Five years since Beyoncé's Lemonade, the album remains a powerful testament to Black female vulnerability.
The personal becomes powerful
April 2021 marks five years since the release of Beyoncé's Lemonade. The project was dropped with almost no fanfare; a carefully crafted visual album of 12 songs detailing the struggle of infidelity within Beyoncé’s marriage, and how she came out of the other side. Despite churning out endless gossip and speculation, the controversy around her marriage to rapper Jay Z and feelings of turmoil spoke to a much deeper universal and intergenerational experience that echoes Black female experiences and gives us remit to heal—something that five years on still feels deeply necessary.
For me, Lemonade came at just the right time. I’d left university, having studied for four years without a long-term job to show for it, or any real plan for my future. I was situated back in my (very white) hometown where I faced a regular sense of “othering” if not outright racism.
"The intergenerational betrayal and trauma that runs through Lemonade isn't confined to romantic relationships"
I’d also experienced my first taste of serious romantic heartbreak and, having had no other heartbreak to compare it to, I had no concept of how to handle it. Lying and betrayal by men is considered almost par for the course for straight women, a vampiric exchange of entering womanhood; you are drained of your fairytale sense of innocence, and understand the supposed reality of how men “really are”.
But romantic betrayal for Black women also feels like a disrespect rooted in the general disdain held for Black women. It is no coincidence that the “other women” in Lemonade are conceived as the metaphorical “Becky with the good hair”—a phrase that makes it clear the betrayals were with white women.
Black women fall short of the white beauty standards which are upheld on a pedestal by Western society. We’re never seen as soft, fragile, innocent, or any of the things deemed "fundamental" to womanhood. Early in the album, Beyoncé vows to make herself seem “softer, prettier… less awake”. Having to sit with my grievances and vulnerabilities, without ever feeling like I had the license to vocalise or articulate them, perhaps left deeper more painful scars than the original betrayals.
Visions of the South
Much of the music of Lemonade is set against the visual backdrop of America's deep South; an unmistakably political choice. Shots abound of cotton fields, tall grass reeds, Beyoncé riding a horse across an empty landscape, porches of old colonial houses with the rocking chair in motion. She appears in “All Night” wearing a 19th-century style dress and updo. The South is still haunted by the era of slavery, no matter how much southern culture tries to romanticise or ignore it.
From symbols like the confederate flag to the state-wide discrimination of voter suppression laws, America is also marred by a “generational curse” which Beyoncé consistently alludes to throughout Lemonade, a curse that it is yet to break. Beyoncé constantly intermingles the past, present, and future which “merge to meet us here”. Each new generation of Black women can feel resigned to its fate, as history continues to repeat itself.
"Beyoncé is perhaps the ultimate modern conception of a “strong Black woman”"
Beyoncé is perhaps the ultimate modern conception of a “strong Black woman”. Her biggest critiques are often that she is "too perfect". The infamous leaked elevator footage of her sister (fellow musician Solange) attacking her husband, whilst Beyoncé stood by calm and collected, personifies this. Lemonade shatters this illusion of strength and perfection and lays bare the reality that even Beyoncé cannot escape her fate as a Black woman. Her life is also messy and complicated, burdened by intergenerational trauma.
This album feels like a rejection of “the culture of dissemblance”, a coping mechanism Black American women used during the late 19th century Reconstruction period to desexualise themselves following centuries of sexual violence, creating a simple outward exterior that belies the complexity and conflict underneath. Beyoncé instead, wants us to heal through shared dialogue, emotional revelation and honesty. Lemonade is, after all, a sweet drink made from something so bitter. Beyoncé wants us to “break the curse”, to create something better.
The "curse" is very much upheld by patriarchy as well as racism; Black men in particular feel absolutely central to the album’s discourse. The love that Black women give to Black men can sometimes feel unreciprocated or unappreciated. We can easily feel unloved. The recent documentary Tina about rockstar Tina Turner, echoes this sentiment, replaying her uttering the words “I have never had love ”.
The power that a man like Jay Z holds over someone as seemingly momentous as Beyoncé underscores this so sharply. “Even Beyonce gets cheated on?” mouthed many at the time of Lemonade's release. Beyoncé intersperses poetic verses in between songs which helps to thread much of the narrative together, and she describes the loyalty of Black women for their men as “a form of worship”, frankly a love from Black women that Black men sometimes don’t deserve. “Did he convince you he was a God?” she asks.
A love letter to Black women
Each chapter of Lemonade functions as a series of love letters to its Black female viewers, acknowledging our pain, fragility and championing our ability to still make the best of things. It is a wonderous medley of rock, calypso, trap, infused with ballads, anthems, neo-gospel and country drawl. Genre-wise it’s impossible to pin down and this complexity and depth in terms of emotion that are rarely afforded to Black women in real life.
But the moments that stick with me the most continue to be Bey at her most fragile. Sitting alone in the tin bath of an outhouse during “Pray You Catch Me”. Sitting knees hunched and barefoot on the grass or gliding across the water in billowing white for the baptismal song "Love Drought”. Barefaced and emotionally intimate with her husband in “Sandcastles”, tenderly brushing his hand against her mouth.
"There are moments of triumph and resistance within the album as well"
Clearly, the intergenerational betrayal and trauma that runs through Lemonade is not confined to romantic relationships. They translate into father-daughter relationships, the dynamics between Black and white women, Black female bonds, and as a metaphysical conceit for the structural oppression Black people face. The Malcolm X statement quoted abruptly mid-song encapsulates this: “the Black woman is the most disrespected person in America''. Five years on from the album’s release, and Breonna Taylor’s death has received relatively little coverage, Black Transwomen’s deaths even less. Black women in the UK are four times more likely to die in childbirth, and mixed race Black women three times. In the US, Black women continue to be “America’s mule”, with Senator Stacey Abhrams having done a disproportionate amount of the campaigning work to remove Trump from office in 2020. Resting, centering ourselves and being vulnerable to violence continue to elude the accepted notion of who Black women are.
A hymn of healing
There are many moments of triumph and resistance within the album as well. Beyoncé brandishing a bat and smashing everything in sight in the visuals for "Hold Up" feels like a necessary release of anger and tension, not too dissimilar to Jazmine Sullivan’s revenge anthem “Bust the Windows Out Your Car”. Serena Williams, a dark-skinned Black woman who has been routinely ridiculed for her appearance, unapologetically grinds and twerks her way though “Sorry”, and there are many shots of Black women expressing tranquillity, stillness or joy.
Beyoncé speaks of the women who “find healing where it did not live”, and towards the end of the visual album, we see a long table of Black women quite literally breaking bread with one another, denoting a beautiful exchange of emotional tools and lived experiences between generations.
Lemonade's power isn’t really in the salvaging of Beyoncé's marriage—although it is always beautiful to see Black love thrive against the odds. The album provides a cultural reckoning in being able to explore and express our visceral pains and grievances, without having to layer on top tired tropes of being “strong” or a “superwoman”.
It continues to offer us an alternative vision of the future, a new pathway where our collective liberation can be found in our ability to work together to be the fullest spectrum of ourselves. We must be able to feel what we need to feel. Being able to sit with and share our pain will continue to be perhaps one of the best ways to be given lemons, and make lemonade.
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