I am not a Beyoncé superfan but I am Bey-curious. Like anyone paying attention, I understand that Beyoncé Knowles Carter occupies a level of cultural supremacy matched only by the likes of the President or the Pope. Prior to her most recent album, Lemonade, which came out a couple weeks ago, I found no appeal within the perfect, pop-bot facade she offered the world. I could perceive her music only as a product to be obsessed over or ignored. Fast food, I figured.
But Lemonade arrived at an auspicious time and, to me at least, offers a first glimpse of Beyoncé as a real, fallible human. It’s about a fucked-up relationship and all its attendant rage and doubt and vengeance and reconciliation. It cites Malcolm X and Warsan Shire, features Kendrick Lamar and James Blake, and is accompanied by a short film that is gorgeous, sumptuous, poignant. Suddenly Beyoncé’s music is loaded with nutritional value.
History demonstrates that many of America’s greatest cultural achievements are the result of Black excellence, and the recent passing of Prince sharpens the focus on our current crop of Black culturemakers. Beyoncé commands the spotlight, but the the entire landscape is populated with people of color making crucial work, people like Lamar and D’Angelo and Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington and Anderson Paak. Here in Seattle we have Young Blood at the Frye and Shabazz Palaces opening for Radiohead and Donald Byrd at the Rep. The list goes on.
Beyoncé rules from the nexus of Blackness and feminism; Lemonade is a statement—a zillion-dollar, high-art, focus grouped statement—about both. And it bangs! Have you heard “Daddy Lessons,” “Sorry” or “Don’t Hurt Yourself”? I had “Hold Up” on nonstop repeat in my car stereo for four days. Even from a skeptical, objective perspective, that song’s a jam—minimalist and avant-garde, weird and addictive, riffing on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, dub reggae and Enya, with writing credits by Vampire Weekend, Father John Misty and Diplo. “Hold Up” is a delicious vortex connecting high and low, underground and mainstream, and a joy to indulge in.
Beyoncé dispatched “Hold Up” about 20 minutes into last night’s Formation World Tour stop at CenturyLink Field, kicking the first verse herself before passing the mic to the front row and letting fans sing the lyrics (“I’d rather be crazy! I’d rather be crazy!”). Halfway through she segued into another song, ruthlessly truncating her would-be summer hit in favor of pacing and concision. Her two-hour performance ran on a budget comparable to a small South American nation but it was not precious.
It was, however, flawless. This was not a concert in the traditional sense, it was a communal ritual of commerce, self-love, self-expression and celebration that involved music, dance, lights, thigh-high boots, hair with its own sentience. The crowd embodied the mulit-culti, genderfluid, polychromatic dream that Seattle dreams of itself. Top to bottom, from the floor seats to CenturyLink’s upper decks, it was a gorgeous, electrified throng of overwhelmed people, people giddy and honored and thrilled to be in Beyoncé’s presence.
And Beyoncé was equally reverent. She gave the crowd all her physicality, all her robust voice—which was likely augmented by a backing track of some sort, but who knows. She worked her ass off on the massive stage; a few songs in she was breathing hard but, perhaps due to the chilly, damp night air, she never broke a sweat. She gave equal time to smoldering and smiling. With multiple cameras focused on every inch of her leotard-clad body, there was no room for physical error, and she nailed each choreographed step in a mind-bogglingly complex production that involved two dozen backup dancers and a full, all-female band hidden in the wings of the stage. The centerpiece was a massive monolith the size of an apartment building that was in fact a video screen that split in half and, at one point, opened a window for a handful of dancers to dance in. It was designed by Esmerelda Devlin, the same stage designer who’s producing the opening ceremonies of the Rio Olympics. I counted at least six costume changes.
And among a setlist some 30-songs deep, I recognized a handful of hits, many from Lemonade and many from Beyoncé’s back catalog, like “Drunk in Love,” “Crazy in Love,” “Run the World” and “Naughty Girl.” She also interpolated songs by Rick James, D’Angelo, Sister Nancy, Outkast and the Doors (!). She showed a snippet of home video from she was 16 years old, soft-featured and preternaturally confident, speaking directly to the camera: “If you ever meet me and I get an attitude just slap me.” The respect between Beyoncé and audience was mutual and infectious.
The two most outstanding moments: Beyoncé sang a song a capella (sources tell me it was “Love on Top”), revealing the unbridled power of her multi-register voice, and it was truly awesome, but then she pulled down the mic to let the crowd sing the song back to her. Sing they did, with thousands of cell phones held aloft and swaying, glowing like a stadium-sized galaxy. And she sang “The Beautiful Ones” by Prince, and I turned into a goosebump.
At the show’s finale, after Bey and her dancers spent the last 10 minutes splashing around a reflecting pool that had somehow come to occupy the catwalk that stretched onto the floor, she graciously, generously thanked the audience and walked back center-stage. And she was barefoot, as humble and prostrate as a superpower/supernova could make herself. In that moment all cynicism and skepticism dropped away, right as Beyoncé herself disappeared into a blinding spotlight and left the crowd to our own shared and shivering humanity.