this isn’t exactly achieved overnight. It took four solo albums—Dangerously In Love, B’Day, I Am... Sasha Fierce, and 4—to illustrate the kind of all-around performer Beyoncé had become since her Destiny’s Child days. Soulful, alluring, empowering, and above all, so damn talented, the Houston-born artist climbed the pop culture ranks with each booming anthem, from “Crazy In Love” to “Run The World (Girls).” But even after adding a number of immovable entries into our cultural lexicon—may “you should’ve put a ring on it” forever endure—there was still a fair amount of distance between the impeccably packaged performer and the audience that adored her. Sure, her reach was already legendary and her very essence exuded the idea that girls and women were capable of greatness, but her politics and how she viewed and navigated the world were still largely a mystery.

It wasn’t until December 13, 2013—the day that she shocked the world by releasing her fifth, self-titled studio album—that the world saw not only the full scope of Beyoncé’s power, but also the early signs of a bolder, more forthright artist. Beyoncé, an experimental collection of 14 tracks and 17 unspeakably stunning music videos, arrived without a stitch of prior advertising beyond a smattering of ill-cited rumors and speculation. Beyonce featured songs like “***Flawless,” a banner-waving feminist banger, and “Superpower,” a visual fantasy of an uprising against the status quo. They were distinct departures from her previously established body of work, signaling closely held beliefs that extended beyond love and relationships, and it was a significant step closer to the deeply private woman whose name had very suddenly become synonymous with immense power. On a consumer level, Apple announced that Beyoncé had become its fastest selling album of all time after only three days. The release indicated a seismic shift within the music industry, standing as a symbol of an artist’s total agency or, as Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone noted in his review, “a celebration of the Beyoncé Philosophy, which basically boils down to the fact that Beyoncé can do anything the hell she wants to.”

The fact that her self-titled album had garnered such massive success despite shirking traditional means of marketing solidified that Beyoncé had truly become the master of her own narrative. And as the public responded positively (and, as expected, negatively) to her more overtly political side, she started to lean into work that boldly centered on her Black identity. Months before Lemonade’s arrival, Beyoncé dropped another surprise on fans with the release of the video for “Formation,” a steady blend of Southern Gothic iconography and images of a Hurricane Katrina-torn New Orleans. The entire production encompassed the duality of Blackness—shots of a police car submerged in flood waters and graffiti that read “STOP SHOOTING US” provided sobering imagery underneath lyrics that pay loving tribute to kinky curly hair and the singer’s “negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils.” As her forthcoming album’s leading single, it hinted toward an icon who, despite global domination, was growing less interested in the safety “crossover appeal.” Beyoncé was determined to show the inherent artistry of a very precise experience. Enter: the genre-defying Lemonade.

While there was virtually no indication as to what fans should have expected, Lemonade manifested as a shockingly personal account of some of the most intimate aspects of Beyoncé’s personal life. The film came together as a unique marriage of poetry, stark visuals, and honest lyrics that painted a picture of a relationship at its lowest point. “Pray You Catch Me,” a gentle piano ballad armed with rafter-dwelling harmonies and the opening line, “You can taste the dishonesty/It’s all over your breath as you pass it off so cavalier,” led a journey into the emotional turmoil caused by not just any vaguely fictional infidelity, but the widely assumed infidelity of her real-life husband, JAY-Z. Drawing from a mix of R&B, rock, country, and soul influences, Beyoncé dove into a process that, on the surface, looks like something that would normally be carried out privately.

However, at its core, Lemonade was a depiction of a cyclical grieving and healing process shared specifically by Southern Black women, one that often leaves those in the throes of deep, personal betrayal left to weigh culturally (often religiously) instilled values with the heavy pain of deceit. Layered between the ornate visuals and engaging storytelling was this achingly familiar trauma that had become a fixture in Black womanhood. While so many found it hard to vocalize that experience, Beyoncé had engaged in an unprecedented amount of vulnerability by exploring the generational aspects of her torment, synthesizing her findings, and removing the veil of strength and grace for the masses as if to say, “This. This is what it means to be a Black woman constantly, quietly processing heartache.” The significance of watching a Black woman take the space to fully live out her grief and anger without the calls of non-Black women to remember her strength and grace or charge her with being an Angry Black Woman, was unparalleled. It remains one of the most authentic moments of her career.

The milestones that have followed Lemonade—a history-making Coachella concert and Homecoming, for example—are products of an artist determined to outdo themselves at every turn. However, Lemonade will always remain preserved within the pop culture zeitgeist of 2016 as the moment when Beyoncé showed full autonomy of both her career-defining work and her healing.