When Beyoncé’s Lemonade dropped earlier this year, speculation over the health and future of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s marriage percolated in pop culture, threatening to overflow. The album is frank about marriage infidelity, jealousy (or craziness), and independence. It is bold to give anger a chance to breathe. Yet, what many immediate reactions missed was the album’s final resolve in favor of commitment, healing, and reconciliation.
Much of the thematic content of this new album is not actually new for Beyoncé. From her Destiny’s Child days, with songs like “Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Independent Women,” and “Survivor,” to her solo career with songs like “Me, Myself, and I,” “Broken-Hearted Girl,” and “Best Thing I Never Had,” relationship troubles, cheating partners, and caustic break-ups have always been a part of Beyoncé’s musical identity. She has often written and performed songs about unfaithful partners, the struggles and victories surrounding breakups, and the empowerment she has found in finally kicking a lover out of her life.
Although hearing her sing about being cheated on is not new, what is new is hearing her sing about reconciling with the same partner that had cheated on her, regaining peace in the same love she had before, learning to love the same man again.
I will be comparing two of Beyoncé’s songs: one from before Lemonade, “Irreplaceable,” and one from Lemonade, “6 Inch.” I will be paying special attention to how, in both songs, Beyoncé is demonstrating her economic, social, and emotional independence, but while she refuses to make up in “Irreplaceable,” something within her begins to change by the end of “6 Inch” — first noticed in her voice, then in her lyrics, then the whole trajectory and attitude of the album shifts.
I believe that the two things that have changed in the way Beyoncé handles infidelity are marriage and motherhood — commitment to family. The attitudes, approaches, and final resolution of this new album are fundamentally different territory for Beyoncé. I mean to argue that this shift happens because of her commitment to marriage and family, and because of her new, transformative understanding of a popular saying that her grandmother taught her.
Beyoncé’s music has always been about independence. Whether it’s how she joins her women to sing about paying her own bills, about being a survivor, about having the freedom to pursue any career, relationship, or feeling, songs about her independence have always been a hallmark of her identity. Independence for Beyoncé, as it relates to men, seems to be of three main kinds: economic, social, and emotional. Economic independence is the ability to support herself financially. Social independence means that she has her people, her women who support her, and the ability, but not the necessity to get a man, a lover. Emotional independence is that idea that she is in control of her emotional state, and another person can’t ultimately make her happy or keep her sad. She is not dependent on someone else for fulfillment.
“If I bought it, please don’t touch”
One of the most prominent examples of all three kinds of independence is the song “Irreplaceable.” In this song, Beyoncé is kicking a boy out of her life. She doesn’t really explain why the two are separating (or rather, why she is banishing him), but infidelity is implied in the way she talks to him in the second verse, referring to “that chick” — another woman that her partner had presumably been seeing and perhaps sleeping with. In her anger, she tells him to take his things and go. He’s trying to convince her to stay with him in the relationship, or to let him physically stay, but she’s already collected his things and put them off to the side in a box.
She tells him not to touch the stuff in the closet because that’s hers. She says, “If I bought it, please don’t touch.” This is the idea of economic independence — he has his stuff that he bought and she has her stuff that she bought. She doesn’t depend on him or his stuff to survive. He’s replaceable and she can support herself. Actually, because his stuff is collected in a box off to the side, this lyric has the connotation he doesn’t have much stuff at all. And, since she’s kicking him out, she may even pay rent/own the place where she is staying. This demonstrates a kind of independence where she doesn’t need this man for anything financially — he can go and he can take his things, he is not irreplaceable.
As she’s talking about how he’s not irreplaceable, she says, “I could have another you in a minute.” This line demonstrates her social independence — she isn’t tied down to this ex, she can get another man in no time. She’s not dependent on him for affection or relationship.
She won’t let herself be manipulated by his words. She sings, “[you’re] standing in the front yard tellin’ me how I’m such a fool, talkin’ bout how I’ll never meet another man like you.” He’s trying to tell her that she’s lucky enough to have him, that she isn’t capable of finding another lover, that by banishing him, she’s shutting down her chances of finding love. She’s letting him talk, but only to appease him. This is how she demonstrates her emotional independence. She will not be convinced to rekindle or repair their love or their relationship.
This song is just one example of a particular pattern in Beyoncé’s music where she has channeled her anger and heartbreak into positive reinforcement, affirmation of her independence, and she’s harnessed her ability to be firm to kick the boy out of her life, even as he tries to talk her into letting him stay. She doesn’t need or want him. “Boy, bye.”
“She works for the money”
Lemonade is the first time that Beyoncé has opened up about infidelity since her marriage began. It’s also the most vulgar Beyoncé has ever been in her music. There are several explicit tracks, which include a number of F — and N — words. But, considering the similar thematic content of her previous work, Lemonade fits congruently.
The turning point of the album is the song “6 Inch.” This is a song about powerful, provocative femininity. The song is told from a third person perspective, describing this powerful woman from a distance. She is an icon who can’t really be fully known — she’s mysterious, sensual, and intimidating. She’s described as professional and hardened, mixing hard liquor, dancing and making money. This song establishes an independent protagonist, describing the appearance and behavior of power and provides details about the money that she is working for, sweating for, grinding for.
