The first formation comes just two-and-a-half minutes into Lemonade the hour-long film that doubles as Beyoncé's sixth album. As the singer intones lines from the British-Somali poet Warsan Shire's For Women Who Are Difficult to Love, the camera pans in on and then around, 12 black women in white dresses on a wooden stage in a field surrounded by trees. Some are sitting; some are standing; all are facing forward, completely still, wearing impassive expressions.
Later, groups of black women will be shown writhing gracefully in an underground car park; facing each other across a bus aisle, hand choreography in perfect sync; naked, walking away from the camera into a field; cloaked and seated in a bare room, illuminated by the glow of a red lightbulb swung by Beyoncé herself; standing regally in front of a burning mansion, impassive once more; wading knee-deep through water, clad in simple, identical white gowns; bedecked in Sunday finery, looking down at the camera and backlit by radiant sunshine; strolling through the grounds of an idyllic country estate; working in a kitchen, in a garden, gathered around a trestle table for a feast.
Some are unknowns; some are young, rising talents, such as the singer Zendaya and the actress Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film with which Lemonade shares a good deal of its Southern DNA and evocative beauty). Others are well-known enough to cause an instant reaction: the sight of Serena Williams, the greatest female athlete alive and arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time, twerking as Beyoncé reclines on an ornate chair is a delight. It's a reversal of the Sports Illustrated cover that declared Williams the Sportsperson of the Year in 2015; as Beyoncé mimics Williams's pose, there's a sense that the two high-achievers are revelling in playing at being each other.
The only thing held in common by the range of black women represented on Lemonade is that at no point do they exist for the camera's gaze. In some of the film's playful scenes, the camera holds back and doesn't linger, as if fearful of interrupting a carefree moment. Mostly, the women are shown gazing beyond us, holding something in their vision that the viewer can't see. On the rare occasion that they acknowledge the camera, it's with a discomfiting, hard stare.
Referring to the hashtag used as self-affirmation among black women on social media, the writer Syreeta McFadden has described Lemonade as "#blackgirlmagic at its most potent". Watching these gathered women watching and waiting often feels as though you're seeing an elite coven plot with Beyoncé linking a contemporary hashtag to roots in Southern gothic mysticism and spirituality.
The idea of black female solidarity has come to permeate Beyoncé's work but it's been a gradual process. Formation, the album's lead single (and the film's epilogue; it turns out it was less a teaser for Lemonade as a body of work and more a potential route forward), is not the first time Beyoncé has sung about power, wealth or her Southern heritage. But she's sharpened those themes and their racial and gender connotations, beyond measure compared to, say, 2008's Diva or 2011's Run The World (Girls).
Beyoncé’s appeal has, since her earliest Destiny’s Child days, always involved an entertaining dose of pure ego and sense of herself at the top of pop’s food chain. But on her 2013 self-titled tour de force and here, her awareness of the entire ecosystem and her ability to fold so much of it seamlessly into her vision, is at times overwhelming.
Like the accompanying visual, Lemonade the album is packed with allusions, reference points and a vast range of styles. Much has been made of its extensive, 72-strong writer credits revealing, once again, the double standard surrounding the notion that a female musician can be a collaborator and an auteur. (See also: Björk's albums being defined in terms of who she happened to be working with at any given point; Missy Elliott missing out on the genius tag so often heaped on her musical partner Timbaland.) Lemonade is a phenomenally detailed collagist work but unlike Kanye West's similarly wide-ranging The Life Of Pablo, it's so painstakingly crafted that none of the seams show.
Take the deceptively casual reggae lilt of Hold Up, for example. Co-written by Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig, there are traces of that band's twee preciousness about the tastefully bouncing melody. But it's also a song that has room for airhorns, a Yeah Yeah Yeahs quote and a low-key Soulja Boy interpolation.
And, just as Lemonade as a whole can take in distorted blues-rock (the Jack White collaboration Don't Hurt Yourself), dark and stormy trip-hop (6 Inch) and a brilliant bluegrass curveball (Daddy Lessons) without ever sounding incoherent, Hold Up is also an object lesson in how Beyoncé's nuances and attention to detail as a performer are the key to her work's seamlessness. It's a song whose emotional tone morphs with each line, sometimes with each phrase: from the genuine sincerity of its "they don't love you like I love you" hook to this same genuine feeling underscoring both the lyrical evisceration of a cheating partner in its second verse and the gleeful rage unleashed on his property in its video accompaniment.
That visual also contains perhaps the most satisfying Easter egg of many contained here: the hot sauce in Beyoncé's bag, referred to with a suppressed chuckle on Formation as a nod to her Southern tastes, turns out to be the name of the baseball bat used to smash up cars and CCTV cameras on Hold Up, and that chuckle suddenly turns retrospectively into a threat.
Beyoncé, once a singer whose approach to her songs was that of a full-force sledgehammer, is now a vocalist whose approach to her songs is almost conversational in its capacity to hold the attention. The sarcastic flutters of backing vocals on Sorry are a sheer delight; her voice cracks on Sandcastles for just a couple of lines but it's the exact amount needed for maximum emotional impact. It's an evolution of her skills that's gone hand in hand with her willingness to incorporate more and more of the outside world into her music.
Perhaps the least interesting of Beyoncé's roles is that of tabloid fixture. Despite the radical overtones of its visual imagery, few of her racial politics make their way into her lyrics; the stirring Freedom, one of the few songs here that feels like a deliberate attempt to make a specific type of song (a protest march, in its case) rather than a track that's been allowed to develop organically, is an exception. The album otherwise sticks to a narrative arc of infidelity – one that's frustratingly been interpreted in strict autobiographical terms.
To be fair, Beyoncé encourages this rather shamelessly, incorporating a loving shot of herself with husband Jay Z into the film at the moment of reconciliation. It's only good business sense in an era when autobiographical detail is bought and traded like currency. But shouldn't one of the very first frames, of Beyoncé on a theatre stage in front of curtains, be a clue as to the precise veracity of this story? Or the mention of a dead father in Daddy Lessons – Mathew Knowles, Beyoncé's actual father, being very much alive at the time of writing. Is it inconceivable in 2016 that an artist should deal in fiction and fantasy as well as fact or some combination thereof?
Reducing Lemonade to celebrity gossip, to speculation about Jay Z cheating, feels reductive considering the richness of the source material and, for that matter, taking into account the nature of the political angle Beyoncé presents.
What seems initially like a separation of the film's gender and racial politics from the album's lyrical themes actually delineates the link more clearly: the cultural story of infidelity, Beyoncé implies, is one that black women have suffered from repeatedly. It's a subject that's long formed the backbone of their music. And despite the problem posed being intimate and deeply personal, the answer Lemonade gives is one of solidarity.
Alex Macpherson is a freelance journalist who writes for The Guardian, New Statesman, Metro, Fact and Attitude.