Rumor has it that Jay Z is working on a response to Lemonade and all of us are left wondering: does he really have what it takes? Let me start by saying unequivocally that Jay Z is a force to be reckoned with; but, he's going to have to walk with the Gods to reach Beyoncé after the release of such an inspired work of art.
In Lemonade, Beyoncé takes us through a complex, emotional journey of fractured relationships and historical betrayals both personal and political in search of something noble. Within these themes, we watch her fall (at one point, literally) into isolation, despair, madness, revenge, loneliness, and contempt only to find her ascension towards hope and forgiveness. She finally arrives at the apex, love, which she reaches on the second to last track "All Night." Throughout this journey, she invites Jay Z to become the King he's always claimed to be and it seems like the only way he can respond is by following her lead with honesty and the same intensity, track by track. Common people lie; Jay Z has to tell the truth.
Ever since watching Lemonade I've been inspired to think about what it means to create one's own value-set - to put oneself forward without asking for approval, to judge and value-create, to reinstitute a hierarchy that acknowledges a broken system and works to create something better. Lemonade is the something better and Jay Z doesn't need to top it, he just needs to meet her where she's at: on a plane above what most humans are capable of. In this way, Jay Z and Beyoncé can create that pathos of distance necessary to overcome -- to be the Gods they were meant to be.
I think Lemonade has resonated with so many of us because Beyoncé combines the near universal theme of heartbreak with a common desire for self-glorification (although most are unworthy), and the acknowledgement that we've completely lost faith in the West - or perhaps she reveals to us the artifice that's been left behind. She's showing it to us in the way that Kanye West does -- as some kind of warning and while Kanye just leaves us there to revel in the chaos, Beyoncé actually shows us a way out.
I mean, picture it. Beyoncé starts Lemonade with "Pray you Catch Me." There she is in a field, isolated in her own fear and self doubt (the isolated individual in the Godless, liberal imagination), singing...
You can taste the dishonesty, it's all over your breath
As you pass it off so cavalier, but even that's a test
Constantly aware of it all, my lonely ear
Pressed against the walls of your world...
She ends the track asking "what are you doing, my love?"
It is here that we are drawn into a stunning visual tribute to a political movement as she's shown dressed down in a black hoodie (signaling her relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement) and her personal experiences as a Black woman alone in a relationship with a Black man. Later, she continues this theme, paying tribute to Malcom X and various mothers with sons who have been killed by police violence. She also sings one of her songs in the heart of New Orleans: the Superdome - a refuge and last resort for almost 30,000 people displaced during Hurricane Katrina. But, before we even get there, at the start of the second track, Beyoncé dives almost suicidally into a house completely submerged underwater.
It is here that Beyoncé floats between the bed and the walls, at first paralyzed and then exorcised, writhing to the sounds of her own poetry, and then appearing in slow motion between what look like Roman columns, maddened and transformed, singing "Hold up." In this next video, she casually and almost dispassionately strolls down the street wearing a bright yellow, Roberto Cavalli dress fresh off the 2016 runway, bashing in car windows and destroying property. She asks, "What's worse, lookin' jealous or crazy?" And next, looking straight into the camera she sings:
Let's imagine for a moment that you never made a name for yourself
Or mastered wealth, they had you labeled as a king
Never made it out the cage, still out there movin' in them streets
Never had the baddest woman in the game up in your sheets
Would they be down to ride?
No, they used to hide from you, lie to you
But y'all know we were made for each other
So I find you and hold you down...
It's interesting to listen to "Hold Up" next to Kanye West and Jay Z on the 2011 hit "Why I love you." It seems just five years prior, Jay Z was struggling with the same themes of betrayal as he basically tells West (and the other stars he's made) what it looks and feels like to be a leader whose followers are constantly trying to take you down - not to lead, of course, but just to tear it all down; this is destruction for the sake of destruction. With grace, Jay Z responds to all the soldiers he's trained to be Kings and says, "I'm so sorry, but I just can't die for you, but I can make em put their hands in the sky for you."
