The visual album isn’t new: Over the past half-decade or so, bands from Animal Collective to TV on the Radio have experimented with the genre, an elaboration on MTV-era music videos combining elements of feature filmmaking and provocative high-art collaborations. But with two visual albums to her credit — the first for her 2013 release “Beyoncé,” followed by “Lemonade,” which made its debut on HBO over the weekend and is available to stream on Tidal and for purchase on iTunes and Amazon — Beyoncé Knowles Carter is now the undisputed master of the form. A work of lush, exquisitely composed images and structural sophistication, “Lemonade” is a triumph of design, cinematography and visual storytelling: incantatory, mysterious and deeply, almost overwhelmingly, cathartic.
Theses already are being written about the semiotics of “Lemonade” — its poetics and polemics, as well as its references, which are as varied as Malcolm X, the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire and the contemporary artist Pipilotti Rist. Cinematically, “Lemonade” reaches back to Maya Deren and “Singin’ In the Rain”; Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick. Most gratifying is “Lemonade’s” obvious debt to Julie Dash, of the germinal 1970s African American film movement known as the L.A. Rebellion. And it reaches to film’s future as well: One of its many cinematographers is Khalik Allah, whose essay film “Field Niggas” was discovered on YouTube last year and has since become a deserved film festival sensation.
In addition to such of-the-moment filmmakers as Allah — as well as Reed Morano, Melina Matsoukas and Kahlil Joseph — Beyoncé hired such music-video veterans as Malik Sayeed, Mark Romanek and Jonas Akerlund to direct segments of “Lemonade,” suggesting something of a full circle in pop visual culture. All three were part of the MTV-Hollywood migration in the 1990s and early 2000s that, at its best, brought new instinct and spontaneity to feature films and at its worst, infected them with “edgy” mannerisms, hair-trigger editing and meaningless self-consciously “cinematic” gestures. (For a while, MTV was the only thing keeping Super 8 film stock alive.) With the exception of the occasional OK Go outlier — or Beyoncé’s own rapturously received “Formation” in February — the music video today is akin to a quaint cultural artifact, affectionately satirized in “Sing Street,” a wistful romance driven by the music of the 1980s.
Similarly, the pop musical is on the ropes, a fact made poetically clear by “Lemonade” dropping the very weekend fans were mourning Prince by attending memorial screenings of his 1984 movie “Purple Rain.” As cinematic as Prince was on an instinctive, lyrical level, he surprisingly never brought much innovation to his music videos, which now look like the relics of a cheesier age; “Purple Rain,” an enormous hit 30 years ago, epitomized a sequential ethos of soundtrack-movie-then-we-tour that feels similarly dated in an entertainment universe dominated by 360-degree marketing.
In fact, until relatively recently, it was a given that a pop star would graduate to making movies, a time-honored trajectory followed by artists including Elvis, the Beatles and Britney Spears. Beyoncé once did the expected thing and made her own incursions into feature films, among them a starring role in the dreadful 2006 “Pink Panther” remake and a respectable turn as Etta James in “Cadillac Records” two years later. But in addition to the myriad personal and political points Beyoncé is making (and scoring) in “Lemonade,” she has permanently interrupted the conventional image-management narrative. Rather than beg for big-screen acceptance, she adjusts the frame to suit herself, becoming a genuine innovator in a form of transmedia — part video, part film, part art installation — that may share DNA with Hollywood but has little or nothing to do with corporate financing, packaging or deliverables.
At a time when female representation in film is the subject of endless conversations and even federal investigations, Beyoncé simply gets on with building her own aesthetic and industrial empire. Like Ava DuVernay, who hovers over “Lemonade” like a spiritual sister-in-arms, Beyoncé doesn’t waste time asking for permission. With black women so squarely in the center of a visual rhetoric that has historically denigrated and erased them, it’s possible to wish that more of “Lemonade’s” individual directors were women of color. But then it’s possible to imagine that Beyoncé called DuVernay, Dee Rees, Amma Assante and Gina Prince-Bythewood and they were busy getting on with it, too.
It’s tempting — if only for the poetic justice of it — to compare Beyoncé to D.W. Griffith for the breakthrough in formal sophistication and expression that “Lemonade” represents. But she’s also akin to Thomas Edison, marshaling her own prodigious gifts, and those of the artistic team she’s so astutely assembled, to create material for a burgeoning delivery system — in Edison’s case, his company’s photographic and projection equipment, in Beyoncé’s case, a streaming music service developed by her husband, Jay Z. By changing the paradigm of pop stardom — by becoming a bona fide auteur in the boundary-less, sound-and-image universe we all now live in — Beyoncé has turned the concept of “breaking into movies” on its head. Instead, she’s the one who’s broken the movies, bending the medium to her own fiercely autonomous will.