The best movie of the year to date? That would be Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade.’
The video, I mean, and not the album. The 12-song collection itself, dropped on an unsuspecting world Saturday night, is a rich and varied pop symphony on the theme of a cheating husband and the most mature work yet to come from the one-time Destiny’s Child.
But it’s the hour-long video, which debuted on HBO and comes along with the digital album, that is the signal work of art here. “Lemonade” the album, as good as it is, is a souvenir of “Lemonade” the movie, rather than the other way around.
It’s directed by seven varied young talents from the world of music, music video, and advertising (including the singer herself), and it includes the spectral spoken verse of Warsan Shire, an acclaimed 26-year-old Somali-British poet.
But Beyoncé gets the “executive producer” title and “Lemonade” has sprung from the singer’s heart and head as an expression of a woman scorned and a diva triumphant. That the film, even more than the album, embraces the struggles, trials, and resilience of all women of color, of all generations — and, by extension, every woman everywhere — makes it a statement of almost unparalleled magnanimity.
The backstory is that Beyoncé’s husband, the rapper-entrepreneur Jay Z, slept with another woman. Whom? At the end of “Sorry,” an early track on “Lemonade,” the singer calls out “Becky with the good hair.” This set off a frenzy of social media spelunking Saturday night and Sunday morning, and the woman in question was identified as fashion designer Rachel Roy. Aside from the cheap thrills, the gossip is pretty much beside the point. Jay Z gave his wife lemons. She made “Lemonade.”
The album is an attempt to express all the emotions that can course through a cheated-upon spouse. From the joyous contempt of “Hold Up” (with its cheeky sampling of the 1962 Andy Williams hit “I Can’t Get Used to Losing You”) to the fury of “6 Inch” to the churchy sorrow of “Sandcastles” to the Aretha-esque self-flagellation of “Freedom” all the way to the qualified (and, to some commentators, controversial) forgiveness of “All Night,” “Lemonade” is a conscious and complete guide to a woman’s inner life.
It’s also maybe one of the most audacious emotional concept albums ever made, comparable only to Marvin Gaye’s 1978 alimony LP “Here, My Dear.”
By contrast, the achievement of “Lemonade” the “visual album” is that it extends Beyoncé’s argument to millions of her sisters. The video calls upon a large cast of dancers and actresses, celebrities and grandmas, anonymous women and women who wish they could have remained anonymous — like the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, seen in “Forward” holding portraits of their dead sons.
Collaborations mostly with male artists on the album are transmuted into female solidarity onscreen: only a snippet of Kendrick Lamar’s heartfelt rap on “Freedom” makes it into the video. As on the record, Malcolm X is heard reminding us that “the most disrespected person in America is the black woman.”
When the movie gets to “Sorry,” tennis star Serena Williams joins Beyoncé onscreen, dancing with in-your-face pride and self-possession — a reminder that the song’s title is anything but sincere and that men spurn their goddesses at their peril. Most of the segments were shot in and around New Orleans, and the entire project has the swampy, witchy feel of women communing late at night, comparing tears and joys.
The images in “Lemonade” have a primal staying power: The singer ecstatically taking a baseball bat to cars and shop windows as the block explodes behind her in “Hold Up”; the singer in home movies from her childhood, musing on the shared flaws of her father and her husband; the singer lying prostrate and miserable in a cavernous New Orleans Superdome, one small stop on a people’s larger trail of tears. “Lemonade” references films like “Daughters of the Dust” (1991) but adds mothers and wives; “Eve’s Bayou” (1997) becomes Beyoncé’s.
And, yes, “Lemonade” eventually — and surprisingly — comes down on the side of forgiveness and, in the words of one of the many chapter headings, “Redemption.” Tellingly, the singer credits herself as “Beyoncé Knowles Carter,” and the album’s climactic next-to-last song, the lush “All Night,” is accompanied onscreen by shots of Jay Z at play with his wife and baby daughter.
To some, that’s a disappointment: The critic Anjelica Jade Bastien, writing in the online magazine Thrillist, has noted that “Beyoncé takes a polarizing stance with the line ‘and my torturer became my remedy.’ There is something to be said about the way black women are expected to forgive and stay with men who are downright abusive against their best self-interest.”
The achievement of ‘Lemonade’ the ‘visual album’ is that it extends Beyoncé’s argument to millions of her sisters.
And you’re allowed to express a little cynicism over the fact that this grand slam against an errant husband was available for its first 24 hours only on that husband’s exclusive streaming site, Tidal. Is the whole thing a con to drum up business for Jay Z? Or was it his wife’s way of giving the screw one last turn by forcing his site to broadcast his infidelity?
Maybe both, maybe neither, and, in any event, “Lemonade” in both its aural and visual iterations could be purchased on iTunes by Sunday.
There’s something else that needs to be said about this project. It was only coincidence that “Lemonade” landed in the midst of the general cultural mourning for Prince. (On Saturday night, you could flip from the debut of the album on HBO to a “Saturday Night Live” tribute to the Purple One.)
But the synchronicities are there between two artists who were and are able seemingly to do it all and who, moreover, insisted and increasingly insist on doing it their own way. “Purple Rain” remains the visual keepsake of Prince’s reign, but as great as it was as a pop explosion and as great as it remains as a celebration of its songs, as a movie it’s fairly lame. Which may or may not have to do with the fact that Prince didn’t write it, direct it, or produce it.
“Lemonade” is something else and something more — something downright radical. It’s a statement of pride and purpose, of black womanhood and one specific woman, of burdens and feminism and solidarity and the mystery of whatever it is that happens between two people. And every bit of it comes from Queen Bey.
They say there are too few opportunities for female creators in the entertainment industry? Start here. And go from there.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.