Watching Lemonade, the greatest thing I felt was pride. Pride at the artist and the woman that Beyoncé had become. Because I grew up with Beyoncé. "No, No, No (Part 2)" came out in 1997, a week after my 12th birthday. Bey was only 16. I remember belting out the breakdown—"Every time I see you with your boys, you pretend as if you don't want me"—with my friend Gigi as we walked home from school one day. We knew the lead singer of Destiny's Child and her weird, unpronounceable name was something special.
Nearly 20 years later, that name is a noun, an adjective, a verb and a synonym for all things fierce.
Bey's been something like a big sister, teaching me how to dance in heels, the importance of wind machines, and that I don't need trifling ass men, all the while propelling me along at the gym, on the dancefloor, and on the runway of life. While I've always loved her—because I'm a human being with feelings—in the back of my mind I couldn't help feeling that if Lauryn Hill hadn't lost her damn mind that Bey's brand of glossy pop-and-B wouldn't be as potent, as popular, or as pervasive. Of course, Beyoncé as a force is undeniable. But, as perhaps the most famous woman in the world, and as a woman of color, I anticipated the moment when she would use her voice and her platform to say something. Something to lift up women, to lift up the black community, and to heal. Perhaps it was asking a lot of someone known for coining "Bootylicious" but that's exactly what The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill did.
Beyoncé has always been a feminist, in that she always demanded the respect of men and to be treated as equals. From "Bills, Bills, Bills" to "Upgrade U" to her very own feminist manifesto "Flawless," Bey has sought to empower women. But it was problematic. The sexualization and commercialization of her feminism, especially. Not that a woman can't be sexy and be powerful and stack her coins, but presenting the female body as a sexual object while turning FEMINISM into a product (#iwokeuplikethis) and also inspiring the watered down, modelesque version thrown around left and right by Taylor Swift.
And then "Formation" happened.
From "Bills, Bills, Bills" and "Bootylicious" to "Flawless" and "Formation," you can see Beyoncé's growth as a woman and as an artist. And we grew up with her. "Formation" caused a lot of controversy when it came out mostly because of how unapologetically black it was. Beyoncé, the multi-ethnic exotic fembot, was universal—her universality was what made her Beyoncé the product, Beyoncé the brand, Beyoncé the Fortune 500 company. She sang at the inauguration of the President, twice, she sang showtunes at the Academy Awards, she sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl. She was the Super Bowl Half Time show. Twice. And with "Formation," here she was owning her blackness and her womanhood and daring people to freak out about it. Which of course they did.
But "Formation" was just the opening salvo. With Lemonade, Beyoncé has made her Miseducation. She's grown into the artist that I think we need. And we need great artists. We've already lost two of the greatest this year. Being the biggest stunt queen in the game, Bey premiered the 60-minute Lemonade short film last night on HBO. It picked up where Beyoncé, her last visual album, left off, but whereas that was a collection of visually stunning, and now nearly iconic videos, this was a cohesive statement, strung together by the poetry of Warsan Shire. Touted as a "conceptual project based on every woman’s journey of self-knowledge and healing," Lemonade uplifts women, uplifts the black community, and it heals.
The chain of black women holding hands in the water, their different hairstyles silhouetted against the sunset; the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner holding pictures of their slain sons; her reconciliation with Jay-Z after some rather firey (and foul-mouthed, come through TV-MA rating!) allusions to his infidelity. It's powerful and triumphant and heartbreaking, and because it's Beyoncé, it's also fierce as fuck.
Then there's the footage of the private Beyoncé, a peek at the woman behind the machine: her and Jay-Z's famously private wedding, Beyoncé pregnant, a young Bey playing with her dad Matthew Knowles, and her grandmother on her 90th birthday revealing the inspiration behind the album's title:
I was watching with my friend Mac and he jokingly said, "Thank you, Bey, for trusting us. Because we didn't deserve it at first. Hell, we still don't." And it really does feel like she's letting us in, as much as she can. As much as any artist can while still retaining a sense of themselves.
And sure, this entire project bears Beyoncé's name, but it's a massive collaboration, as much as the Beyoncé product is a massive collaboration. Just as The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was a collaboration, lest we forget that lawsuit. Lemonade is, like every Beyoncé project, stunning, sexy, and stylish. But it's also challenging. This is the darkest, most emotionally driven, most daring and ambitious project Beyoncé has ever done. And ultimately, it's uplifting not only to women, not only to black women, but to the soul. It ends with "All Night" featuring one of Bey's loveliest vocals to date, and clips of couples from different walks of life embracing each other.
I mean, catch all these feelings, guys.
Very few artists, nearly 20 years into their career, continue to make work this provocative, but also work that so defines and reflects the culture wherein it's created. So watching Lemonade last night, I was filled with pride because Beyoncé has come so far (c'mon, sis!)—and simply put she is the most important pop star of our time.