That belief has long been part of Beyoncé’s art. So, too, has been the belief that hard work, profit, intelligence, family, love, God, friendship, fame, regional loyalty, racial pride, and awesome clothes are also legitimate ways to feel good and attain some degree of control over the world. Still, as is the case with many female stars, some people are unable to see anything but sex when they look at Beyoncé. Bill O’Reilly got mad about “Partition” for being too explicit. On the other end of the ideological spectrum, bell hooks called Beyoncé “a terrorist, especially in terms of the impact on young girls.”
That sort of criticism, by all rights, should be harder to make about Lemonade, the album she released alongside an HBO film on Saturday night. It represents a landmark on a few levels—its release method, its racial politics, and its appearance of confessing to Jay Z and Beyoncé’s deep marital troubles. Under all of those things is an elaboration on the vision of sex that Beyoncé, filtered through popular culture, has often been seen to stand for—and that shift is reflected in the album’s lush but comparatively less-than-immediately-gratifying sound. Here, being hot is not necessarily liberating. Sex is serious, sex can harm, and sex does not reliably do the things that society has said it can do. Feeling yourself is not enough.
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Five songs into Lemonade, there’s a song called “6 Inch” that can’t help but recall the Crazy Horse anecdote. It rides a deep, electrifying bass line very similar to the one that powered “Partition,” but the song itself is queasier and more gothic. With the help of The Weeknd, Beyoncé salutes a stripper dancing in six-inch heels for money but not for “material things” nor, the implication goes, to appease any one man. Beyoncé likely sees her global pop-star hustle in this stripper’s 24/7/365 labor, but the comparison with her personal life is murkier. After singing about a female performers’s detachment from those she performs for, the goosebump-inducing outro has Beyoncé gasping for her lover: “Come back, come back, come back.”
The album up until that point has obsessed over the idea that the fierceness of her body and brain should have secured her husband’s loyalty as surely as it has secured her an unwavering fan base. The first song, “Pray You Catch Me,” is a sonic sculpture of voice, strings, and piano, with Beyoncé weaving a wrenching melody as she describes feelings of mistrust. In the accompanying film, Beyoncé recites Warsan Shire’s poetry about subjecting herself to total denial—of sex, of food, of mirrors—and still feeling the gnawing need to ask, “Are you cheating on me?” After she voices that question, she strides into a city street and begins wrecking shit with a baseball bat.
That demolition derby scene—yes, she drives a truck over parked cars—accompanies the album’s second song, “Hold Up,” a midtempo, reggae-influenced gem about every premise of Beyoncé’s career being seemingly undermined. She “kept it sexy” and “kept it fun” and yet has still been betrayed; at one point, she raps, “I always keep the top tier, 5 star / Backseat lovin’ in the car / Like make that wood, like make that wood”—a mishmash of references to previous Beyoncé masterpieces of raunch, including “Partition” and “Drunk in Love.” The subtext is that her confident-and-sexy routines were in part about keeping her man mesmerized—and now it turns out, to her horror, they didn’t fully work.