Review: Beyonce’s amazing truthbomb turns emotional lemons into ‘Lemonade’

Is it okay for a critic to say, “I respect this work of art, and I am not fully qualified to speak to the profundity of the text?”

Because that”s where I find myself with Beyonce”s Lemonade, a remarkable visual album that she released under a cloak of complete secrecy last night. HBO made the one-hour program available twice on their channel during their free-preview-weekend, and it was also available for 24 hours via HBO Now, the app that I have. I don”t have cable, and I don”t like cable. I want the right to consume things a la carte, and anything I can do to support that media model, I do. I will pay providers for content, but I want to do it the way I want to do it. Because it was on HBO Now, I”ve been able to watch the film repeatedly, stopping it, grabbing some stills from it. It may be gone tomorrow, but for now, I”m enjoying it, and part of the enjoyment is realizing that I”m not getting everything it”s doing, and I”ll need help to get there.

I look at this film, this collaboration between Beyonce Knowles Carter and a fistful of filmmakers including Mark Romanek, Kahlil Joseph, and Melina Matsoukas, and I am overwhelmed by it. It is powerful and it is personal, and it is full of cultural touchstones that are not mine. Tonight, I”ll be reading as much as I can about how other people are reacting to it because I”m genuinely curious. I would love to have it decoded and digested by writers who share more common cultural ground with Beyonce, and I am also excited to read how other people in my own position react, people coming at it from the outside. That is one of my favorite kinds of art, art that challenges me to adopt a perspective that is not my own. I can react to it in my way, and I know that my reaction is not universal. And yet, there are things about it that I found immediately moving, immediately pulling me in

There”s a credit for Warsan Shire for “film adaptation and poetry,” and that immediately sent me looking to see who Warsan Shire is. That”s a big accomplishment right away for Beyonce, that sort of spotlight on another artist. She has some great guests here, like Jack White and Kendrick Lamar and James Blake and Father John Misty and Diplo, and everything feels like one coherent piece. It”s hard to imagine where the seams are between the work of all of her collaborators. The full list of directors also includes Todd Tourso, Dikayl Rimmasch, Jonas Akerlund, and Knowles Carter herself, and I have no idea who did what. I care, but I also don”t care. This is presented as a single thing, and that”s how I watched it. Three times. Start to finish. And watched that way, it”s staggering.

Last night, I was suffering from crippling insomnia, as I so often do. And so when I discovered at around 11:00 PM that HBO Now had an XBox One app finally, I downloaded it and immediately opened it. That”s when I found out about Lemonade, and that”s the first thing I watched on it last night. I had to play it quieter than I would have liked because my sons were both sleeping, but even so, it sounded amazing right away through my surround system. My Sunday afternoon experience with it was much louder, and even more impressive. It is a terrific experience, first and foremost. Even if I wasn”t startled by the lyrics and by the emotional landscape it charts, I would be impressed on a sonic level. It”s a gorgeous piece of work overall.

The first shot is her, face obscured, arm blocking her. We see her hair, her ear, but there”s this revving up, this building energy. Like an engine starting underwater. Then silence. Natural sounds only. A few chords, a chorus of sighs. And when we see her again, she”s onstage, in prayer. The first track, appropriately titled “Pray You Catch Me,” jumps right into things, and I was taken aback by how stark it is:

“You can taste the dishonesty
It”s all over your breath as you pass it off so cavalier
But even that”s a test
Constantly aware of it all
My lonely ear
Pressed against the wall of your world

Prayin” to catch you whispering
I”m prayin” you catch me listening
I”m prayin” to catch you whispering
I”m prayin” you catch me
I”m prayin” to catch you whispering
I”m prayin” you catch me listening
I”m prayin” you catch me”