“Take one pint of water.
Add a half-pound of sugar,
the juice of 8 lemons,
the zest of a half lemon.
Pour the water from one jug
then into the other
Strain through a clean napkin.
Grandmother, the alchemist—
you spun gold out of this hard life.
from the things left behind.
Found healing where it did not live.
Discovered the antidote in your own kitchen.
Broke the curse with your own two hands.
You passed these instructions down
to your daughter, who then
passed it down to her daughter.”
“The Great Work is, before all things, the creation of man by himself, that is to say, the full and entire conquest of his faculties and his future; it is especially the perfect emancipation of his will, assuring him… full power over the Universal Magical Agent.” – Éliphas Lévi
In my reading of Beyoncé’s work through the lens of psychospiritual alchemy, I traced the trajectory of her solo albums through Adam McLean’s analysis of the sevenfold alchemical process. The first three albums (Dangerously in Love, B’Day, I Am… Sasha Fierce) correspond to the “involutionary arc” of the spiritual impulse descending, meeting opposition in the inner world, synthesizing the opposition into a whole, and then manifesting. After the fourth step (4), manifestation, the work moves into the “evolutionary arc” which parallels the involutionary arc. The fifth stage (Beyoncé) shows the experimental steps at manifesting the new energies, which then leads to the sixth stage meeting opposition again, this time in the outer world: Lemonade.
In Lemonade, the Artist delves into her personal pain as a spouse betrayed by infidelity and then goes even deeper, into the collective pain of Black women and Black people in the United States. The film is rife with images reminiscent of sites of Black suffering and liberation: the plantation, a flooded New Orleans, mothers holding images of their children killed by the police, a Black boy in a hoodie confronted by a line-up of police in riot gear. Alchemy turns lead into gold, and the alchemy of Lemonade transforms bitter fruit into a sweet, golden drink.
Betrayed by her lover through infidelity, the Artist begins quietly singing her suspicion and pain until leaping from the top of a building—her anxiety and self-doubt—into the watery unconscious. Here the Artist gazes upon herself, drifts in numbness, recites a litany of denial and realization, and suffocates before emerging as a beautiful being of power, joy, and destruction—not only does she emerge with a flood of water, she is then surrounded by fiery explosions, blessed by a gust of wind, and takes the wheel of an enormous and heavy monster truck. Thus she is blessed and empowered by the four elements.
The sevenfold model of alchemy predicts a thematic reflection between complementary stages of the involutionary and evolutionary arcs. Read in this context, Lemonade returns to issues and themes originally confronted in the second phase of the working, in this case B’Day, which was itself an act of emancipation and increased ownership of her career when she chose to break away from her father’s management. Two of the most significant themes have unfolded around the Artist’s relationship to her lover and to her capitalist ambitions, each shaping the other in an ongoing tension, and Lemonade renegotiates the resolution achieved in B’Day.
My previous reading of B’Day suggested that the alchemical working at that stage required the Artist differentiate from the rigid but potent role of the archetypal Virgin Queen and connect in love and partnership with another, both personally and creatively. The Artist at that phase confronts her fears that gaining intimacy will undermine her power, particularly her pleasure in discipline, hard work, and consumption. Self-doubt and an emerging awareness of her vulnerability as a female artist beset her, but by the time she reaches Lemonade her script is fully flipped. Instead the Artist wears, inhabits, and works the guises of the Orisha. The surprise first single “Formation” is a spell, its lyrics chanting in a loping cycle that falls back, leaps forward, falls back. The Artist rests upon a submerged police car before sinking it, and herself, back into Oshun’s territory, the great waters. This is purgation, wielding her powers of art and magic to remix and remake the world.
Two songs show the distance the Artist has come: In B’Day‘s song “Upgrade U,” the Artist promotes her worthiness as an offer, calling upon a figure of nonviolent strength: “I can do for you what Martin did for the people.” In contrast, the Artist in Lemonade takes her worthiness for granted and calls out her partner with a righteous anger in the song “Don’t Hurt Yourself”: “Bad motherfucker. / God complex. / Motivate your ass, / call me Malcolm X.”
At each phase of working, the Artist has increased in consciousness of the strengths and challenges of a black woman’s power within a white supremacist patriarchal capitalism. While she fully owns and celebrates capitalism, Lemonade shows her interrogating patriarchy and racism more explicitly than ever before. In the song “Formation,” the Artist hearkens back to the B’Day stance of power-through-supporting black men by singing, “You just might be a Black Bill Gates in the making.” After a brief reflection, she seems to recognize the old pattern and realize it’s time to think bigger: “I just might be a Black Bill Gates in the making.”
As much as the Beyoncé who celebrates capitalist achievement and wealth energizes Lemonade, increasingly we see the Artist standing outside of patriarchy and white supremacy, identifying with her communities, her culture, her heritage and family. This time she’s not telling other women to “bow down, bitches,” instead she’s inviting those who are up for the task to “get in formation” with her.
B’Day‘s song “Ring the Alarm” presages the rage around infidelity explored with maturity in Lemonade, yet in that song the Artist seems avoidant of challenging her betrayer directly, instead focusing her rage at the other woman whom she imagines exploiting her wealth. In Lemonade, outside of a remark about “Becky with the good hair,” the Artist spends little time thinking about the “other woman” and much of her effort calling out and repairing her relationship with the husband who broke his covenant.
The grandmother’s alchemical recipe of lemonade cited above, passed along the matrilineal line, shows an alchemy distinct from the masculine Self-formation of Lévi. This alchemy is quiet and collective, drawing upon the powers of domesticity and craft. The grandmother possesses power but does not keep it for herself, she passes it to her daughters, she shares her concoction with others. The Artist returns to her queenship, extending power to uplift.
Previous Jungian readings of Beyoncé’s work: