I very nearly walked down the aisle to Crazy In Love. The record came out shortly after my 18th birthday, and for the whole of my twenties, it defined everything I wanted from a relationship – a love where together, you’re both bigger than the sum of your parts.
“The way that you know what I thought I knew, It's the beat my heart skips when I'm with you.” As soon as I heard those lines, I absorbed them, etching them within my heart like the writing on a stick of rock. And almost ten years later, when Beyoncé dropped her surprise, self-titled album just before Christmas 2013, I listened to Drunk In Love with my husband while silently thanking Beyoncé for putting me on the path that led to him, and for showing me how to recognise positive, powerful love and refusing to accept anything that felt less than life-definingly lovely.
So for entirely selfish reasons, her new album, Lemonade, has broken me. Beyoncé has always seemed superhuman, and I thought her love was too. Interpreting her music, I believed she was the only woman alive who could forge her own fairytales, who could future-proof herself against any unhappy endings. I thought she knew every single secret about relationships, but it sounds as though in reality, she knows what it’s like to have secrets kept from her. I’ve been staring at a breathtakingly beautiful woman on magazine covers, seeing pictures of her perfect family, thinking that she is one of the greatest talents of our age, and has everything she demands and deserves. But Beyoncé’s fame doesn’t protect her from pain any more than an Instagram filter can protect the rest of us from getting spots. Lemonade is about heartbreak, infidelity, lies and vulnerability. It’s about anger and suffering. It’s like a sonic novel about how love and relationships can be desperately difficult. If Henry James were alive, he would be desperate to put his name to it.
With the best will in the world, the huge fan reaction to Lemonade has been a little bit Us Weekly. For years, we’ve been desperate for intel about Beyoncé’s relationship with Jay Z, but the Knowles-Carter household is a very private one. Periodically we see a picture of Blue Ivy, a social media post, Bey and Jay at the Presidential Inauguration. We know they have been a couple for more than a decade, and we’ve heard occasional rumbles and rumours that something isn’t right. When Beyoncé’s sister Solange attacked Jay in a lift, the story made international headlines for days afterwards, but Beyoncé did not comment about the incident. Yet we’re so enmeshed in gossip culture that we believe we’re entitled to answers, and we’re looking to Lemonade to provide them. What exactly did Jay Z do? Who is “Becky with the good hair”?
Beyoncé is exploring the ways in which pain can shock and centre us. Sometimes our own relationships can overshadow us, and it’s vital that we separate ourselves in order to survive
If we focus on the gossip-worthy moments of Lemonade, we’re missing the point, and we risk losing out on its impact as an astonishingly assured, elegant, lyrical and moving piece of work. Our reaction tells us as much about our own feelings about relationships as it does hers – and we have to remember that while the album seems incredibly revealing, she's putting herself in a position of total power by being the narrator. And by releasing Lemonade as a visual album, Beyoncé maintains this sense of control. We have less room to go off and interpret her voice in our own way, because she’s showing us exactly what she wants us to see.
Long after we’ve stop caring about exactly what happened in that lift and why, Lemonade will endure as a resonant, beautiful melodic meditation on love and relationships. Ultimately, it’s about how we can lose ourselves in other people and then remember how important it is to recognise ourselves over time. Beyoncé is exploring the ways in which pain can shock and centre us. When she sings “Who the fuck do you think I am, you ain’t married to no average bitch broad,” I hear it as a rallying cry to herself and her fans, as well as an accusation. Sometimes our own relationships can overshadow us, and it’s vital that we separate ourselves and step out of the space that has been created for us in order to survive. But when she murmurs, quietly and reflectively, “I think of lovers as trees, growing to and from one another,” the sentiment seems more meditative. It suggests you can trust nature – your nature – to protect you from harm, to guide you towards what is good, and to take you away from a situation when you’re in danger.
The bit that has broken me is Beyoncé’s interpretation and revisiting of Warsan Shire’s performance poem, “For Women Who Are Difficult To Love.”. When Beyoncé says “I tried to make a home out of you” – a response to Shire’s line “You can’t make homes out of human beings” – as listeners, we’re filled with an unbearable sense of betrayal. It raises questions about the choices we all make within relationships, and how so many of us find ourselves in danger, emotional and otherwise, just when we’ve finally allowed ourselves to feel safe. Beyoncé has set us a problem that seems impossible to answer. Is there anything noble or worthwhile about loving hopefully and getting hurt? Would we be better protected if we built our own houses, and didn’t let anyone else all the way in?
Ultimately, I want to hear Lemonade as a progressive series of songs about how love is wonderful and horrible, an insurmountable, life enhancing challenge that must make us stronger before it breaks us. There’s an unignorable theme of rebirth and redemption. Traditionally, we’ve let dead white men tell us how to feel about love. Shakespeare, Dickens, and Chaucer have monopolised the words with which we interpret our feelings. With Lemonade, Beyoncé has made it clear that she deserves to be part of that canon. We feel as though we know her because she has a talent for telling everyone’s truths. Lemonade might have been inspired by her personal life, but it goes far beyond biography. She’s matured creatively, artistically and personally since Crazy In Love. As a fan, it’s not my place to mourn the death of her happy ending, but to admire and be inspired by the grace and talent with which she has explored the difficult realities of loving someone.