On a breezy Saturday afternoon, a day before her second performance at Super Bowl 50, Beyoncé decided to pull, well…a Beyoncé and debut a new single and accompanying video out of the blue. Titled “Formation”, the 5 minute, trap beat single belts out the artist’s most provocative single yet in her 18 year career—and not for the reasons you would think. This is single (and video) is unapologetically critical, braggadocios, and more importantly proudly black. Beyoncé pulls no punches and from the jump wants you to that she isn’t blind to her color and she isn’t deaf to the criticism and struggle it comes it. And her response is simple—fuck you, I’m awesome, we’re awesome. And with a day before she performs in the country’s largest event of the year—every year, Beyoncé makes a political statement as much as she makes a musical one. Formation is forward-thinking and a cap-stone to Beyoncé’s complete evolution as an artist and entertainer.
Beyoncé has never been known to be the most forthcoming, but in the past 5-6 years she’s so drastically reduced her media exposure to the point that any word from her has become a mini-event onto itself. It has come to point where the most you will from her is from her music. Which puts Formation in even starker contrast. This is what she wants to hear, to talk about. It’s a political statement made when she’s at her loudest.
Beyonce’s music has never been political or in any sense, controversial—at least in the beginning. Beyond the girl power anthems of “Independent Women” and “Bills, Bills, Bills”, her music has been shallow in message and in sound. Her first three albums are by far her least interesting sonically. Her tracks sounded like they were designed for Top 40 and while many did get there an album’s worth of earworms doesn’t really add up to any substance. This is not to say her music isn’t good—it’s great. It just never felt personal or meaningful in any significant way. It was too much of what she thought we wanted to hear and not enough of what she was actually saying.
That all changed with 4. Beyonce’s fourth album was revolution in sound and style. Freed from chasing hit singles she began to finally make music that actually sounded like someone. The joy and the happiness in her is felt through the electric tracks like “Love on Top” and “Countdown”. And “Party” is a particular track that foreshadows her return to her country roots. Consequently it’s my favorite track on the album. Then the self-titled Beyoncé, came out and it was all history from there. Beyoncé was her most personal record yet—confronting ideas on feminism, family, and sexuality in motherhood in a way that felt organic and vulnerable—it felt like art. While working with alternative, less mainstream producers, Beyoncé was able to figure out a sound that became unique to her and solidified her as an artist of note not just commercially, but critically.
“Formation” pushes even farther beyond Beyoncé and shows her not only being vocal about herself, but also the issues affecting the people around her.
The single itself is reminiscent of her previous single from more than a year ago “7/11”. Both in its trap beats and its Houston-bred hooks, these two may seem too similar for taste. But what makes “Formation” special is its structure and lyrical content.
“You mix that Negro with that Creole, and get a Texas bammer.”
Beyoncé is unapologetically black, and now she wants you to know it. She references her two complimentary (southern Alabama, Louisiana Creole) but different black cultures that spawned her into a third one (Houston). And the use of the word Negro isn’t an accident, that’s part of who she is and everything that means to her and what it means to those in authority (further referenced in the video). She continues to make references to her blackness—“negro Jackson Five nostrils, her daughter’s “baby hair and afros”. Each of things have been viewed in white society as ugly, and a non-standard of beauty. And these criticisms have been thrown directly at her own daughter. Here Beyoncé dares you judge her for it.
The video is even more provocative than the actual song. Lush with interesting visuals, the video aims to solidify the point the song already makes while presenting a more political one in line with the recent #BlackLivesMatter movement. The videos juxtapose scenes of a Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and 19th century plantations, all the while she sits atop a police car that eventually sinks into the flooded waters. A little boy in a black hoodie break dances in front of a line of anti-riot cops while they reenact the Hands up, Don’t shoot pose that caused so much controversy. Beyoncé is throwing away all subtlety in favor of an in-your-face middle finger.