Awe has always seemed like the only appropriate response to Beyoncé, a star who makes even the best of the rest look a bit amateur. She tells us over and over again that she’s number one (she woke up like this, she’s flawless, fresher than you, she slays every day) – and we sing along because they’re all unassailably true. She sounds, moves and looks like a goddess and most of us “bow down” accordingly.
But when she surprise-released Lemonade, an hour-long film presentation of her sixth studio album, there was suddenly a radical new dimension to this rhetoric of self-affirmation. Threaded with the bold and bodily poetry of British-Somali poet Warsan Shire, steeped in antebellum imagery and peopled with phalanxes of young black women, the film takes its title from footage of Hattie White, Beyoncé’s grandmother-in-law, giving a speech at her 90th birthday party. “I was served lemons,” she says slowly, melodiously. “But I made lemonade.”
Beyoncé’s subject emerges as nothing less than the black female body, the police state and black lives past and present. The lemonade that she’s making in her 34th year isn’t just from the bitter juice of her famous husband’s infidelities, it’s the pain of black mothers and grandmothers and their mothers. Suddenly, she is doing something so much bigger than telling us she’s the flyest. She’s telling us you can make something sweet out of something bitter, something as defiant, victorious and straight up glorious as Formation – a black power anthem that’s also the rump-shaking banger that closes Lemonade. It’s this she opens with tonight, to a sold out Marlins stadium, on the first night of a sold-out tour, confirming, within seconds, that she did not come here to play, she came here to slay.
Even the merch confirmed the ruthlessness: you could buy T-shirts printed with “Boycott Beyoncé”, a reference to the ruckus over whether or not the Miami police would indeed boycott the show. (Their feelings were hurt, it seems, by her Super Bowl performance, which paid homage to the Black Panthers.)
Tonight the stage is set with a colossal white prism upon which she’s frequently rendered 50ft high, thus making her real self look tiny. But whether watching her small self on stage, or as a screen giantess, it’s stupefying to see her snap from mane-tossing snarl to still, seraphic smile in a disarming instant. In Don’t Hurt Yourself, for example, with its explicit, enraged threat (“This is your final warning / You know I give you life / If you try this shit again / You gon’ lose your wife”) her fury is so incandescent that when actual pyrotechnics flame red from the stage the illusion is perfect: she’s caused this spontaneous combustion herself.
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