What is “Lemonade”? Apparently, it’s what Beyoncé makes when Jay Z gives her lemons.
In a one-hour HBO special on Saturday night, Beyoncé dropped a much anticipated mystery project that had been preceded only by the name “Lemonade” and a short, cryptic trailer. It turned out to be a scorching “visual album,” a concept video interleaving twelve musical tracks with Beyoncé as a wife whose husband has cheated, and who journeys from fire-starting, window-smashing fury to some kind of redemption.
“What a wicked way to treat the girl who loves you,” Beyoncé sang, leaving little doubt that Jay Z, who appeared in clips (getting matching tattoos, in a scene from their wedding), was the person she was addressing. And that’s where things got weird. What were we watching—an almost-divorce, televised? One of the most powerful women in music working through her feelings and delivering a warning: just don’t do it again? Because, at the end, it emerged that this central character—the wicked cheating spouse, ambiguously redeemed—was also the guy we needed to pay for these songs. The “surprise” album was available immediately and only via streaming on Tidal, the music subscription company owned by Jay Z.
This power play would be nowhere, however, without its executive producer, one Beyoncé Knowles. “Lemonade” boasts a host of directors, including “Formation” director Melina Matsoukas; a backup formation of gorgeous, gloriously dressed black women, including such stars as Halle Berry, Quvenzhané Wallis, and (yes) a dancing Serena Williams; and a river of often surreal, Southern-gothic imagery, from horror-movie shots of Beyoncé swinging a red light bulb in ominous circles to lines of white-clad women holding hands against an ocean horizon.
Then there’s her music itself, which pulls in another set of high-profile guests—The Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar, Jack White—and ranges from slowed-down island beats to furious rockers to an almost country number to a tearful piano ballad. Which songs will emerge as individual winners, beyond their role as the soundtrack to a surreal one-hour melodrama, will become clearer as we live with them. What on earth is going on in this marriage may emerge more clearly, too. (Could the fighting all be for show? Sure, anything is possible, but there’s been a long swirl of divorce rumors and Beyoncé’s fury sounds real and raw.)
But one thing is sure: If Beyoncé is powerful enough to bend not just the Super Bowl apparatus but also a premium cable channel to serve as mere hype teams, and if she handled a first marital transgression by symbolically setting everything on fire, getting the likes of Serena Williams in formation, and then offering Tidal the boon of this new album—then Jay Z should probably watch his step.