Just as Jay Z wants these men to rise up with him to be Kings he says, rightly, that all they want is to be soldiers. You know, Beyoncé wants the same thing. The only difference is that she wants it with Jay Z. While it's entirely possible that she's trying to create some feminist call to action with her final track "Formation," I think deep down she knows the limits of this possibility. Jay Z is the love of her life and they need to create something together, as a family. Beyoncé is not an ordinary woman and Jay Z is not an ordinary man. They are not in a marriage of convenience and this is not some transaction. There is something real at stake.
Beyoncé ends the song "Hold Up" reminding Jay Z that "they don't love you like I love you" and then appears in a parking garage wearing the Egyptian Ankh around her neck - a symbol of life and connection to the past. Then the volatile track sung with Jack White "Don't Hurt Yourself" starts with a question, "who the fuck do you think I am?" and releases a fury known best in ancient Egyptian mythology as that of the Goddess Tefnut, daughter of the solar God Ra-Atum. This particular Goddess has a name that translates to "that water" and is often depicted as human with a lioness head ("I am the dragon breathing fire, beautiful mane I'm the lion"). Tefnut is known to produce the purest water that emanates from within ("You know I give you life... When you love me, you love yourself, love God herself").
The next track "Sorry" is a brilliantly feminist track that's basically just an apology for not apologizing. It is here that Beyoncé takes aim at a culture where women are drowning in guilt for not living up to certain gendered expectations and one where even wives are sometimes blamed for their husbands' infidelity. Beyoncé ends the song with a slight taunt, "Big homie better grow up" and finishes with a cold and controversial line "he better call Becky with the good hair."
As a seamless transition, the next song "6 Inch" offers a reflective look into the complex and commercialized image of Black women's sexuality as it is both exploited and exploiting. The imagery is laden with references to prostitution and sex work. Could this perhaps be who/what Becky is? And does Beyoncé see herself as part of the same system that uses Black women's bodies as hyper-heterosexual ornaments of pleasure?
I'll admit, the first half of Lemonade is dark and Beyoncé plays dangerously with some anti-Christian themes; however, once she gets to "Daddy Lessons" we start to see our way out. And isn't it ironic that here she is, this time following Jay Z, talking about being a soldier? She sings, "Came into this world, Daddy's little girl, And daddy made a soldier out of me, Daddy made me fight, It wasn't always right, But he said girl it's your Second Amendment." Beyoncé is singing about a constitutional right to bear arms and the legacy left to her by her father. Again, we are reminded of this legacy - a connection to the past and our relationship to the city or state.
On "Love Drought" Beyoncé reminds Jay Z that together they can move a mountain, calm a war, and make it rain. Beyoncé is ready to move on and she's set her sights on high ambitions. This song leads to the heart-wrenching ballad "Sandcastles," where the two of them are shown sober and playful -- almost as if they've weathered a storm and are stronger for it. They have overpowered what was weak. This is not only about forgiveness, it is a song about redemption.
Later, Beyoncé weaves in themes from Louisiana Voudon (developed from the traditions of the African Diaspora) to again connect us with a past in order to see a future. Finally on the track "All Night" her words speak for themselves as she sings:
Found the truth beneath your lies
I've seen your scars and kissed your crime...
Our love was stronger than your pride
Beyond your darkness, I'm your light...
They say true love's the greatest weapon
To win the war caused by pain,
But every diamond has imperfections
But my love's too pure to watch it chip away
Oh nothing real can be threatened
True love breathes salvation back into me
With every tear came redemption
And my torturer became a remedy
After this, in the short song "Forward," James Blake and Beyoncé sing "I love you more than this job, please don't work for me." This is her last plea for Jay Z to join her at the throne - she has shown us she can certainly stand alone, but that her love is stronger than his pride. When we get to "Formation" she ends things in the most spectacularly superficial way as a reminder that she knows exactly what she's doing.
It's too easy to just read Lemonade as a dramatized story of betrayal or even as a political statement. Beyoncé has painted a portrait of a real love story and she has invited us to witness a truly private affair. This is the beauty of Lemonade and we can all learn something about what it means to really love someone.
I constantly ask myself the question: How should a person be?
And finally, after Lemonade, I have an answer. I hope Jay Z does, too.