Jay Z doesn’t utter a word in LEMONADE. He doesn’t have to. The men watching the film provided the shocked, bewildered, rueful, and somewhat frightened running commentary. Rap’s Superman had met his kryptonite, and it hadn’t arrived in the form of a diss from Nas or Drake. To his credit, Drake seemed to understand that Jay’s marriage could be the source of his vulnerability: “Just hits, no misses, that’s for the married folk.”
But it wasn’t, as Drake suggested, that a committed romantic union means you’re too old and lame to be relevant—it’s that a relationship puts your very heart and soul on the line if you tamper with it. Some of us delighted in watching the only untouchable figure in rap get thoroughly aired out by the only artist truly capable of it: Beyoncé, his wife. The Mr. Krabs memes rained down, but perhaps as a kind of nervous laughter to mask the surprise and hurt of watching an idol crack before our eyes.
My friend Damien did the following as we watched: stood up; sat down on the floor in order to more easily slump over and collapse; ran out of the room; shook his head; wondered what Jay Z did to compromise the vows of marriage and send Beyoncé into a bat-wielding rage; just gaped. I was the same, only more collapsed and curled inward, less active. You can find other examples of the pained male response on Twitter.
Rap’s Superman had met his kryptonite, and it hadn’t arrived in the form of a diss from Nas or Drake.
I could hear Jay’s voice in my head.
“She wanted us to end ’cause I fucked her friends/She gave me one more chance and I fucked her again.”
“You know I, thug ‘em, fuck ‘em, love ‘em, leave ‘em.”
“I will not lose.”
“You ain’t married to no average bitch,” Beyoncé rasps. But Jay? An average (trifling) man, invincible no longer. He’d lost one.
And then, miraculously, he shows up at his own funeral. Beyoncé performs “Sandcastles” and there he is. At first it’s just his hand and forearm. LEMONADE understands what it can do to the viewer just by suggesting the husband’s presence.
Suddenly LEMONADE achieves a new level of intimacy and, unlike what’s come before, this is too much. Like watching your parents learn to touch each other again after a fight that woke the neighbors. Literally no one else should be allowed to witness this, their tender and hesitant reconciliation. Damien started a sentence he didn’t finish: “I’ve grown up with Jay and this—”
The same image wrecked us, had another friend texting me in all caps. There’s Jay Z, eyes closed, prostrate almost, with his head at Beyoncé’s bare feet, his thumb rubbing an apology and a new promise into his wife’s calf. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been listening to Vol. 3, his rudest album, a lot, but that was a vision of Jay I never thought possible—almost profane in its vulnerability. Religious, too—rap’s Jesus Christ at Mary’s feet. The shot frames him upside down; this single image shifts a paradigm, upends a world. For a moment, it robbed my friend and me of our language.
In Decoded, Jay tried to unpack some of his overt lyrical misogyny. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal timed to the book’s release, he said of “Big Pimpin’,” “I can’t believe I said that. And kept saying it. What kind of animal would say this sort of thing? Reading it is really harsh.”
I don’t think about that interview or Decoded when I listen to “Big Pimpin’,” or anything from Vol. 3, for that matter. Now I’ll think of LEMONADE, and what Jay and Beyoncé let us watch.