If European folk songs, with their narrative storytelling and neat rhyme schemes, form the bones and structure of the romantic ballad, then the gospel hymn is its blood and marrow, infusing all the desperation of worship and the vulnerability of testimony to produce a hot, living thing. The love song as we know it is the illegitimate progeny of the gospel tune and it is impossible not to draw similarities between the divine and the erotic even beyond musicality; a body in worship and a body in orgasm are undoubtedly analogous, all sweat, writhing, and teary proclamations of hallelujah from trembling lips. “Switch out ‘God’ for ‘bae’, and you’ve got a love song”, writes Doreen St. Felix on Twitter.
Beyoncé’s first solo album, Dangerously in Love, is almost all worship, with Beyoncé reveling in a love so pristine and buoyant, it could only have been borne of the young and pretty-hearted. Rendered almost as a church service, the album is filled with the gorgeous edicts of a young woman luxuriating in reciprocal, joyous love, shaking the church house windows with her belts on the disc’s eponymous track. The album’s doxology is the saccharine Daddy, a one dimensional holy ode to Beyoncé’s father, Matthew. This track features our ingénue raising the pitch of her voice in singing as well as narration, not necessarily infantilizing herself, but definitely recalling and embodying the naiveté of girlhood. It is an elegy to a man so perfect, the song is almost unlistenable, making Daddy the only track on the album warranting a skip. Beyoncé’s mother is barely an afterthought on Daddy; it is Matthew’s spirit and influence which closes Dangerously in Love and his presence doesn’t haunt, but it definitely lingers.
Twelve years and three albums later, Beyoncé gives birth to Lemonade, which does find space for joy, but does not demand it; this is a work filled with the agony of testimony and the torment of dominion. Lemonade opens and Beyoncé enters, hooded and bare and in the beginning, there is only the woman and her tears, shining heavy in the tender skin of her bottom lids as she prays to an ethereal you. Unlike her first album, which only mentions Matthew upon closing, Lemonade invokes the spirit of the father almost immediately. Daddy looked at Matthew and sung his praises, fancied him an idol, and while Lemonade does not point fingers, it does hold up a mirror. Beyoncé offers up her reflection and asks her father to see his contribution to her destruction, most obviously through the emotional harm he may have inflicted onto her mother. She traverses her lineage of intergenerational trauma and infidelity, attempting to place herself amongst this continuum of hurt women and hurting men.
Lemonade is the journey of a soul in crisis as she looks beyond herself to question black women’s ability to love ourselves and each other free, to care for ourselves and enact that kindness onto others. But what are the limitations of offering up your heart to men, whether brothers, fathers, or lovers? Can you love a broken man whole? Can you offer him enough of your own sweetness to dull the bitterness he was born holding under his tongue? If so, at what cost?
Romantic love as well as the love of the father is likely to leave us reeling and alone, forsaken to the cold darkness from which we initially sought refuge. Not only is the hymn the progenitor of the love song, but it offers the means to heal once that love has forsaken us. The gospel provides both the template for the love ballad and a model for regeneration of the self once that love abandons us, as it always will. More recently, I listened to Coloring Book by Chance the Rapper with dozens of other Chicagoans, dispersed all over the world, but conjoined via the waves of the Internet in praise of the boy from Chatham. Coloring Book is exultant, jubilant in the most South Side percolating, mild sauce-flavored, blackest of ways.
From the first rumbles of that mighty tuba backing Chance’s frenetic rhymes on the opening track, Coloring Book calls forth all the energy of a Bud Billiken Parade, complete with the Jesse White Tumblers and candy colored floats. But South Side Chicago joy is not flat or one-dimensional; like all Black joy, it is very much earned. We have parades to mark the commencement of the school year, but they are at the end of the summer when the streets are their bloodiest. We celebrate our little ones’ return to underfunded, overcrowded public schools, elated that they will no longer be vulnerable in these streets where bullets rain down on like young bodies like confetti. We have resplendent summers, but nine hellish months of sludge and gray, constant cold and if you should find yourself vulnerable to seasonal affective disorder or any other form of mental disability, may your savior impart you with the patience of Job as you search for an acceptable facility that has not been closed by our despot of a Mayor.
On Coloring Book, Chance is reaching out his hand and asking us to celebrate with him, to dance and rejoice in these potholed streets. But the recognition of his own survival is also acknowledgement of the many who did not. Rekia. Laquan. Bettie. My cousin’s best friend Phillip, killed in front of his grandmother’s house. I never saw my cousin cry for him, nor his brother who would be accused of attempted murder the following year and facing a prison sentence so hefty, I found myself prematurely erasing and forgetting him even before it was handed down.
This is South Side Chicago. This is Coloring Book. The entire Chi-aspora is rejoicing with Chance, lonely for everything that we no longer have, but together in our loneliness. Ours is an earned joyfulness, a paid for rejoicing. I don’t think that it makes sense to think of Lemonade as the opposite of Coloring Book, but it does work well as a supplement; sorrow is just as necessary as joy, and our expressions of grief can be as beautiful as anything else. Coloring Book is testament to the necessity and beauty of black joy and jubilance, the impulse to stop and dance, even in the middle of streets as cracked and bloody as those on the South Side of Chicago, to sing out in joy, in anguish, in praise.
Illustrations by Sarah Lutkenhaus