Lemonade as Beyoncé’s Magnum Opus
by Cindy Franco
Let’s get into Lemonade being Beyonce’s Magum Opus or “Great Work,” which refers to the alchemical process of turning lead into gold. Historically, some alchemists tried to turn lead into gold literally but the “great work” can also refer to the spiritual stages of transforming lead (depression) into gold (self-love).
The first alchemical stage, “The Nigredo,” refers to a blackening of the soul or the dark night of the soul more commonly known as “depression.” Lemonade begins with exterior shots of an abandoned plantation which then pans to Beyoncé in a black hoodie. She stands in stark contrast to the lush greenery surrounding her, seemingly unable to connect. Beginning Lemonade with images of a plantation immediately roots the film in a shared past of trauma and bondage experienced by Black Americans.
The plantation looms large in Lemonade, at times even threatening to overshadow Beyoncé herself. In Gothic literature, houses often represent or allude to the psychic state of the protagonist. What does it mean for your psychic home to be a plantation? What does it mean for your psychic home to be a place of centuries of untold horrors? It is often said that depression is anger turned inwards. Depression is also rage with no place to go. Lemonade explores the depression caused by centuries of unexpressed rage chained to the soul.
Have you ever been so depressed, so despondent, that you pray for anything to make the pain stop? But there is no escape, only surrender. Beyoncé surrenders to the void and chaos of the dark night of the soul by diving deeper into her pain which plunges her into the 2nd alchemical stage, “The Albedo.”
The 2nd stage in alchemy is about the washing away of impurities.
From Wikipedia: “In this process, the subject is divided into two opposing principles to be later coagulated to form a unity of opposites.”
In “Hold Up,” B details her excruciating process of purification as such:
I tried to change. Closed my mouth more, tried to be softer, prettier, less awake. Fasted for 60 days, wore white, abstained from mirrors, abstained from sex, slowly did not speak another word. In that time, my hair, I grew past my ankles. I slept on a mat on the floor. I swallowed a sword. I levitated. Went to the basement, confessed my sins, and was baptized in a river. I got on my knees and said 'amen' and said 'I mean.'
I whipped my own back and asked for dominion at your feet. I threw myself into a volcano. I drank the blood and drank the wine. I sat alone and begged and bent at the waist for God. I crossed myself and thought I saw the devil. I grew thickened skin on my feet, I bathed in bleach, and plugged my menses with pages from the holy book, but still inside me, coiled deep, was the need to know ... Are you cheating on me?
(poetry by Warsan Shire)
Here we see B stripping away parts of herself by engaging in increasingly intense self-effacing behavior in an effort to please her partner. She shape-shifts to the point of non-existence: “abstained from mirrors, abstained from sex, slowly did not speak another word.” This alchemical stage involves a lot of self-reflection because it is only by observing ourselves in relation to the other that we can change our behavior.
Further into her purification process, Beyoncé seems to enter into a deep meditative state that results in a kundalini awakening. Kundalini is defined as feminine energy coiled at the base of the spine, “but still inside me, coiled deep, was the need to know… Are you cheating on me?” Her now-enlightened focus is redirected outwards, which unleashes tons of previously trapped subconscious energy that carries her to the 3rd alchemical stage, “Citrinitas.”
Citrinitas is referred to as a yellowing of the soul due to the soul’s transformation from the previous alchemical stage’s lunar/feminine/ying to a more solar/masculine/yang. The embodiment of a more masculine energy allows for intense personal expression due to deep inner knowing. Healing requires acknowledgement of pain and injustice; it requires the outward expression of previously pent up rage. As Lemonade progresses, B is no longer wondering or in denial about the truth. She knows.
In this case, knowing leads to anger and the angriest song on the album wherein she loudly proclaims, “Who the fuck do you think I am? You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy.” In the video for “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” we see flashes of a raging Beyoncé in black and white, wearing an outfit that we will see her wearing again in the “6-inch” video. To me, this is hinting at B’s final coagulation, which will result in the total merging of opposites alluded to in the 2nd alchemical stage. But she’s not quite there yet.
Beyoncé rushes head first into apathy because healing is circular and sometimes, in an effort to heal, we convince ourselves that we feel nothing. Healing, much like grieving, is a long process that requires that we pause in order to reflect and get on living life. In “Sorry,” Beyoncé further embodies her shadow by acting more like her lover: “Now you want to call me crying, now you gotta see me wilding, now I’m the one that’s lying.” She’s giving him a taste of his own medicine by mirroring his actions back to him. She has essentially become a medicine woman.
The fourth and final stage of the alchemical process is called “The Rubedo,” or reddening of the soul, which is the process of attaining individuation by merging the disparate parts of the personality into one coherent self.
“6-inch” begins with B dressed in red among the flames in the same dress that we saw her wearing in “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” which signals the completion of the coagulation process that indicates a unity of opposites. As “6-inch” continues, the audience slowly approaches a door bathed in red light until we see B again in the back of a car, which is also bathed in red light. To me, this imagery alludes to Beyoncé being in a womb waiting to be reborn. Before rebirth, she must first make peace with being a woman, with her ancestral lineage, with the blood of life and with the loss inherent in loving.
“6-inch” ends with Beyoncé emerging from the ‘womb’ in front of a burning plantation. She has freed herself from ancestral trauma by burning down her old psychic home.
“She murdered everybody and I was her witness.”
She’s done the healing work to burn away her past self which was lacking in intuition, self-expression and ultimately self-love. Everything post “6-inch” is from the point of view of an individuated Beyoncé who now knows herself on a deeper level. She chooses to forgive her lover from this place of deeper knowing that his past behavior was a reflection of her past self, a self that ignored the truth in order to keep the peace. This acceptance allows her to merge past, present and future in order to be reborn to her higher self. A woman who is brave enough to peer into the darkness, confront what she sees in the dark and emerge from that void with the confidence to speak on all that she has seen.
“The nail technician pushes my cuticles back, turns my hand over, stretches the skin on my palm and says I see your daughters and their daughters. That night, in a dream, the first girl emerges from a slit in my stomach. The scar heals into a smile. The man I love pulls the stitches out with his fingernails. We leave black sutures curling on the side of the bath. I wake as the second girl crawls head first up my throat—a flower, blossoming out of the hole in my face.”
— Nail Technician As Palm Reader, Warsan Shire
Cindy Franco is a lifelong writer of poetry, short stories and various random musings and essays. She was born in the Dominican Republic to a 17-year-old single mother who immigrated to the US at 22 years old. Cindy grew up in Washington Heights and the Bronx in the 90s. Her academic prowess secured her a scholarship to a prestigious boarding high school in Massachusetts at the age of 15. Unable to afford her college education, Cindy dropped out of college in her 2nd year but she never stopped learning or writing privately.
Cindy’s extraordinary life circumstances have given her a unique perspective and dedication to telling stories about women’s healing through art and spirituality. She deeply believes in the healing power of self-love, freeing women from excessive emotional labor, astrology, afro-spirituality and pop-culture. Find her on Twitter @SailorVanity.