The most screenshotted sequence in Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade is “Hold Up.” After discovering her husband’s infidelity, she walks down the street smashing storefronts with a baseball bat, finally crushing a row of cars in a monster truck. Viewed alone, the song seems like a simple “My man done me wrong” anthem, not terribly different from Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” where she lists her litany of revenges (“Carved my name into his leather seats / I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights / Slashed a hole in all four tires”). But while Underwood’s song is final, teaching her man a lesson for “the next girl” but casting him out of her life, Beyoncé’s album is a story about how a marriage can be wounded without being unmade.
Lemonade doesn’t begin with the cathartic destruction of “Hold Up” but with the plaintive “Pray You Catch Me” where the narrator would rather catch her husband than go on doubting him, analyzing every quiet phone call or late night. The song is followed by an underwater, dreamy sequence where Beyoncé, quoting the poetry of Warsan Shire, lists the ways she tried to hold her straying man’s attention “[I] tried to be soft, prettier, less awake.”
“Hold Up” is still dreamlike, more of an imagined, idealized anger than actual rage. Beyoncé doesn’t take second swings at her targets, she seems to have no particular animus for anything she smashes. In fact, when she knocks the top off of a fire hydrant, children rush forward to play in the spray; a perfect realization of “My wounds are fertile!” from Leslie Jamison’s “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” But her wounds won’t actually be transfigured for at least five more songs.
The songs that follow, the percussive “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Sorry” offer the illusion of closure. Although “Sorry” sounds like a kiss-off song, the kind usually described as empowering, it comes in the section labeled “Apathy” and is followed by a title card reading “Emptiness.” Belting “I ain't thinking about you” isn’t enough.
The album pivots at “Daddy Lessons,” (which wouldn’t be out of place on a country album) when Beyoncé connects the single, personal sin of her husband to a deeper rot. It follows another section of Shire’s poetry, describing the habits of cruel or callous men, which ends, “Am I talking about your husband or your father?” Beyoncé talks about how her father wanted her to find someone who will treat her better than he treats her mother, warning her that “When trouble comes to town / And men like me come around” she should shoot them.
When the next title card (“Reformation”) is revealed, she has a new set of questions. “Why do you deny yourself heaven, why do you consider yourself undeserving, why are you afraid of love?” On my viewing of the album, I assumed this speech was directed at the woman wronged. It seemed to be of a piece with the Malcolm X quote Beyoncé had already sampled, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman” and was suggesting that she deserved more than her husband, but instead, she goes on to say, “You think it's not possible for someone like you, but you are the love of my life.”
The title card for “Forgiveness” follows, but even though Beyoncé hopes to find some way to heal the wounds, not only of her husband’s infidelity, but of the poor schooling in love and marriage that both spouses have had, she runs against the problem of their limitations, singing in “Love Drought” “Ten times out of nine, I know you're lying / But nine times outta ten, I know you're trying […]Nine times out of ten, I'm in my feelings / But ten times out of nine, I'm only human.”
She draws on Shire’s poetry to ask for something more than just a restoration to where they were before her husband’s betrayal, praying “If we're gonna heal, let it be glorious.” The next title card offers “Resurrection” and the video for next, soft song “Sandcastles” is the first time that Jay-Z, Beyoncé’s husband, appears on screen. Beyoncé sings “Show me your scars and I won't walk away.” Neither of them knows exactly what to do next, but the immediate task in front of them is simply to see each other.
“Resurrection” is followed by title cards for “Hope” and “Redemption,” suggesting that Beyoncé is telling a kind of Lazarus story about marriage, a small resurrection that still leaves us to live the rest of our restored life, still dependent on grace (though the miracles may seem smaller).
The world broadens after forgiveness. Although Beyoncé has been backed by other women throughout her journey to reconciliation, it’s not until the final sequences that she and the women who support her are at rest. The sequence titled “Hope” shows a small grace: Beyoncé and her friends preparing and sharing a meal. Cooking and eating is a small “amen” to the world.
Once she has found a kind of peace and rootedness in her family and among her friends, Beyoncé is able to turn farther out, linking her personal wounds to other griefs (as she sings the protest song “Forward” she shows the mothers of children killed by police, holding portraits of their children) and her joys to other blessings (the dancier “All Night” splices clips of other couples with footage of her and Jay-Z).
If I were remixing Lemonade I’d add the one lyric that seemed to be missing: the Talmudic exhortation that “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a powerful portrait of marriage as an entire world, a channel of grace ready to overflow, to transfigure wounds, and to make everyone touched by it fertile and fruitful.
Leah Libresco is a blogger for Patheos and works as a statistician in Washington, DC. Her first, recently published book is called Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer.