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Beyoncé’s agitpop

Beyoncé’s agitpop

Her new album “Lemonade” may draw on her relationship with Jay-Z, but it’s really about what it means to be a black woman in America today

Her new album “Lemonade” may draw on her relationship with Jay-Z, but it’s really about what it means to be a black woman in America today

David Bennun | April 27th 2016

When Beyoncé performed during the half-time show at this year’s Super Bowl, she debuted a new song, “Formation”. With truculent lyrics about her heritage (“You mix that Negro with that Creole, make a Texas bama/I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros”) and a troupe of dancers dressed as Black Panthers, it was an extraordinary act. This was a black power anthem for the modern era – and she broadcast it to an audience of over 114m viewers. The video that accompanies the song upped the ante; it refers to the pre-civil war South, and to Hurricane Katrina. It’s a challenge – for some, a provocation – backed by the commercial clout her superstar status affords her. I’m doing this, she seemed to be saying, because I can.

Whether by instinct or design, today’s pop stars are a cautious bunch. They may aspire to rock your world, but they are not about to rock the boat. They have opinions, they have causes, but these tend to be fairly innocuous ones: they are against war, or poverty or hunger – but then, who isn’t?

Then there is Beyoncé, who is surely the biggest pop star in the world right now. Not the bestselling one – that’s Adele – but the most incandescent. Put her next to anyone else in the business right now and they will pall beside her wattage. Her new album, “Lemonade” (of which “Formation” is a single), suggests she’s also the boldest major recording artist – this side, at least, of Kanye West, whose audacity remains unparalleled.

That boldness is evident throughout “Lemonade”. A concept album of a type familiar from Seventies soul, it charts the turbulent course of a relationship heading for the rocks. (The album has been greeted as autobiographical, although we should not assume it to be so; by appearing on it, Beyoncé’s husband Jay-Z has implicitly endorsed it.) Musically adventurous, it incorporates country, hard rock and indie elements, and enlists collaborators including Jack White, Ezra Koenig and electronic specialist James Blake, all the while putting Beyoncé’s stamp on the entire business. Emotionally gripping, it’s also deeper, darker and even better than its excellent self-titled predecessor from 2013.

“Lemonade” is compelling to hear – but it is something else again to watch. The album features a 65-minute video version, effectively a self-contained film. It is a triumph. Over a song cycle taking in infidelity, its repercussions and an eventual reconciliation (this dry description understates its wrenching intimacy) the film superimposes an allusive study of black women in America. We see black women mourning the black men killed in police shootings. We see those antebellum figures, standing like statues or frozen ghosts – effigies of sorrow, elegance, subjugation and defiance. We hear the echo of Nina Simone’s powerful lament “Four Women”. We hear the words of Malcolm X: “The most disrespected person... The most unprotected person... The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”

“Lemonade” is about race and sex, subjects which are now at the forefront of the American political landscape, as the Black Lives Matter movement gains momentum and women find themselves fending off those who would strip them of their reproductive rights. “Lemonade”, the visual album, combines these subjects: it is explicitly about female blackness. It isn’t a manifesto – it’s not that coherent, nor does it attempt to be – but it is by its existence both a kind of mutiny and a proclamation of solidarity. It is defined by who it is for: black women.

Yet at no point does Beyoncé fall short as an entertainer. This is agitprop with a sky-high budget; “Lemonade” is lavishly styled, immaculately shot and full of beautiful people. Often surreal, it taps deep into a psychosexual dream world, and borrows from the visual language of Buñuel and Dali.

The effect is unsettling. Among the unsettled is Piers Morgan, who wrote about how uncomfortable it makes him, and how much he preferred it when Beyoncé was fun and apolitical. In my book, you should as a rule take note of Morgan’s opinions only to assure yourself they do not align with your own. But in this case Morgan is useful: he stands in for the kind of person Beyoncé is trying to disturb, which is anybody unnerved or threatened by a black woman who doesn’t conform to their expectations. “Lemonade” isn’t meant to be easy going: it’s high-gloss art that’s disruptive and subversive (all the more so because it will probably sell in the millions). It’s no doubt clever and calculated, but so what? When, in pop music, did that become a sin? This record wants everything its own way, to be at once shiny mass-market product and gritty sedition – and it just about pulls it off. “Lemonade” lives up to its title: acid-sharp, amply sugared and mightily refreshing.

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