Melina Matsoukas, a director of music videos and television shows, had just returned home from a trip to Cuba when she got a call from Beyoncé, asking her to direct a video for a song called “Formation.” Matsoukas had directed nine of Beyoncé’s videos, and considered her “family.” But this assignment was unusually demanding. Beyoncé was working on “Lemonade,” a deeply personal “visual album” that touches on betrayals in black marriages—her parents’ and, reportedly, her own. “Formation” would be the first single, and an introduction to Beyoncé’s new aesthetic: both vulnerable and political. She wanted to release the song the day before she performed it at the Super Bowl, which meant that Matsoukas would have to submit a video within a few weeks. “It was the fastest delivery I had ever done in my life,” she told me.
When I visited her loft in Hollywood recently, Matsoukas opened her rose-gold laptop and pulled up the video. The brassy opening beats began as Beyoncé crouched on the roof of a police car, wearing a red-and-white blouse and a matching skirt: evocative of the rural South but made by Gucci. Matsoukas, who is tall and thin, with dark hair and high cheekbones, radiates a disconcerting hyperassurance. (She’s a Buddhist, with a fluctuating practice.) She is, as she says, “very loud and New York,” but her apartment projects an almost hermetic cool: Africanist art, a golden skull on a shelf, a tar-splashed vanity mirror.
After Matsoukas agreed to direct the video, Beyoncé invited her to her house in Los Angeles, and explained the concept behind “Lemonade.” “She wanted to show the historical impact of slavery on black love, and what it has done to the black family,” Matsoukas told me. “And black men and women—how we’re almost socialized not to be together.” This was a fraught subject for Beyoncé. She and her husband, the rapper Jay Z, are among the most famous couples in the world, and they had long been surrounded by rumors that he was unfaithful. Beyoncé considers herself a feminist, but for black women feminism can be a tenuous balancing act—advocating for women’s rights while supporting black men against racism. Black feminists have often been forced to pick between being politically black or politically female. “It’s an unfair struggle that only black women can understand and relate to,” Matsoukas said. With the “Lemonade” album, Beyoncé was publicly calling out the men in her life, an unexpected and, to her fans, thrilling decision.