On this day five years ago, Beyoncé released her sixth studio album, Lemonade. The poignant magnum opus about the dynamic beauty of Black womanhood became the best-selling album of 2016 and reinforced the idea that anything the superstar does causes pandemonium on a global scale. Her past work had shown us this before—see the infectious choreography of I Am…Sasha Fierce’s “Single Ladies” and the iconic catchphrases of Beyoncé’s “Flawless”—but Lemonade spoke to the singer’s personal evolution and the ascent of her avant-garde aesthetic in a way we hadn’t seen before. Queen Bey didn’t just have her finger on the cultural zeitgeist: She became the cultural zeitgeist.
Lemonade was accompanied by a 65-minute film that premiered on HBO and transformed the way music is distributed. Though it wasn’t her first visual album—her 2013 self-titled surprise drop made her releases comparable to Marvel theatrical events—but this was grand even for someone as iconic as Beyoncé. The singer dug deeper than ever before to show new levels of complexity and creativity.
She also intentionally prioritized Blackness through an array of mediums that spoke to those who directly come from it. From the astounding poetics of writer Warsan Shire being generously dispersed throughout to the replication of Julie Dash’s imagery from Daughters of the Dust, the imaginations of Black women were infinitely elevated. Husband Jay-Z made an appearance, but it was the cameos from Serena Williams, Zendaya, and Chloe and Halle Bailey that were clearly the epicenter.
Its themes of infidelity—and, ultimately, forgiveness—spurred a national discourse on the state of the Bey’s marriage, but that doesn’t cover the full scope of Lemonade: She also addresses motherhood, police brutality, racism, and Black liberation. Using her platform to highlight these issues was revolutionary at the time. Beyoncé knew the risk of becoming more political in her music, and she took it anyway.
To honor five years of Lemonade, four Black women critics (Danielle Young, Clarissa Brooks, Brande Victorian, and Naima Cochrane) sat down for a roundtable discussion on the impact of the record and why it will always be special for us.
February 6, 2016: Beyoncé surprises the world with the “Formation” video. The Internet is thrown into a frenzy.
Danielle Young: “Formation” was something really special. Beyoncé literally revolutionized the way we consume music and made all of us stop to watch and experience it together. I remember watching the video and feeling a lot of ways.
Clarissa Brooks: I was in my dorm room at Spelman, watching the video crying. All of my friends were in these emotionally toxic relationships with men. “Formation” felt like this moment where all of us had to really sit and be like: Why are we letting this happen? It was probably one of the last moments where I felt like heterosexuality was something I wanted to stay in. Lemonade overall was a catalyst for some interesting conversations.
Naima Cochrane: Beyoncé has always been a visual artist—and she knows this about herself. “Single Ladies” wouldn’t have been so monumental without the video for it. It was the video for “Crazy in Love” that sold it. The “Formation” video shows her evolution and her intentionality. From the choreography to the looks and to even Blue making an appearance. It’s like, Where did all of this inspiration come from? And how did she know it was time to create again?
Danielle: When she drowned the police car, honey! For Beyoncé to make a statement like that and for it to specifically be about New Orleans and Katrina and how our people were left there to die... It also represented the complete drowning of Black America. It was her way of saying, “I see y’all, and I see what y’all are doing.” The thoughtfulness of every scene was striking.
February 7, 2016: “Formation” makes its live debut at Super Bowl 50 and shows that Blackness is inherently political.
Brande Victorian: When you think about seeing Black women performing on that field with Afros and how so many people found it offensive, it reminds you of the real America we live in. It’s a shame it was deemed radical at the time—but it truly was.
Naima: American football is very white. Yes, there are Black athletes. Yes, there are Black fans, but who do you think are the people really in control? When I saw Beyoncé and them damn berets looking like a group of Black Panthers during a Coldplay set? I knew everybody was gonna lose their minds over it. I loved it.
Clarissa: Her almost tripping and getting up was truly destined by the ancestors!
Danielle: Beyoncé has performed at the Super Bowl before, but this was much, much Blacker. Seeing an array of Afros spread across the 50-yard line on an American football field was unbelievable. I went to a regular degular school that taught us about this country’s racist history, but I was never taught about Black Panthers. We need to know that our ancestors were not criminals—they were defending themselves and building up Black communities. Beyoncé was so, so intentional with this performance. I’ll never get over it.
