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9 articles you should read to understand Beyoncé's Lemonade — from poetry to body art

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Beyoncé released another stunning, spellbinding surprise Saturday night — Lemonade, an hour-long, "visual album" that premiered on HBO and prefigured the release of an album by the same name. It was a cathartic, emotional experience. And the film itself was densely packed with visual references and allusions, the work of other artists and Beyoncé herself.

It's all a lot to get your head around, particularly in just a couple of days. But if you're interested in both Lemonade itself and the critical and popular reaction, here are nine articles that give some context to the film and album's themes — as well as the other artists it featured and the powerful response it continues to evoke.

Lemonade is a personal journey and an ode the power of black women

1) In Lemonade, Beyoncé goes on a journey: from anger to redemption, and from isolation to community. It's an experience that is both personal and universal, particularly for black women, Syreeta McFadden writes for the Guardian:

The journey in Lemonade centers on a movement for Beyoncé – but really all of us black women by proxy – from pain toward healing and empowerment. There are frequent cuts back to images of deep backwoods country, with its majestic cypress trees, juxtaposed with the crumbling, jagged edges of modern urban living. This is familiar territory for black Americans: to southern roots, to nature, a source of healing and of power. Even though the South holds a fraught history between black and white Americans, Lemonade affirms that the call of home is undeniable.

2) Lemonade is a film "made by a black woman, starring black women, and for black women," writes Miriam Bale at the Hollywood Reporter; Beyoncé's medium and her message are intertwined:

And the form and style of Lemonade is also its narrative, of Beyonce moving from isolation to strength through uniting with black women, and leading them. The sections of the narrative are labeled: Intuition, Denial, Apathy, Reformation, Forgiveness, Hope, Redemption. In "Intuition," the women she will later lead are glimpsed in fragments, the movement is underwater and the message is opaque.

Lemonade tells a generational story, but also a very specific one

3) But while the emotions undergirding Lemonade might be universal, the film itself is also telling a story grounded in a specific identity as a Southern black woman. As Naila Keleta-Mae writes in a roundtable with Anupa Mistry at Fader:

Lemonade further depicts Beyoncé’s black, female, southern, American, Creole, Texas-bama self that "Formation" and February's Super Bowl performance foregrounded, but it also does something else. Lemonade locates the individual self within multiple kinds of relationships and those relationships are with nature, architecture, spirituality, and other human beings.

4) Melissa Harris-Perry solicited opinions from a wide range of academics, commentators, and Beyoncé enthusiasts for a piece for Elle, including asking about the role of the South. In response, Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote:

[Lemonade] is a much more complicated "Southscape" than what we are used to seeing. The flipping between time (late nineteenth, early twentieth-century dress and the present day) speaks to the generational issues with "men" in her family and many other black women who have had to deal with the same issues of infidelity, etc. I also loved that she did a country song, about learning to "shoot" from her father. [This] is an important element of southern life, not only for hunting, but for protection from white mobs and others who would try to come and take away black-owned land.

Kahlil Joseph, who co-directed Lemonade, is known for this style of work

5) Joseph is among the directors of Lemonade, with a signature style that comes through clearly in the film. The Los Angeles Times' Carolina Miranda wrote about his work in March 2015, after m.A.A.d., a 15-minute video set to Kendrick Lamar's 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d. city, began exhibiting at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art:

In music circles, he is best known for producing pieces that violate just about every rule of the music video: There are no choreographed dance sequences, no jiggling backup dancers, no literal interpretation of the lyrics. Instead, there is simply a mood — and worlds where strange things happen.

Joseph told Miranda that m.A.A.d. was a way to provide a better representation of African Americans: "Everyone wants to see themselves on the screen. But when I see black people in movies, I don't see them as I know them to move and talk." He's one of several black artists Beyoncé has elevated through Lemonade.

Beyoncé used Lemonade to showcase the work of young black artists

6) The poet Warsan Shire, who is of Somali heritage and grew up in London, wrote some of the most powerful poetry used as Beyoncé's voiceovers in the film, including "Nail Technician as Palm Reader" and "for women who are 'difficult' to love." Alexis Okeowo profiled Shire for the New Yorker in October, in an article that foreshadows the thematic resonance between Shire's work and Lemonade — including its universal specificity and its focus on "memories not her own, but… those of her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts":

It’s her documenting of the present, always coming back to the subject of love and its many tender and punishing forms, that is enthralling. The simultaneous specificity and breadth of her appeal, across gender, race, and nationality based on her self-professed fans, is remarkable, and it took me by surprise the first time I started following her online. She tweeted "my dj name is dj eldest immigrant daughter" not long ago. I favorited it immediately.

7) The black ballerina in the video is less nationally known, but famous in the world of dance: she's Michaela DePrince, who was adopted from Sierra Leone when she was 4, grew up in the US, and now dances with the Dutch National Ballet. In 2013, she gave a thoughtful interview to the website DanceTabs about ballet and race:

I suspect that the resistance to raising black ballerinas through the ranks might be due to an old-fashioned way of looking at beauty. Our ideal of a perfect ballerina is based on Russian ballet with its willowy blondes. If a director does not appreciate the aesthetics of African beauty, he will not want to promote a black ballerina to the status of prima, because the prima is supposed to be the most beautiful dancer. She represents the aesthetics of classical ballet, which right now are Eurocentric.

8) The gorgeous body art on the women with Beyoncé on the subway was the sacred art of the Ori — ritual body art from the Yoruba people by Laolu Senbanjo, an artist originally from Nigeria who now lives in Brooklyn. When Senbanjo's art appears, it marks Beyoncé beginning the spiritual journey away from rage and toward redemption, Okayafrica's Alyssa Klein wrote. She also interviewed Senbanjo about working on Lemonade:

What do you want people to take away from seeing your art in Lemonade?

Art can be used to translate ideas. The Sacred Art of the Ori is basically about connection between the artist and the music. What I basically did was to connect with the different people that were painted in the video, and connect with them on the art. And also on a spiritual level. The connection is what I want people to take away.

Lemonade explains why Beyoncé inspires worship and devotion

9) The side drama of Lemonade has been about the identity of "Becky with the good hair" whom Beyoncé's husband, Jay Z, apparently slept with. Fashion designer Rachel Roy posted an Instagram on Sunday that appeared to suggest she was the woman in question — and Beyoncé's fans, the Beyhive, descended. This was a prime example of the intense devotion Beyoncé's fans feel, a phenomenon Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah wrote about for National Public Radio in 2014. Her insight into why people respond so deeply to Beyoncé seems even more relevant to Lemonade:

I've come to realize how much the Hive's deep, at times blind investment in her isn't so much about loving her one ton of talent but rather their defense of her place on the pedestal. They are in love with what she transmutes. What she is allowed to be. And Beyoncé does this more earnestly than the majority of singers today: she performs for them, shows them what a woman in successful control of her life sounds like. This is why they root for her. She gives her fans hope — as Tina Turner once did for women in the '80s — a sense that they, too, might win at life and vanquish the hurt.

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