In 2001, Beyoncé wrote “Bootylicious,” in which she made the then-bold claim that the club, men, and, I guess, the world weren’t “ready for that jelly.” At the time, it was probably her strongest assertion of being black and female, though that wasn’t saying much; a song calling attention to the fact that she had a butt, and that it was rotund, was hardly the dance-floor-friendly declaration of ownership it pretended to be. It was more like the aural equivalent of being the one black girl at an otherwise-all-white sorority party who will twerk when Ludacris comes on. (I speak with authority; I’ve been that girl.)
Bootylicious Beyoncé is not the only casualty of Lemonade (see also: the audio album, Beyoncé birther theories, Jay Z’s legacy), but it’s maybe the most welcome loss. Instead of singing about her cutesy jelly, 2016 Beyoncé is channeling the spirit of legendarily nasty funk singer Betty Davis and snarling about her “fat ass.” The aggression of the phrase is important; it’s the difference between what society deems to be an acceptable assertion of blackness and an actual, unfiltered statement of self. The video component for “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is equally as defiant — with Beyoncé sporting cornrows, a fly fur jacket, a body-hugging nude spandex ensemble, and a big old ankh dangling in her cleavage. There’s never been any question whether Beyoncé is “sexy” or beautiful in a Top 40 way, but there was the sense that she had turned off her rawness to be accepted and respected. Not anymore. Lemonade is a lyrical and visual claim over black sexuality that’s bolder than anything she’s made before.
Yes, that includes her 2013 self-titled album, which was full of cheeky references to her marital sexual awakening. That was like “freshman year of art school” sexual exploration; Lemonade is the real world. So much of its imagery reminds me of several Southern movies — Beloved, Daughters of the Dust, Eve’s Bayou — that also explore what it means to be a black woman understanding her worth, even in an adulterous relationship. It felt like Beyoncé was calling on the sexual spirit of her ancestors to survive, or something. And that theme runs throughout the concept film: when she dances next to a slow-grinding, proudly thick-thighed Serena Williams; when she tells listeners to “suck on my balls”; or even when she softens and sings about rebuilding her marriage through some rubbing and touching — all over that syrupy horn sample from “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” (the one that basically signals “time for sex”). The sum total — for me as a human, but especially as a black woman — was that you can spend your whole life apologizing, or you can assert some power and move on. Because in a post-Lemonade world, there is no space for apology, there is no space for permission, and there better not be any room at Red Lobster after everyone understands that.
This piece originally appeared in the April 25, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.