Her two studio albums (Archandroid and Electric Lady) and her EP, Metropolis, all follow a distinct, complex and creative storyline. The running story is that of her alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, an android/robot who has fallen in love with a human in the year 2719, which happens to be illegal. As such, and as governed by the laws of 2719, she's to be destroyed. Monae structures all three of these albums around this central story where the wonderful melody and up-tempo dance tunes not only stand on their own as great productions but continue to carry this narrative along.
I doubt Monae is attempting to reveal to us that she's a robot from the future. Mastery in artistic license and metaphor as a literary device are what separates artists from the average Joe. Janelle ain't no friggin' robot, but she's using the idea of the robot as the "other." And like all of the "others" throughout history in America particularly (people of color, interracial couples, the LGBT community, etc.) their love is frowned upon and many in control seek to annihilate it. It's a pretty creative way to get that point across. But, well, "folks don't get it" essentially. Which is probably one of the main reasons her music hasn’t resonated as largely with the masses. She’s unique and doesn’t follow the norm.
This brings me to a recent "not getting it" moment in music. I sat and watched Lemonade, as a ton of other people did when it dropped. Through the first couple of chapters, I, too, was wondering if Beyoncé was truly airing all of her dirty laundry in this manner. Yet, as the visual album continued, it became pretty apparent to me that this was a much larger story than some alleged affair on Jay Z's part. There were many references to fathers throughout the visual album. There's an explicit line of poetry right before the "Redemption" chapter, where she asks "Am I talking about your husband or your father?"
It was at this moment that the central message of Lemonade truly started to reveal itself to me. This wasn't necessarily about a literal act (or several acts) of infidelity by her husband or necessarily about her father even, but was a general overarching theme about betrayal and loss in relationships and rebuilding. Once she brought in the references to not only Civil Rights advocates but also the visuals of Leah Chase and even Sybrina Fulton, Gwen Carr and Lesley McSpadden; once she highlighted all of the beautiful young African American talents in Quvenzhané Wallis and Amandla Stenberg, I KNEW, that this album also was about loss, struggle and triumph in the greater world as a woman. And, not only as a woman but specifically as a black woman. These women represented the past, present and future.
Yes, I made my initial jokes about Jay Z. I laughed at several memes created at his expense. But as the days continued, I watched, mortified mind you, as not only obsessed Beyoncé fans went on a witch hunt for "the other woman," but nearly every news and media outlet also went on this exact same insane witch hunt. Really?
Beyoncé gave us Laolu Senbanjo, Nigerian born artist in charge of the artwork of "Sorry." She gave us Yoruba and Oshun symbolism throughout. She introduced many of us to the brilliant words of Warsan Shire, a Somali-British poet. She gave us stunning imagery of young, talented African-American girls. She gave us Malcolm X quotes — all of these things reflecting the struggle and resilience needed to exist at the intersection of racism and sexism, which is where the black woman has had to endure for centuries, often quietly.
"Closed my mouth more, tried to be softer, prettier, less awake." — Warsan Shire'
And even though Beyoncé gave us all of these things, America spent the immediate days following its release trying to find out who "Becky" was. When, in actuality, if they'd been paying attention at all, they'd realize there might have never been a specific "Becky" to begin with. As a byproduct of such, scores of people took to their social media accounts to express how they don't care about her marriage and totally dismissed the project all-together.
This is why new artists and record labels don't take the time to nurture true creative projects and concepts. Why should they? People complain about repetitive ideas, autotune and monotony within themes, yet it seems to me that every time an artist dares to step outside of the box, they're effectively run back in by the same folks screaming they wanted something "different" who, misinterpret, misunderstand and never take the time to investigate. We want our artists to be creative, but we want them to be creative our way. Do something new, as long as you do it in a way I’m familiar with. Oh, and can you make it digestible in a quick fashion that I can understand it in just one listen, with hot singles cause, you know, I got a spin class and selfies to take. Ok.
I'm no musician, but I am a visual artist and definitely empathize with this conundrum. If I get one more client who tells me to be creative, then goes on to correct my creativity by telling me to do something similar to what their cousin Ray-Ray drew last year, I, too, shall follow Bey off of that building she steps from in the visuals for the "Denial" chapter of the visual album. But I digress.
Now, I'm not saying you must love or like Lemonade at all. Some people don't want to hear about politics in their music. Some people don't want to hear cursing, screaming Beyoncé.
You don't have to like Lemonade, but for crying out loud, let's quit reducing it to a project explicitly about a mistress or mistresses. Lemonade is about a woman’s ability to love, endure, be vulnerable, sustain, get angry, forgive and grow stronger in the midst of hardship. In the midst of all those lemons, still give birth to positivity and hope and the sweet rewards that those concepts yield. The sweet and the sour — lemonade.
For broad concepts to thrive, it takes an artist and an audience that’s actually willing to engage beneath just surface-level thoughts. We live in a fast-paced, social-media driven, “next big thing” world. Yet, nearly more than anything, it’s our inability to hold up our end of the creativity bargain that’s stifling to artists and derailing the very thing we thirst for most — imagination.