“I plugged my menses with pages from the holy book but still inside me, coiled deep was the need to know: are you cheating on me?” whispers Beyonce six minutes into the film and music of Lemonade, the scorchingly great latest in a genre she pretty much owns since her self-titled 2014 record, the “visual album”.
She’s already made it clear that this is not something asked without cause - “In the tradition of men in my blood, you come home at 3 a.m. and lie to me.” And soon enough the answer to her question is clear from the man we learn later is “labelled as a king”. Yep, he has. Over and over again. “What luck. What a fucking curse.”
Lemonade is pain smashed rather than exorcised, rather like the car windows Beyonce cleans up with a baseball bat and the parked cars she rides over and crushes with a big wheel monster in the accompanying film. Boys’ toys mangled to Hold Up’s light Caribbean lilt and a wide smile.
“What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy? Or like being walked all over lately? I’d rather be crazy.”
And soon there’s a tough exchange in raw Betty Davis-style delivery – and uncompromising funk, with added Jack White guitar as well – set in a garage. “Who the fuck do you think I am. You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy," Beyonce sings in Don't Hurt Yourself. "You can watch my fat ass twist, boy. As I bounce to the next dick, boy”.
Any question what’s at stake here? Any chance of avoiding the thought, wrong or not, that this is being directed at her husband and his (tabloid) reputation for infidelities? Not when she finishes the smackdown with “if you try this shit again, you’ll lose your wife” as she throws down her wedding ring.
Man, this is tough because if this is real, it’s the most public excoriation of a husband, and a famous one at that in hip hop mogul Jay Z, ever. Or maybe it is a brilliant messing with our heads in an age of over-sharing and over-knowing, saying “you think you know our lives? You don’t know shit”.
Do the spoken word/poetry elements before each “section”, personalise it or amplify it beyond what we assume of Beyonce? Does a country/folk song called Daddy Lessons, which is advice from a father about “men like me”, mean something more given we know her parent’s marriage broke up in part, it’s believed, over affairs?
To confuse matters, the appearance of Jay Z in the reconciliation part of the story/film later, being loving, intimate and even possibly subservient, renders the personal element of this story less clear (would he choose to appear in something where he’s been torn to shreds?) without reducing the intensity of the language.
But Lemonade is also a lot more than that. The longer you go on with this album the more the question becomes to what does Beyonce refer when she bemoans the “fucking curse”? Marriage? Womanhood? Being black? Being southern? Yes. All of the above.
None of them a curse of itself, nor cursed all the time, but these are states of life which, when at the mercy of the arrogance or ignorance or indifference of others, are anything but blessed. At one point a Malcolm X sound bite asserts “the most disrespected person in America is the black woman”.
But you better know that’s not a static state for Beyonce. Lemonade is as richly appointed in imagery of strength and control, confidence and defiance as its lyrics are. And those images are widely sourced, drawing on African, Caribbean and American roots, variations of southern iconography, from antebellum houses and dresses (with the added frisson of being on firm-backed black women not the bodies of coddled white slave owners) to New Orleans mardi gras figures and magic.
With a limber but unfussy sound in the mould of the Weeknd (who appears on the brooding and thick-centred next track, 6 Inch), blended with an almost trilling throwback to Destiny’s Child, Beyonce and the equally powerful and confident Serena Williams dancing and twerking beside her, declare they “ain’t sorry” in Sorry. To which they add “middle finger up ... I ain’t thinking of you … tell that boy bye”.
Later, when Beyonce is joined by both a broad selection of mothers of murdered sons, unknown and famous, including the mother of Trayvon Martin (with James Blake’s tremulous voice pushing Forward) and then clear-eyed black women across artistic fields (in the full court press R&B, with Kendrick Lamar, of Freedom), the question of respect and the value of lives broadens further. Now there’s something more at play than anger and revenge.
We can’t forget that baseball bat-enhanced promise earlier, “I’m a fuck me up a bitch”. However, Beyonce sings of seeing something here worth fighting for, firstly in Love Drought which mixes harsh sounds with gentle vocals – as if the impulses to stay and to go are fighting each other – and then in a piano ballad, Sandcastles, that nods to the church.
“If we’re going to heal, let it be glorious,” she had said earlier and in the Tori Amos-meets-Aretha Franklin shapes of the buoyant ballad All Night, she finds that, while home footage of her, Jay Z and their child are interspersed with shots of blissed couples of all varieties: sexuality, colour and age.
It makes sense that in the film at least, the hugely confident strut of the twisted hip hop Formation (the song that blew everyone away at the Super Bowl), plays out over the credits. Beyonce is not back in control – she never lost it – but certain about why she’s doing all of this. And for whom.
What an astonishing album. And film. And woman.