Anatomy of a Music Video: Deconstructing Beyoncé's "Lemonade"

In dropping two full-length visual albums within a span of just four years, Beyoncé has not only driven her loyal nation of fans to the brink of cardiac arrest on several occasions—she has elevated the visual album format from merely a medium to a genre all its own. She isn’t the first artist to employ feature-length music films to accompany an album; The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964), Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” (1982), Prince’s “Purple Rain” (1984), and even R. Kelly’s bizarre multi-chapter “Trapped in the Closet” (2005-2012) are all notable predecessors (though perhaps some more worthy of mention than others).

By announcing new music in the form of a visual album release, Beyoncé has established a purposeful and curated method for fans to experience her music. Instead of passively listening to her album during a morning commute or drunkenly hearing her single for the first time on a packed dance floor, fans actively engage with a forty-five minute sequence of carefully articulated, meticulously arranged, seamlessly edited, and tightly styled visuals that come together in an entirely sensory experience.

There isn’t an option to “shuffle,” and there isn’t a simple way to skip ahead. Though viewer interpretation can certainly vary, each individual is prompted to consume and relate to the music in the way that the artist intends for the listener to consume and relate to it. The visual and the audio fuse and intertwine so seamlessly and subliminally that even when a fan does happen to stumble upon a song on the radio or in a club, images from the visual album still come to mind.

Call it a marketing strategy or a publicity stunt, but at its core, the visual album is a new method of story-telling—a mood, a vision, and often a cast of characters become forever linked to a song, sometimes without blatant mention from a lyric. Similar to the way that zombies and letterman jackets may still come to mind upon hearing the opening chords of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” it’s difficult to listen to Beyoncé’s first single “Formation” without thinking, at least for a moment, of the artist standing on top of a police car as water slowly rises around her.

Loosely based upon Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief, “Lemonade” progresses through eleven chapters announced through title cards—Intuition, Denial, Anger, Apathy, Emptiness, Accountability, Reformation, Forgiveness, Resurrection, Hope, and Redemption—with each section corresponding to the progression of themes present in the album’s track list. Narrated spoken word provides contextual interludes between the songs and sections alike, with word and lyric weaving within and around one another, blurring the lines between poetry and performance.

“Lemonade” also employs intricate sets, nameless characters, couture fashion, modern dance, and interlaced storylines to elevate the film from a sequence of glamorized visuals to a deliberate and cohesive commentary on prevalent domestic, political and cultural issues. Both confession and illusion, the visual album is a surreal narrative that touches upon issues of marital infidelity, the female experience, and race in the United States.

When the Well Runs Dry: Themes of Rage and Renewal

“Lemonade” abruptly opens with audio of the muted, muffled sounds of being submerged underwater, prompting the viewer to draw associations to the experience of being immersed—a sensation of drowning or of being overpowered, the lungs pushing the limits of their capacity; a notion of solitude and isolation, an awareness of one's body suspended and weightless; and yet a feeling of cleansing and renewal as though baptized, prepared to emerge from the water anew. Enter the succession of overlapping, breathless a cappella notes, themselves inhalations and exhalations, both the beginning and the aftermath, of a betrayal and double standard that Beyoncé will proceed to unpack on a personal and political scale.

Beyoncé soberly sings along to the opening track “Pray You Catch Me” while sitting in solitude, fully dressed in a bathtub, eliciting an attempt to remain guarded in a space of domestic exposure. She repeats the lyrics of the chorus—“pray to catch you whispering / I pray you catch me listening”—as if they’re a plea, as though the more she repeats this desire to uncover the truth, the less she will fear the floodgate of feelings that could follow. As the song closes, Beyoncé jumps off a building and lands in an unseen well of water, soon revealed to be an ornate bedroom that’s been entirely flooded. She twists and contorts as though possessed, hovering above and between the elaborate posts of the bed frame, tossing and turning as if trapped in a nightmare. The intimate, shared space of the bedroom has become a place of suffocation and of drowning, as Beyoncé visually wrestles with the unspoken reality of her husband’s infidelity.

The tension created by Beyoncé’s erratic movements and rapid-fire spoken word comes to a visible boiling point as she finally asks in a near-whisper, “are you cheating on me?” She blows open the doors of a neoclassical building, as though jolted into consciousness or resurrected altogether, water escaping from behind her and cascading onto the steps below—a secret revealed and hung out to dry, a rage unleashed like a tidal wave. She strides down a city sidewalk while swinging a baseball bat through car windows, a security camera (likely a reference to Solange’s scandalous confrontation with Jay-Z following the Met Gala), and a fire hydrant, releasing an explosive cascade of water. Unfazed by the destruction around her and bursting with powerful aggression, water here becomes a symbol of her unreserved rage.

This anger subsides as the title cards indicate a progression to “Apathy” and “Emptiness.” In a preface to the track “Daddy Lessons,” the camera lingers on raindrops gradually forming on the exterior of a car window. While a storm rages on outside, the viewer is met with a sense of momentary safety and intimacy. This fleeting moment alludes to the metaphorical fishbowl in which Beyoncé realistically lives, a lifestyle in which all secrets risk being revealed and privacy is routinely denied. The small moment of concealment and anonymity inside the car contrasts the lack of control represented by the storm outside, offering a glimpse into a likely motivation for the revelatory nature of both the album and the visual album—to remain in control of the controversy, and to tell the story on her terms. Because, in this version of the story, there is a happy ending.

In “Love Drought,” the tone shifts yet again as Beyoncé leads a line of women single-file, knee-deep into peaceful waters. The still and settled sea seems to represent a resolution, a coming-to-terms with the reality of the infidelity and a revival of her relationship with both herself and her husband. No longer a victim to the betrayal, Beyoncé now literally and metaphorically stands above what had almost drowned her. As the chorus plays “you and me could make it rain now / you and me could stop this love drought,” she slowly and gracefully wades through the water, finding a way forward.

The tide turns a final time as this newfound peace fuels moral action in “Formation.” The politically-charged anthem follows the album’s lengthy end credits, distinguishing the song as an epilogue, sequel, and evolution of preceding themes. Beyoncé crouches atop a police car slowly sinking underwater, with rows of partially-submerged houses lining the horizon behind her. The rising water not only encompasses the symbolic attributes established in previous scenes (a sense of drowning, a lack of escape, and a swelling of unrelenting rage); Beyoncé is criticizing the U.S. government’s response (or rather, lack of response) in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. While “Love Drought” and “All Night” served as indications that Beyoncé was willing to forgive but not forget her husband’s betrayal, it becomes clear that amidst the rising waters of “Formation,” Beyoncé has neither forgiven nor forgotten the inequality and injustice still prevalent in the United States.

- Marissa Passi