In December 2013, I was feeling a weird sense of separation anxiety. I was a sophomore in college, slinking into my final exams, leaving meals at the dining hall early, sometimes before my friends even finished eating. I couldn’t help myself. I have to go home, don’t you see? Beyoncé was waiting.
Engaging with the Beyhive in the winter of 2013 was the closest I’ve come to participating in an organized religion since childhood. For years, my mom had pushed me to start every day with a devotional; on the way to school we’d read a Bible verse or an excerpt from whatever white southern pastor’s book she’d just bought. On Thursday mornings in grade school, I kneeled and stood (and kneeled and stood again) in Catholic school mass. Beginning my day with a kind of regimented worship felt natural to me. So in 2013, I had to wake up and watch the music video for “No Angel;” I couldn’t start my day without it.
Beyoncé (the album) seems closest to Beyoncé (the person). And so, almost three winters ago, I sat in my political theory class or in line for coffee or at a Delta airport lounge, eyes glued to my phone. When I wasn’t watching every song forwards and backwards and sideways, I missed it. I missed seeing that crazy backbend Beyoncé did in “Partition.” I missed the way Joan Smalls licked Yoncé’s necklace. I needed to hear her say, “And I’ve been drifting off on knowledge.” At times, it really felt impossible for me to make it through the next five minutes of my life without putting in earbuds and pressing play on the only song that made me feel "***Flawless," a word that took on a bolder definition when spelled with Beyoncé's stars.
Lemonade is a very good visual offering; in it, Beyoncé looks beyond herself. The discourse around topics like being a Black woman, marriage, and rage is distilled into phrases that smite and stab. “Becky with the good hair” made complicated, emotional discussions about whiteness and status something buzzworthy. Some of the album’s best lines are just words that roll off Beyoncé’s tongue in speech: “So what are you going to say at my funeral, now that you’ve killed me?” It’s in these words that Lemonade engages in a conversation about marriage — along with a larger legacy of Black womanhood.
Where many songs on Lemonade display emotion —the anarchist glee of “Hold Up,” the jolting wrath of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” — Beyoncé showed off several moods and personalities, daring to suggest they can all belong to one woman. On other albums, Beyoncé had been Destiny’s lead Child, Jay Z’s bride, and that primal instinct known as Sasha Fierce. There was a baby in this woman’s life now, but we hadn’t actually met that baby’s mother. Beyoncé’s every track ballooned into feminist texts on being a grown-ass woman — who turns 35 this year — and it's worth remembering that night in December 2013 when we were introduced to every part of her, all at once.
What’s most thrilling about Beyoncé is that every song stands alone. Lemonade's tracks bleed into one another. Beyoncé has pivots strong enough to give a viewer whiplash. We’re hiding in the nooks and crannies of a hotel cursed with vintage horrors in “Haunted.” We wash up on a beach in Miami, where horniness and goofiness mix with Hennessy. And then, before we’ve really had a moment to take in this music — how “Drunk in Love” fits into “Crazy in Love” and how all of that fits into the Carters' outlaw fantasy — it’s time to roll into the skateland that’s the setting for “Blow” and “Cherry.” A few songs later and we’re in Paris; a few more after that and it’s midnight at Coney Island. The "XO" video is a perfect example of the album's visual aesthetic: In a sea of bodies and faces, we're always brought back to Bey. Each video showed off a new side of her athleticism while documenting her curves. Whether she's with Blue in Brazil or with Jay in Miami, we're seeing a world made in (and with) her own image.
It’s hard to remember it now, but there was skepticism surrounding whatever Beyoncé’s fifth release would be. In 4, she stepped away from the allergic-to-weakness intensity of Sasha Fierce. That kind of severity had an expiration date; there was always the suggestion that her body was part machine in I Am… Sasha Fierce (those Thierry Mugler costumes, that “Single Ladies” metal glove). Then her life got in the way of this narrative of functionality; pregnancy was a reminder that Beyoncé was made of flesh. Motherhood isn’t on brand for pop music, probably because aging isn’t on brand for pop music, or for women at all. Readiness for marriage and children shows age — so where’s the pivot when you’ve very publicly had both?
Maybe that’s how I made it there, to that church of my own making. I had to wake up to watch “No Angel” and sit in Starbucks and watch “XO” and find the remote at parties to play “Yoncé” because Beyoncé was helping me work out something inside of myself: What kind of woman would I become? There wasn’t room in Betty Friedan’s mainstream feminism for everything I wanted to be — a boss lady, a Black woman, a writer — and that discourse certainly didn't have space to twerk while doing all of it.
Beyoncé closes out with “Grown Woman,” a song that punctuates the most consistent message of her career. Being a woman of color comes with this unspoken requirement: make yourself smaller, bend and twist to fit into narrow definitions of your life. Answering to different names with different groups is a part of code-switching, a way to adapt your identity to the requirements of an environment. Beyoncé was about blowing up that idea of perfection, smashing that trophy of idealism. Beyoncé can be “Partition” and “Blue” and “Rocket” all in one day. The ferocity of Sasha Fierce and the girlhood of Destiny’s Child shrinks in comparison to being the grown woman version of yourself, all the time.