Beyoncé's stunning triumph: "What we’re seeing is absolutely unprecedented"

Salon speaks to an African American Studies scholar about "Lemonade," R&B, celebrity, and Bey's take on masculinity

Published April 25, 2016 9:34PM (EDT)

Beyoncé in "Lemonade"
Beyoncé in "Lemonade"

The weekend’s release of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” film and album has become one of the year’s biggest cultural events and one of the most revealing look at a musician’s domestic life we’ve had in some time. In some ways it resembles Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear,” the 1978 album about the breakup of his first marriage, but in a much fiercer pitch: Beyoncé wields a baseball bat, smashing cars, as she sings about infidelity that’s thought to refer to her husband, Jay Z.

The film connects Beyoncé’s frustration and rage to a wide range of black women's experiences, including visual references to the slave-era South. Critics are calling it a revolutionary work of black feminism.

Salon spoke to Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African American Studies at Duke University, about "Lemonade." He’s also the author of “New Black Man” and co-editor of “That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader.” We spoke to Neal in Durham, North Carolina; the interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Let’s start with the musical context of “Lemonade.” What musical references do you see and hear in this?

The obvious one, when you hear “Daddy’s Lesson,” it’s kind of a hark back to the Texas and Louisiana blues sound of the early 20th century. I think that’s the most striking. She’s also dabbling in a little dancehall… The things she’s starting to do with filtering her voice in different ways allows her to tap into a screw version of hip hop, also from that Texas-Louisiana space.

I’ve read a lot of pieces where folks have talked about the fact that this album represented a kind of maturity, because she’s branched out to so many different genres of music. But I think in some ways, those kinds of observations belittle and devalue the R&B world that produced Beyoncé. I think more than anything what you’re hearing is what a mature R&B album can sound like – one that’s in conversation with these different genres of music.

You’re saying that these days R&B has a lot of historical references in it already.

Oh, absolutely.

There seem to be references to African music and African images.

Part of that is the way she distilled traditional and classic New Orleans culture – New Orleans being one of those places where you still have some very strong remnants of West African culture. You see it in New Orleans, you see it on the South Carolina coast. She’s speaking through those, whether through childhood memories, or her own willingness to go into the history books and have some kinds of visual memories around that.

In most ways, this is about femininity – about a woman who’s been wronged, who’s going to let the world know, who’s connecting it to historical parallels. Is there a subtext about black masculinity going on as well?

Yeah, there are lots of subtexts going on!

Let me start with the femininity piece. We don’t often get to see, or hear, artists grow up in public. And very often, when they do grow up in public, nobody’s paying attention to them. We’ve watched Beyoncé grow up in public, and at this time where she’s almost, in her full expression of mature black womanhood, she is in fact at her most popular.

So it allows her to tell many stories about herself – about her daughter, about her mother, about her grandmother… I don’t think we’ve ever seen that before in American pop music – a black woman performer who can tell such wide-ranging stories about her kinfolk. In this case, including her father.

So when you hear that line very early, when she talks about, “You were like my father, a magician, could be in two places at once,” she clearly found appealing in her husband the very things she found comforting in her father. And of course has to deal with those complications.

When we see the scene in the forgiveness portion of the film, which is “Sandcastles” on the album, I can’t remember ever seeing such a tender portrayal of black masculinity – especially by someone of the hip-hop generation -- than we see at that moment. Because we know who it is, but someone who makes his living with his mouth is rendered silent. And we have to read through that scene with his gestures. We see in his gestures someone who is loving, who is sorry, who is looking for redemption. It’s just a powerful scene.

She’s doing a range of things here. When the [infidelity] rumors started to circulate two years ago, what I always found amazing is that periodically she would flash photos of her with Jay and Blue. It was almost as if [she were saying], “Even if he’s a bad husband, a bad partner, he’s a good father, and I’m not going to let the court of public opinion disparage the man who is, when all is said and done, the father of my daughter.”

She’s getting at the complexity of that relationship.

Absolutely. And I think what’s telling about this album, and it speaks to who Beyoncé has tried to become. When you’re a celebrity as those are, and everybody knows about you – in theory… What she seems be to saying is, “If the price of celebrity is just constant surveillance, the way that I gain some agency or control is to curate it in my own terms. Everyone knows something went down two years ago, but let me tell the story the way I want to tell it – in its full complexity, with the pacing I want to.” So that when all is said and done, her life, Blue’s life, Jay’s life, her mother’s life – it belongs to them.

Making it very public, and still claiming it for themselves.

It’s like, “If folks are going to know about our lives, they’ll know about them in ways that I can control, and as a piece of art.” I see Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear” as a precursor to this.

Besides Marvin Gaye, what are the antecedents to this kind of open musical statement?

We’ve always had artists who shared their lives with the public. We’ve rarely had it occur on multiple platforms like it does in Beyoncé’s universe. I think it’s her best album to date. But the album itself as a standalone entity is far overshadowed by the beauty of the film. For someone to be able pull that together is absolutely stunning – in that regard, what we’re seeing is absolutely unprecedented.

So this is based in the past, the Southern past, her family’s past, but also moves things forward in a way. Does it feel like she’s added something to her image? Redrawn the way we see her in any way?

We do know that Beyoncé pays attention to all of the critiques. To everyone who questions the depth of her embrace of feminism, of her understanding to feminism, the way she centers, throughout the film, black women’s voices and black women’s images. Whether it’s the working-class folks in New Orleans, who are all over the video, or the young lady who’s in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” [Quvenzhané Wallis], and the other young black women trying to do what she’s done…

And then there’s the Malcolm X quote. It’s a particular moment where he’s talking about black women – there are not a whole lot of moments in the Malcolm X archive. It allows her to celebrate black women, but because it’s coming from Malcolm X, it’s almost this idea that you don’t have to be a woman to be a feminist… She claims that for Malcolm X and all of those men who might be listening to her and suspicious of what she’s presenting.

She’s changing the game.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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Beyonce Lemonade Marriage Marvin Gaye Music Race Sex