Clarissa: “Formation” felt like a full dissertation, and the Super Bowl performance was the moment she presented it. I always feel that with her work, I walk away with some sort of homework. I need to do the reading every time.
February 13, 2016: Saturday Night Live features a skit called “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black” that skewers the reaction of white Americans to “Formation.”
Danielle: This was actually one of Saturday Night Live’s best skits. It seriously was how I thought people felt. White people want Beyoncé to just be Beyoncé and not center Blackness in any way, shape, or form…like they were really hurt.
Brande: Y’all were comfortable not seeing her as a Black artist, and when she started to be too Black—even with her blonde hair and light skin—it was too much. The lyrics were really foreshadowing what was going to come and the space she was in at that time.
Danielle: I still be looking at folks sideways if they’re not Black and singing “Brown Skin Girl.” We can make jokes about it, but the fact is feathers were ruffled. And that’s enough to show that supremacy is real. They really thought they had this claim on Beyoncé!
Clarissa: What made Beyoncé’s consumption easier for white people is the fact that she is light-skinned. The machine of the music industry has really tried to make her a very racially ambiguous artist, even though her music has always been Black and rooted in hip-hop and R&B. As she’s gotten older, she realized she actually doesn’t want to be for everybody—she wants to be for herself.
April 23, 2016: Lemonade is revealed as a film on HBO and turns album releases into theatrical events.
Naima: Lemonade had so many different visual elements. I remember watching it and feeling really, really overwhelmed. As someone who worked in the music industry, I have an idea of what it takes for artists to bring something of this magnitude to life. Beyoncé is the hardest working artist we have.
Brande: I don’t even know how many minutes I was in when I started crying. Even when I watched it again recently, the same emotion came back to me. I immediately thought of the generations of women and what we’ve tolerated. I thought of the experiences I’ve had and other experiences of women that l know…I could not turn away.
Naima: There were so many different stories that were being told in Lemonade. There were country-western references, Daughters of the Dust references, slave narratives—Jay’s grandmother even makes an appearance. Go ahead, Ms. Hattie!
Brande: Because Beyoncé is so guarded in a necessary way, you forget she is a woman like the rest of us. She has the same experiences as the rest of us. She hurts, and the people around her can hurt her. Her husband can hurt her. Her father can hurt her. Everyone can disappoint.
Clarissa: There were moments in the film that felt so personal, like when she threw the ring at the camera at the end of “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” I remember pausing the video and being like,
“I need to take a breath.” I know this emotion has passed for Bey, but I still have some feelings about her husband.
May 3, 2016: “Sorry” is released as the second single from Lemonade. The world starts asking: Who is Becky with the good hair?
Clarissa: “Sorry” makes me think about “Resentment” because it was actually the first song we got from Beyoncé where she was talking about infidelity, her own jealousy, and how that was manifesting in her relationship. Part of me wasn’t as interested in the Becky conversation and more interested in how the media was shifting the conversation from the album to Becky, which was assumed to be some white woman since we live in an anti-Black world.
Danielle: We really were like, Who is Becky? It had us—and by us, I mean me—on the edge of our seats. It was like watching a telenovela. I was really into it. We were all up in her business trying to figure it out because, for one, you don’t cheat on Beyoncé.
Brande: That really was a manhunt—you don’t mess with Beyoncé. The Beyhive will use social media to piece everything together and figure out who you are, where you live, and what they’re gonna do about it.
Danielle: We made Becky white, but to be honest, in Black culture “good hair” can be a feature on light-skinned Black women. You know, that one chocolate girl with them good curly edges. You don’t know who that is.
Naima: If you have followed Bey’s career for this long and actually think we know what really happened with the Carters, have you really been paying attention? There may not even be a Becky with the good hair. That part may be her talking for all the other women who are upset by what their men do. She’s gonna tell us enough—but she’s never going to tell us everything.
Clarissa: I wasn’t too shocked to see people ask: Who is the mistress? It was just fascinating to see how the album was becoming less about bravery and vulnerability and more about gossip. Half of the album is about the restoration of her family and marriage…. That felt way more important to me.
February 12, 2017: Lemonade loses album of the year at the Grammys and becomes the snub heard ’round the world.
Clarissa: Bey and Jay have always had a very interesting relationship with the Grammys. As of today, Beyoncé is the most awarded woman in Grammy history. She’s invested in the institution but also knows that she won’t get the recognition she deserves. You can make the most politically recognized album of 2016 and still not get the top prize.
