Few artists could turn a paddling pool into the crowning glory of a tour about politics, betrayal, female endurance and familial devotion.
But this is Beyoncé – a former showbiz automaton, originally launched out of a Machiavellian girl group 19 years ago; now, if not quite the mother of her nation, then at least its wise, fierce, conscientious and glam big sister. It is the height of cliche to talk of artists being on “a journey”, but the distance travelled by Beyoncé Knowles Carter is unparalleled in modern pop. (Imagine Britney, say, going out on such a limb.)
The final segment of Beyoncé’s Formation show takes place on a B-stage, ankle-deep in water. It looks cold, but her squad of dancers kick it up joyfully into great arcs, whipping their wet hair around. Fans have reached the stadium by dodging Cardiff’s rather more pedestrian puddles. But onstage, Beyoncé’s rectangle of water allows for a kind of sexy baptism; she’s all about the power of transformation.
You know that electrocution can’t be a serious risk since Beyoncé is way too expensive to replace, but the frisson of so much water next to so much lighting – and to two-way travelators plus a giant, revolving screen-cube (“the monolith”) the size of a small block of flats – just adds to the sense of an uncommon and elemental spectacle taking place. Beyoncé is singing Freedom, from April’s Lemonade. “Imma wade through your shallow love,” the song goes. Her husband Jay Z – rapper, mogul, possible love cheat – served Beyoncé lemons (or the narrative goes). So Beyoncé made an extraordinary album called Lemonade, in which the themes of the Black Lives Matter movement were woven into furious songs about infidelity, moving songs about heartbreak and defiant songs about reconciliation. The tour might be called Formation, after its rabble-rousing opening number, a tune that shocked the US public when Beyoncé performed it as a tribute to the Black Panther movement during half time at the Super Bowl in February. But in the course of the set, the political is dialled down while the personal is ramped up.
In two hours, Beyoncé works everything into the show – bravura vocal performances on songs like Me, Myself and I and Love On Top, a few apposite Destiny’s Child tunes, militaristic physical theatre, and half a dozen costume changes (one unexpectedly redolent of Iron Man). The monolith doesn’t so much demolish the fourth wall of performance as construct fifth, sixth and seventh walls, to play out further imagery. An extended remix of Flawless drums home the message that a sliver of Knowles’s magnificence is available to all of us, if we channel a bit of “bad bitch” Bey and “feel” ourselves.
On balance, the passages where Beyoncé is fierce – superwoman scorned, feminist cheerleader, avenging Amazon – are more arresting than the longueurs where she declares her love and forgiveness. Don’t Hurt Yourself – her rock-infused co-write with Jack White – is a hot mess of headbanging and a wall of electrical sparks, a robed Beyoncé sounding extra-ferocious.
Twangier is Daddy Lessons (as covered by Dixie Chicks on tour last month), which finds Beyoncé going the full Texas, her dancers fusing a little line-dancing into their usually harsher moves. As the somewhat ambivalent lyrics tell it, Mathew Knowles’s impression is that his eldest daughter is being “played”. (The unstated implication is that he would know, having been unfaithful himself.) His advice? “Shoot”, and certainly Lemonade can be read as that shot.
Sorry (“I ain’t sorry… Better call Becky with the good hair”), meanwhile, starts with Beyoncé spouting vitriol on her own, and ends with a train of dancers, their hands on each others’ shoulders, a phalanx of muscular comfort. (There is, she says later, “no such thing as a weak woman”.) There is a delicious pause, then she launches into a 10-year-old, sassy favourite, Irreplaceable (“I could have another you in a minute!”), a singalong tune that is totally gripping in its new significance. Its meaning is weightier now, given the toll allegedly taken on her marriage.
Hold Up, one of the more magnificent moments of the show, with Beyoncé strutting her stuff particularly insouciantly, contains one of Lemonade’s most memorable lyrics. “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?” she sings . That word, “crazy”, hangs in the air; laden. We hear it again much later, dating from a time when the Knowles-Carter union was brand new. Crazy in Love begins in heavy slow-motion, in red latex, a more sex-worker reading, before finally gathering speed.
Beyoncé has been playing Prince’s Purple Rain as costume-change music, the monolith lit up in purple. In Cardiff, the stadium’s phones are all a-twinkle for it. But kneeling in a pool of light, she also covers Prince’s The Beautiful Ones, fully inhabiting its pain, as she pleads with her errant lover to choose her, not her rival.
Once upon a time, Survivor was a Destiny’s Child hit full of youthful swagger. But now that Beyoncé has survived a little more, it takes on greater heft. Artists routinely recontextualise their old material. Here, though, the pickings are especially rich.
• Beyoncé’s Formation world tour continues to London, Manchester, Glasgow, Dublin and beyond until 2 October
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