The first time I was in the same room with Beyoncé Knowles Carter was in the spring of 2004. Her man Jay Z (he wasn’t her husband yet, at least not that we knew of) was premiering a video for his song “99 Problems” for a small group of lucky writers at a discrete screening space in NY’s meat packing district. The still hyphenated Hov was as happy as any man who was on top of the music world, had a basketball team in the playoffs and the hottest chick in the game wearing his chain. In fact, it was her presence at the event that stood out the most to attendees. There was a definite “look but don’t stare” vibe as we took notice of Bey standing near the door flanked by security. Silent as The Sphinx and just as monumental, just there to support her man. In her own world she is quite the opposite, carefully maintaining this bold, otherworldly presence. Everything she does is an event. Her songs, choreography, videos, and even pregnancy revelations are done to the 10th power with quartz precision. Beyoncé simply doesn’t mess up. And if she does we’d never know it.
That’s part of why I’ve enjoyed her music from the periphery. I recognize the power of her videos and singles as the party and conversation starters they are (years ago “Single Ladies” was the only way to keep my daughter quiet in her carseat) but I have never been moved to purchase and digest a full album. For context, the R&B I’ve bought has been lighter on the rhythm and heavier on the blues: Maxwell, Eric Roberson, D’Angelo, Dwele, Mary J Blige, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, The Internet and Amy Winehouse. And if I’m in a lighter mood Mack Wilds and The Foreign Exchange usually fit the bill. Not to say people don’t enjoy artists like the ones I listed and Bey at the same time, but for me Beyoncé was like that specialty cocktail I’ll order out but rarely buy a bottle to take home. She is perfect in company, but a lot of my music listening is done alone in my own head and the truth is I’ve never wanted to be alone with Beyoncé like that.
But as I sat watching the visual album for Lemonade something felt different. Seeing her literally dive head first into a pool of betrayal I felt like a veil had been lifted. Yes, she had songs like “Me Myself and I”, “Like A Boy” and such that dealt with a woman’s pain and men’s trifling ways but this was eons beyond that. This Beyoncé was vulnerable. This Beyoncé had bled. She was not immortal. “Irreplaceable” Beyoncé may have been pissed but she was unscathed. She seemed to move on quickly. Her judgment was swift. But “Hold Up” felt more like a woman fighting to keep her shit together, struggling to fix what was broken instead of sweeping the pieces into the trash. Despite the obvious hurt, her lamentations were delivered in the present tense, not the past. She don’t love you like I love you. I felt her involuntary reflex to ask “What could I have done to prevent this?” that I’ve seen in so many women. That shit felt so real to me even as a man. Gender be damned we’re all human and if you’ve ever loved someone you’ve either hurt them or been hurt by them at some point, but it’s the journey back from that hurt that defines you as an individual and as a couple.
So I continued to watch and listen. Some of the music (like the rousing “Freedom“) captured me before I even ingested all of the words (I’ve been told I don’t pay attention to lyrics in R&B enough). But I didn’t have to. I liked the way the songs and images made me feel. And unlike anything she’d released before I’d heard enough to know that I wanted to hear more. And more importantly I wanted to own this experience to play, digest and share as I felt without limits. Streaming has always felt very temporary to me despite its convenience. So as soon as it became available on iTunes I pony’d up my $17 and bought a pitcher of Lemonade.
That was almost a week ago and after a few spins I don’t regret my decision. I enjoyed her reciting (and introducing me to) the poems of Warsan Shire and at times abandoning her seasoned vocals to straight up rap in a way most popular rappers on the radio simply don’t anymore.
And when she did sing there was a conviction I’d never felt before. It wasn’t a declaration. It was a warning. And anyone who has loved a black woman knows you best to heed the latter. When I was on my commute home watching the world go by, she pierced the bubble of predictability with her distorted screams to give her fat ass a kiss and to suck on her balls, pause. She was no longer that pretty pink drink that comes in a martini glass with a twist. We were doing shots now and I was ready to buy a round.