Beyoncé and Jay Z got engaged on Jay Z’s birthday, and to celebrate, Beyoncé took her new fiancee to see naked women dance. At Paris’s cabaret club Crazy Horse in 2007, she has said she watched the synchronized striptease with a particular kind of awe. “I just thought it was the ultimate sexy show I’ve ever seen,” she later recalled, “and I was like, ‘I wish I was up there, I wish I could perform that for my man.’” In 2013, she fulfilled that dream by returning to Crazy Horse to film the stupendously sexy music video for “Partition,” a song about giving a blow job in a limo.
It’s the kind of story from which you can pull a few competing narratives about Beyoncé—and about gender, sex, and pop music more broadly. From one popular angle, her co-ed cabaret celebration is a tale of empowerment: a tale of sex-positivity and feminism that bolster a traditional monogamous marriage. But from other angles, it’s the opposite of radical: a story that’s, at base, about women straining to please men. There’s the meta reading, which points out the fact that superstars like Beyoncé are like those Crazy Horse dancers writ large, shimmying to the amazement and jealousy of a global audience. In almost any interpretation, you run into one of pop culture’s abiding beliefs: Sex is power.
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.
“Don’t Hurt Yourself” brings in Jack White and samples Led Zeppelin to stir up blues rock over which Beyoncé howls about using her body’s power for revenge. “You can watch my fat ass twist as I bounce to the next dick,” she threatens. Then comes “Sorry,” whose layers of electronic ticktocking don’t sound all that dissimilar from the Justin Bieber hit of the same name but whose lyrics are anything but penitent: “Suck on my balls,” she says. The playful melody that accompanies her call to flip the bird has the makings of a top-40 chorus, but there’s a glassy-eyed distance to the song, a purposeful malaise. The accompanying video segment is labeled “Apathy.”
The other side of “6 Inch” represents a turning point. With country guitar and jazz horns, “Daddy Lessons” spins a fable about a father who raised his daughter to be tough—and warned her to avoid men like him. It’s the start of Beyoncé taking a long view on her marriage, seeing it as part of a long tradition of damaged families. When men are told to play women and women are told to perform for men, why would any one woman’s efforts to perfect herself ensure a stable relationship? What is putting a ring on it next to historical forces?
The album’s film, more explicitly than the album itself, roots this idea of emotional inheritance in black identity. Malcolm X sermonizes about the disrespect paid to black women, mothers show photos of sons killed by police, and Beyoncé vows that “the curse will be broken.” The imagery on display proposes that progress will come from black women drawing strength from one another and more black men being made to feel themselves capable of living the kinds of lives that society has told them they can’t live.
The songs themselves for the most part foreground a narrative about a personal struggle mastered through willpower, forgiveness, and discussion between wife and husband. The airy, fluttering “Love Drought” is a portrait of tentative reconciliation, with Beyoncé repeatedly trying to stow the nagging question of “What did I do wrong?” This is not about I—it’s about we, working to “move a mountain.” From there comes an arc of redemption: The shockingly raw piano ballad “Sandcastles,” whose video features Jay Z nuzzling Beyoncé; the uneasy sound collage of “Forward,” where James Blake’s distorted voice personifies the muddle of co-dependence between fallible people; and the stomping gospel rock of “Freedom,” in which Kendrick Lamar raps about the turbulent social backdrop against which the album’s story has unfolded.
Sex finally resurfaces again on “All Night,” the glorious summit before the celebratory “Formation” plays things out. The title itself evokes “Drunk in Love,” the instrumentation is modern Motown, and Beyoncé alternates between excited tumbles of words and a wry, high croon for the chorus. After waiting “some time to prove that I can trust you again,” she promises, “I’m gonna kiss up and rub up and feel up / Kiss up and rub up and feel up on you.” It might seem like an ordinary description of making up after a fight. But notably, this is physical affection that results from a relationship working correctly, rather than physical affection that tries to make that relationship work correctly. It is sex as a sign of love and mutual respect, not an enforcer of those things.
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Any devotee of Beyoncé would tell you, though, that she has always portrayed sensuality as an extension of emotional connection, and that she has frequently sung about the give-and-take involved with romance. The erotic fantasy of “Partition” did, after all, bleed into a song about jealousy that might have been the germ for Lemonade. But pop music is not a documentary art form. It almost inevitably distorts its subjects, playing up extremes, underlining all the parts of an artist’s message that suggest an ability to transcend reality. Past works by Beyoncé capitalized on this fact, reliably making listeners feel like superheroes for a few minutes at a time.
Lemonade does not reject that mentality, but it does work on a subtler level, actively avoiding giving the impression of invulnerability. It is a vision of a life lived once the limits of #Flawless have been located, and of a society built not on individual fabulousness but by relationships where trust has been secured through negotiation. There are still extremes here in the songs that vent anger, hurt, and eventual relief; the music, perhaps more than ever, is creative, assured, and frequently catchy. But when it comes to making people dance, which is to say when it comes to making people think of sex, which is to say the most immediate and potent kind of pop appeal there is, she holds back.
The irony is that in withholding, Beyoncé pays tribute to the sacredness of sex. The suspicion of infidelity is what sets off the pain she must work through on the album because, in the context of her current life, sleeping with someone is no small thing. “God was in the room when the man said to the woman, ‘I love you so much. Wrap your legs around me and pull me in, pull me in, pull me in,’” Beyoncé says during one of the video album’s spoken-word segments. “Sometimes when he’d have her nipple in his mouth, she’d whisper, ‘Oh my God.’ That, too, is a form of worship.” The religious comparison confirms sex’s power—but suggests it’s a power that can serve something greater than any one person.
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