This song is mostly focused on economic independence. Lines like, “She works for the money,” “she worth every dollar,” and “she stack her money, money everywhere she goes,” demonstrate her ability to make, collect, and enjoy the money she earns from her hard work in the club. This is all due to her own ability and effort.
The third person narration at the beginning of the song demonstrates social independence. Though Beyoncé is singing about another woman, contextually I believe that this is actually Beyoncé describing herself, though, perhaps, an idealized version of herself: the Beyoncé that she wants others to see. This woman is described in isolation, as if she is so socially independent that she doesn’t even have an entourage or group of women (or other men) around her for support or to help her have a good time. She pushes herself “day and night,” and “grinds from Monday to Friday,” alone, in social isolation and independence to make the money. She wears six-inch heels and drinks hard liquor to maintain her aggressive persona.
In terms of emotional independence, the song speaks of her strong determination and her ability to work hard to make her money for herself on her own. She sings, “she fights for the power, keeping time.” She also sings about how she is proud to know that her lover always comes back to her, even though up till this point in the album, she has been happy to shut him out, she knows that the power she commands over men in general, and over her partner in particular. She is emotionally independent, but she doesn’t seem to be emotionally healthy.
Toward the end of the song, the perspective shifts a bit. The inner state of this woman’s mind is divulged a bit. The singer’s emotional independence becomes a bit shaky. Her external masterfulness is maintained, but by grinding from Monday to Friday, works from Friday to Sunday — she’s constantly working. This is not easy work. She sings, “she fights and she sweats those sleepless nights.” Although she may want it to seem like she accomplishes things effortlessly or passively, in reality she works hard and long for her position. Even if “she loves the grind,” it’s still hard work and it takes a toll.
At the end of this song, there is a turn, a change of attitude, indicated by a new desperation in her voice. Although she is, at first, proud of her ability to lure her lover back to her at the end of the song, she becomes more vulnerable and pleads, repeatedly, “come back, come back.” She yearns for and maybe even needs the relationship to be restored, not for financial or social fulfillment, but for emotional peace. She is economically and socially independent, but she’s not as emotionally independent as she wishes. She can maintain a brave face for a time, but she needs to be honest with herself. She wants her partner, her lover, to return. Even though she is capable of some kind of independence in each way, that’s not exactly what she seems to want anymore.
What has changed?
The change in Beyoncé’s music that comes with Lemonade is not her description of infidelity, the change is found in her final reaction to the infidelity. She’s angrier in this album than she has been in the past. I believe this anger is present because more is at stake this time — a marriage is at stake. This is the kind of relationship that isn’t supposed to end, the kind that isn’t supposed to experience infidelity or heartbreak. But even in that relationship, even in that bond, shit happens. She is consistent in the way that she affirms her own power, strength, and ability: in the early sections of Lemonade, her most immediate responses to the cheating are singing, “boy bye” and telling her lover to “fuck off,” essentially. She doesn’t answer his calls, she goes out to the club, she parties, she makes her own money, and she celebrates her freedom. But those usual coping mechanisms leave her empty, sweating, and working hard, still wanting.
After the turn at the end of “6 Inch,” she begins to change. Ultimately, she finds the power to reconcile and restore her relationship in the very person that caused her the original pain.
The album is called Lemonade, a reference to the familiar saying, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” which means “use what you have to make the best of a bad situation.” It is inferred in the visual album that this was a lesson Beyoncé learned from her grandmother. In this album, life’s “lemons” are marital infidelity and heartbreak. Instead of breaking completely from her partner, from the thing that caused her pain, Beyoncé has learned that she needs to use the thing that caused her pain in order to find healing. In the final song on the album, “All Night,” Beyoncé sings, “with every tear came redemption, and my torturer became my remedy.”
You can’t make lemonade without lemons. You can’t make the good thing without using the bad thing. The pain becomes the solution. This is why Lemonade offers a wholly different, empowering solution to infidelity. When she eventually does reveal her desire for her partner to return, and details the conditions for his return, reconciliation, and the repair of the relationship, it isn’t because she needs his relationship, love, or presence in order to necessarily be happy — there is more than happiness at stake — though just because she doesn’t need those things doesn’t mean she doesn’t want them. She misses her lover and she is left empty by the same kinds of work and behavior that used to give her life. She can’t deny her love for her partner. Despite his actions, she wants him to come back, and she is able to forgive him. By the end of Lemonade, she’s still with her partner, and she is dedicated to fixing the situation and remaining committed.
The album doesn’t end with a complete fix; it’s a process they are still working through. In “All Night,” she sings, “I need some time to prove that I can trust you again.” But she’s working and taking that time to restore the relationship. Her sympathetic and gracious attitude is wholly unique and boldly new in Lemonade. She is uncharacteristically angry and passionate at first, but ultimately forgiving and accommodating. She sings about the power of her love, she sings about how her virtue and commitment were stronger than her partner’s lies and misbehavior. At the end of the song, the end of the album, she welcomes him back, singing, “how I’ve missed you, my love.”
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Beyoncé’s Lemonade is currently only available for purchase or through streaming exclusively on Tidal. This is why the video link to “6 inch” had to be password protected.
 Although marriage is not exactly new to the Beyoncé of Lemonade (this is her third album since marrying Jay-Z), this is the first time she has opened up about infidelity, or the prospect of other women, within that marriage relationship.