Surprise-dropping "Lemonade" two days after the death of the High Priest of Pop was an incredibly bold move. And, according to this writer, a welcome and necessary one.
Saturday morning I was doing what thousands, if not millions, of other Prince fans were doing: rolling around in the next stage of grief after learning of his death on Thursday. For me, Thursday and Friday were all about playing as much of his music as possible, talking to friends, and reading think pieces; by Saturday, I was going down the rabbit hole of footage of the master performer. I watched everything from his first on-air appearance (on Burt Sugarman’s Midnight Special on NBC) to club dates (Purple Rain recording at Minneapolis club First Avenue) to rare performances (his MTV Unplugged is the greatest thing). Anything I could do to wrap myself in the musical embrace of someone who had touched my life and epitomized a true artist: a virtuosic musician with a sense of purpose and clarity that was unwavering and always rang true in his work. It was a level of artistry so many of us feared we’d never again have touch us in such an authentic way.
But on Saturday night, Beyoncé dropped her highly anticipated visual album Lemonade on HBO and that concern fell away. It was a reminder that the influence of our lost musical genius lived on. Yes, we still have artists who can move us in unique and significant ways.
Now, if anything was going to get me to push pause on my Prince wake, it was being blessed with new music from Queen B. While I’ve never considered myself a full Beyhive member (being in my 40s and working in entertainment journalism I felt I had to distance myself from that level of Stan-manship), I’ve been a fan of just about all her music and was always ready to praise her skilled ownership of the industry over the last ten years. Her mastery of branding and musical storytelling in a way that is true to her, resonates with fans, and turns the usual Hollywood machinery on its ear is just a joy to behold.
Two and a half years ago, I woke up one December morning to the release of her self-titled album, complete with videos for them all, and I felt the entertainment world shift. Last January, I watched her Formation Super Bowl performance and recognized it as the Black woman anthem we desperately needed at the top of 2016. And Saturday night, she took her artistry to the next level and delivered a master class on what it means to be a Black Woman in the form of a group revival, and thanks to technology we sat in the Twitter family room and ate popcorn, cried and fell out on the floor together. Then I asked my Stan sister for my Beyhive membership card and a schedule of the upcoming meetings.
All jokes aside, it cannot be overstated what it means for the biggest female artist in the world to proudly wear her skin, her history, her feminism (don’t come at me with that BS about her feminism not looking like you think it should. Take that mess elsewhere) and her unapologetic love for Black women. The imagery (pure #BlackGirlMagic and Afro-spiritualism in there with Black women of varied ages in fellowship and support of one another), the words (Malcolm X to Warsan Shire to her own— “I break chains all by myself / Won’t let my freedom rot in hell / Hey! I’ma keep running / Cause a winner don’t quit on themselves”), the vulnerability alongside the don’t-make-me-beat-a-bitch’s-ass attitude. Rawwwrr! It was everything. She is the world’s biggest recording star but she represents so much more to Black women. Much in the same way Prince spoke to all music lovers—while anyone from any race could find joy, comfort, and thrill in his music, Black folks had a special love for him because he was unapologetically Black from the get-go. Beyoncé’s hour-long opus is more than a catalogue of songs; it is a range of emotions that speaks to women, and then goes deeper and speaks to Black women. She is telling your story, your auntie’s story, your homegirl’s story. I’m not going to parse the lyrics to guess whether she put Jay on blast or anything else we could sip tea and ummmhmmm on. Because this is bigger than all that.
Lemonade is bigger than the salacious possible insights it lends us because it has touched a sweet spot for so many women who are still seeking representation of their truths and struggles in the media. That communal experience is what elevates a singer-artist who has had some nice songs to an iconic artist who has seen you through some shit. There’ve been some wonderful “what Prince meant to me” pieces since his death, many from good friends who expressed so well his ability to connect with and give hope to misfits like us (“What Prince Taught Me,” “Prince Gave Black Kids the License to Be Who They Wanted to Be“). And they all ring true to me as a music lover and as a Black person and as a geek girl. While I sat with the open wound of the loss of Prince, Lemonade came in and spoke to me and gave me clarity and singleness of heart as a Black woman, and showed me that excellence and artistry lived on.
When Lemonade ended and I’d spent the requisite time dissecting it with friends, I went back to my previously scheduled Prince grieving and watched SNL’s “Goodnight, Sweet Prince” special, which was disjointedly frontloaded with performances, but oh, were they so good. I’ll still need to find a Prince party-celebration to go to. I’ll need more communal grieving. But I thank the Queen B for giving me some pop-culture joy and hope in the midst of the pain.
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