In “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” the third and angriest track on Beyoncé’s album Lemonade, the singer spits out the phrase “God complex” as an insult at the target of her song—contextually, her husband, the rapper Jay-Z, to whom she has been married since 2008. That little line, and some other bits slipped into the lyrics and visuals, form a sort of a skeleton key to pry open what the project has to do with God.
The story of Lemonade has a lot to do with God, and with idols.
Released without warning a week ago, Lemonade is a “visual album,” meant more to be watched than to be listened to (though you can do that too). It’s an hour-long devastating film, gorgeously shot, rich in imagery. Spliced into the tracks—sometimes in the middle of them—are Warsan Shire’s poems, along with home video and images of Beyoncé’s parents and her own marriage, heartbreaking moments with the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown holding their son’s portraits and staring into the camera, dance, and other familiar faces and voices.
Lemonade also boasts a deep religious sense. Its images of water and fire seem torn from a book of prophecy, a personal apocalypse. It relies on the narrative of baptism and redemption, and yet is a remarkably complex work of art. On release, it inspired a frenzy of writing on a variety of topics, from feminism and womanism to marriage, adultery, American history, its African and Creole sources, and much more. The film also draws on images traditionally associated with fertility, particularly the ankh she wears around her neck in “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” The ankh was a symbol of life in ancient Egypt, and all the Pharoahs and deities were pictured clutching it. (It’s sometimes used by Coptic Christians as well.)
It would be a mistake to interpret any of the tracks in isolation. This is an album best taken in whole, because it tells a story. My colleagues noted last week on CT's “Quick to Listen” podcast that you can read Lemonade as a modern-day book of Psalms, which fan across the spectrum from angry shouting to songs of deliverance. The music and lyrics tell a story: first the singer intuits that something is going on in her marriage, but doesn’t want to believe it; then, when it’s confirmed, she goes through stages of anger and grief, eventually deciding that it’s worth pursuing reconciliation. We’re meant to understand that this is a personal narrative—likely for Beyoncé, but for many other women, and in particular, black women—and it’s laid out in chapters with text on the screen, some of it overtly religious: Intuition, Denial, Anger, Apathy, Emptiness, Accountability, Reformation, Forgiveness, Resurrection, and Redemption.
As in much of her public work in the past few years, in Lemonade Beyoncé is concerned with the ways women suffer and recover and gain agency—particularly black women in America, who Malcolm X proclaims at one point in voiceover are the most disrespected, unprotected, neglected people in America. Lemonade suggests that black women have been let down by two groups of people repeatedly: the men in their lives, particularly fathers and husbands, and their country more broadly. In personal and social history, the very people meant to protect them have taken advantage of them. (In Lemonade she focuses mainly on the personal, but the cultural implications are there as well, sometimes explicitly.)