Little was known about Beyoncé’s Lemonade going into Saturday night, though that didn’t much matter — whether a “docu-style specal” or a “lengthy concept video,” it was clearly cause for music fans to cancel their plans for Saturday night, order Seamless, and be prepared for anything. (At the very least, an album release.) What we ended up seeing was at once a personal essay, visual album, and documentary. The hourlong video is broken up into 11 chapters, with a structure reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 film Vivre Sa Vie, which is comprised of a series of 12 tales, each presented with a worded introduction. Both Vivre Sa Vie and Lemonade follow women who are determined to live and reclaim their lives on their own terms.
The chapter entitled “Intuition” (accompanied by the song “Pray You Catch Me”) opens up Lemonade, and sees Beyoncé walking through an empty field and sitting kneeled on a stage, singing softly. The word “Intuition” flashes on the screen, and we just hear Beyoncé as voiceover. Over shots of an empty home and abandoned woods, she says, “I tried to make a home out of you … But doors lead to trap doors. A stairway leads to nothing.”
The cinematography is mesmerizing, and the poetry, written by Warsan Shire, is arresting. The powerful words are spoken solemnly, and met with resounding silence. Beyoncé reacts to what’s being said with honesty and vulnerability.
In the next instant, and chapter — “Denial” (“Hold Up“) — Beyoncé dives off a building and plunges deep underwater. No longer floating aimlessly, she emerges from a building, fully dressed in gold, with water flowing behind her. Walking down a street, she grabs a neighborhood kid’s bat and smashes everything in sight, singing as she goes, “They don’t love you like I love you.” No longer vulnerable, Beyoncé is uninhibited and reckless, and stares directly into the camera, addressing her viewers. In one swift motion, she smashes the camera with a bat, and by deciding who is able to watch her, reasserts her position of power.
The music grows ominous and haunting for the next chapter, “Anger” (“Don’t Hurt Yourself,” featuring Jack White). Violence permeates the poetry, manifest in disturbing imagery such as, “My father’s arms around my mother’s neck. Fruit too ripe to eat.” Angelic figures move in a parking garage, seemingly fixed to the floor, intercut with footage of black women staring into the camera and the words of Malcolm X: “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman.” Rage emanates from the music, emphasized by heavy bass and harsh vocals.
The transition to chapter four, “Apathy” (“Sorry“), also brings a switch from color to black-and-white. Young women in white face paint sway to the sound of a music box unwinding as they sit in a sedentary school bus. Beyoncé looks out the window silently, and observing her makes viewers feel as if they are suspended underwater and time is standing still. We leave the school bus to see a large Southern-style home, and find Beyoncé sitting in a throne-like chair, looking like a true queen. “I ain’t sorry. I ain’t thinking about you,” she repeats. She is ruthless and unapologetic. She leaves her throne for no one.
The aesthetic of the fifth chapter, “Emptiness” (“6 Inch,” featuring The Weeknd) is defined by a constant red glow as Beyoncé watches strangers from the backseat of her car, surveying all. Just as a final scene goes up in flames, we cut to black-and-white again for chapter six, “Accountability” (the country-tinged “Daddy Lessons“). We only hear Beyoncé’s voice, telling us: “You look everything like your mother,” as a child jumps up and down on the bed. We see home footage and there is now an upbeat rhythm, demonstrating a child’s eagerness for guidance.
In “Reformation” (“Love Drought“), Beyoncé walks with a line of women, all dressed in white, along the shore. It is a time for reflection, and we see the women stand together in unity, finding solace in nature. “Cause you, you, you, you and me could move a mountain / you, you, you, you and me could calm a war down.”
That leads into “Forgiveness” (“Sandcastles“), where we see Beyoncé recording music in an empty room. Family photographs surround her, and a Nina Simone record is playing. It is with this soulful ballad that we see her kiss a hand that ends up belonging to Jay-Z — seemingly putting to rest the rampant online speculation that Lemonade was also serving as a divorce announcement. At first, when only his hands are visible, he is still regaining her trust; in time he is finally forgiven and allowed to fully enter the frame — and by extension, re-enter her life.
Chapter nine, “Resurrection” (“Forward,” featuring James Blake), is centered around the heartbreaking images of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown’s mothers holding photographs up of their sons. In the same way that these photos capture a moment, ensuring we never forget, the act of filming these photographs gives them new life. “It’s time to listen,” plays the song, “It’s time to fight.”
“Hope” (“Freedom,” featuring Kendrick Lamar) shows us young women, all in white, standing on a stage without an audience. “The nail technician pushes my cuticles back, turns my hand over, and says,“ I see your daughters, and their daughters.” Beyoncé begins to describe a dream, where women emerge from a slit in her stomach. A man is standing in an empty room, listening to Beyoncé’s words, with his eyes closed, hypnotized. Suddenly, this prophetic dream transforms into an uplifting anthem, and Beyoncé reminds us, “Ima keep running ‘cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.”
In the final chapter, “Redemption” (“All Night“), we finally get what we’ve been waiting for all along: a recipe for lemonade! Also, insight into Beyoncé’s family and history. She calls her grandmother an alchemist who spun gold out of a hard life. “You passed these instructions down to your daughter, who then passed it down to her daughter,” Beyoncé muses. She returns to the wisdom of her grandmother because it has survived generations, and the very structure of Lemonade demonstrates the importance of growth over time.