In a critical review of Lemonade in 2016, bell hooks wrote, “Even though Beyoncé and her creative collaborators daringly offer multidimensional images of black female life, much of the album stays within a conventional stereotypical framework, where the black woman is always a victim.”
It was reassuring to read hooks’s take on Lemonade in “Moving Beyond Pain”. Also because I’d written a brief but similar comment a couple of weeks earlier about how important it is to see black women thrive in love. Yet despite hooks’s long dedication to feminism, it was her review rather than the message in Lemonade that caused a furore in feminist circles.
The launch of Jay Z’s new album 4:44 gave reason to revisit Lemonade in a piece for the Guardian, which I am reposting below.
After years of silence, Jay-Z released a new album, entitled 4:44, last week. Grown-up and confident in tone, the album addresses financial success, fatherhood and hip-hop; but the theme that particularly stands out is Jay-Z’s remorse for mistreating and cheating on “the baddest girl in the world”, Beyoncé. Indeed, much of the album is a response to his wife’s hit album Lemonade, lauded as a “revolutionary work of black feminism”. But let’s be real here: the romantic melodrama played out in these two albums is neither revolutionary nor feminist, but instead rather old and tired.
Not that infidelity should be an unquestionable trigger to end a union. Long-term relationships are complex, and just because many of our institutions promote sexual exclusivity within marriage, it does not mean that eternal monogamy is necessarily the right way. Nor is infidelity simply about having a crappy partner who’s unable to control their urges. It can also be about incompatibility, deeper needs and personal growth.
But the saga of Jay-Z and Beyoncé is familiar for all the wrong reasons. It’s the same script shared by women such as Sylvia Plath, Frida Kahlo and Hillary Clinton: powerful, talented women whose partners should be proudly elevating them but instead humiliate them with public affairs.
If anything, what makes this particular saga even worse is that the humiliation is, bizarrely, being championed as some sort of feminist fairytale. In Lemonade, part one of the fairytale, the plot went from deception to disbelief to vengeance and then forgiveness. In 4:44, the catharsis is reversed, moving through confession, remorse, self-flagellation and promises of change. In both cases, slick audiovisual packaging connects the dramatic intimate liaisons with the black struggle and women’s empowerment. To the extent it is feminist, this is commodified and commercialised.
However, it is not all bad. 4:44 also exposes the notable influence feminism has on our times. Rather than brag about having threesomes outside of marriage, here we have a rock star apologising for risking his marriage with a ménage à trois. Further, thanks to discussions about masculinity and vulnerability encouraged by feminism, male artists are increasingly willing to express emotions. And it is hard to imagine that a macho rapper’s mum would come out as a lesbian, in the way Jay-Z’s mother does in 4:44.
But if feminism is about challenging the status quo, then a feminist story of betrayal would typically see a woman graciously, if crushed, walk away from a man who mistreats and cheats on her. A feminist message would encourage women not to choose “emotionless” partners who “often womanise” or need their “child to be born…to see through a woman’s eyes”, all confessions of Jay-Z’s. It would urge women to thrive in the art of love by encouraging them to choose partners who treat them with respect.
I’m not saying that Beyoncé staying with Jay-Z means that she isn’t a feminist, or for that matter that her public rage in Lemonade wasn’t powerfully conveyed; but from what the Carters have shared in public, I’m afraid theirs does not stand as a model of a relationship that challenges the status quo.
Furthermore, a feminism that challenges the existing state of affairs propagates images of masculinity that counter the norm. Nowhere in 4:44 does Jay-Z connect his behaviour with sexism and male dominance, despite it being clear that he sits on a throne of male privilege. How genuine, then, is his apology if it makes no critical mention of the system – patriarchy – that his wife, by definition of being feminist, is fighting to end precisely because of the pain and oppression it has caused for centuries?
There’s a common piece of advice given in Nigeria, where I write this, to women who complain about their husbands cheating (also common). The advice is that they should be patient; that with age, the husband in question will eventually be theirs alone.
I can’t help but think of this lousy advice while listening to 4:44. After all, as Jay-Z approaches 50, Beyoncé finally has a partner who seems willing to be exclusively hers and who is apologetic for taking so long to appreciate her value. As he himself puts it in the title track, “Thinking of all the time you wasted on this basic shit, so I apologise.”
But should a so-called feminist narrative echo the bad advice young wives in a masculinist society like Nigeria are typically given? Truth is, women have long been in the position of patiently waiting for their men to change, and sometimes their perseverance pays off. But I have to say, few things are as much of a waste of precious time.