Danielle: It made no sense, and it really hurt my feelings because we all just knew how amazing it was. Black women have to do so much. Lemonade was more than an album—it was a complete feature film. There should have been a category created to honor her for that because it created actual culture.
Naima: She isn’t just a pop singer with “surfboards” and dances that everybody catches onto. Beyoncé creates real music and real art. Her and Michael [Jackson] are two of the biggest entertainers of our time and are known for being obsessive perfectionists. They are artists, creatives, musicians, and actual performers. With Lemonade, Bey said, “You can’t deny this album—this is the one.”
Danielle: It was bittersweet because when they announced Beyoncé as the most-awarded female artist in the history of the Grammys, it wasn’t even orchestrated to be a real moment. They made it feel so pedestrian.
Brande: I just think there’s no excuse whatsoever, you know? If you honored Beyoncé for all of her other music, how could you skip over this thing? I’m happy for her and breaking that Grammy record, but Lemonade should have been a part of that. Was it just too Black for the Recording Academy?
June 30, 2017: Jay-Z releases his 13th studio album, 4:44, and addresses his marriage to Beyoncé from his perspective.
Naima: 4:44 is very grown-man hip-hop. It’s an appropriate album for a rapper of Jay’s age to make; it’s introspective and reflective. The reason I really appreciate Jay as a rapper is because he has let his subject material age with him—which is something a lot of rappers are scared to do.
Brande: I remember the conversation where people asked if this narrative was made up to sell albums or be relatable. But on “Sorry” she explicitly stated, “Me and my daughter, we gon’ be alright.” I don’t think any woman would impose their children into that situation in order to perpetuate a false narrative. 4:44 was progressive, particularly with Jay discussing going to therapy and even doing a media tour. He needed to address the trauma and experiences that led him to make those choices.
Clarissa: As someone who didn’t really grow up on Jay-Z like that, I knew 4:44 was a different type of rap album in the sense that we never had our greats make it to that age and talk about their relationships and their failures. It felt good to have that blueprint for other artists in the game. With the patriarchy and Black men specifically, our intuition is used against us to make us feel overly emotional, which seems like the core of gaslighting. It’s important that he didn’t discredit Beyoncé’s emotions or feelings on this album and understood his role in all of this.
Brande: I think 4:44 was a good compliment to Lemonade because every time there’s a celebrity situation where a woman is cheated on, it’s always the woman doing the cleanup. Men never have to really answer for what they’ve done. It was important for Jay to take accountability and share how they’ve both grown past it.
April 23, 2021: Lemonade turns five and remains more relevant than ever.
Clarissa: I sometimes wonder to myself, Do I give Lemonade too much credit? With the self-titled album, Beyoncé really solidified the notion that she could drop music whenever she wants and people are going to listen. But Lemonade is different in that it’s canonical and reimagines how we understand Black women’s rage and grief and sadness. This album was made for us. I’m always really grateful for the level of love and care she puts into her work.
Naima: Lemonade did a really great job of providing an accessible [way into] a kind of academic school of thought. On Twitter, there are an abundance of popular academic phrases that people throw around without grasping the concept of them. Feminism is one of those. Beyoncé told us her story in chapters, and Lemonade felt literary to me; it had the depth of words on paper.
Danielle: Shortly after the album’s release, Candice Benbow devised the Lemonade syllabus. What that says—along with 4:44 and all the subsequent think pieces and essays—is that good art creates good art. It creates more culture. It was a multimedia experience that showed so many people what they could do with their talents.
Naima: I love that Candice came up with a syllabus based on Lemonade. That to me is more important than just having a broad cultural impact on an entertainment level. The album moved into a more academic space with plenty to unpack. Lemonade is a really well-rounded body of work. You got party joints, you got bops, and then you have things that are deeper and more introspective. She didn’t only just give us this really heavy, really intricate piece of work.
Brande: What Lemonade conveys is that every single day, Black women are taking a whole bunch of lemons—our sour, individual experiences mixed with a lot of joy that we create ourselves—and making beautiful memories out of them. I think this album will be remembered as a documentation of how we traverse through life and are resilient—and ultimately triumphant—in the end.
Candace McDuffie is Boston-based writer with bylines in Entertainment Weekly, Vice, Forbes, Vibe, and more.
Originally Appeared on Glamour