Monday, February 15th, 2016

Beyoncé – Formation

But does she slay?


[Video][Website]
[8.16]

Madeleine Lee: Partway through my first watch-through of this song (and it is a song you watch), I thought, “This sounds like the non-demo version of ‘7/11,'” and I thought about why I am awed by “Formation” and I was not awed by “7/11.” I’ll admit it’s a lazy comparison, based mostly on minimalism, lyric repetition, and rapping. But I refuse to follow a line of thinking such as, “This is better than ‘7/11’ because it’s important and personal and political and fleshed-out and ‘7/11’ is none of those.” Even if that is what I really think when I’m not looking at my Twitter timeline, what I really think should be challenged, because what’s included in the important, fleshed-out personal politics asserted by “Formation” is the right for Beyoncé to make a song like “7/11” and a song like “Formation,” without one invalidating the other. I should disclose that this impression is based on listening to “Formation” no more than 3 or 4 times, but each time I hear it, it resonates.
[10]

Cassy Gress: I’d respected Beyoncé as a businesswoman and as a very talented performer for years but I had never felt that fire until now. The way those words punch out of her mouth at the end of each line in the chorus. “I see it I want it (want it)/I stunt, yellow-bone it (bone it).” The marching band drums, which I love forever and always and which a lot of my favorite Beyoncé songs have. The sheer fucking slay of this. At first I thought this was going to be sort of like a painting in an art museum, a thing that you observe and admire from a distance, but it’s more like a rocket launch and you might be too close and the blistering winds are propelling you off your feet. This is a goddam conflagration.
[10]

Crystal Leww: One of Drake’s keys to success has been his meme-ability, and it’s honestly remarkable that no one else has copied the formula particularly well until now. Every line in “Formation” is an anthem, meant to be shouted on dance floors and car rides and tweeted out with five #formation hashtags. Produced by Mike WiLL Made-It, king of rap production 2012-June 2013, and honestly, sonically not too different from “Bitch Better Have My Money,” Beyoncé remains the queen to beat because she was smart enough to combine the minimal trap-influenced pop with the memeability of Drake. It’s odd to see Beyoncé chasing musical trends, but she’s doing it better than anyone else. Because “Formation” isn’t doing too much musically, its power comes from impact. Released on the Saturday before a Super Bowl Sunday appearance, with a provocative, gif-able music video all ready to go, with lyrics that will be repeated ad nauseam, released quietly, not messily, readily available on her chosen outlets (YouTube and Tidal), and with an accompanying tour ready to be announced, Beyoncé made sure that she elevated “Formation” above just the music. The politics are a bonus; only Beyoncé is able to chase trends and still manage to make an important statement while doing it. 
[9]

Mo Kim: “Formation” is a Single/Video/Multimedia Experience by Fucking Beyoncé, so you know even before you hit play that it is instantly-quotable, rich for meme potential, and is already responsible for the seeming rebirth of Red Lobster as the post-coital eating establishment of Americans’ choice. The flipside of this success is the usual criticism lobbed at Beyonce, that she is always capitalizing on something, and the prevailing stereotype of Beyoncé fans screaming “SLAYYYY” in programmed unison serves to lend this argument some credence. Yet “slay” suggests there’s something you need to kill before it kills you, and “Formation” is remarkable in its embodiment of an unapologetic, even confrontational, pleasure in a dangerous black womanhood: in Beyoncé listing all the things of her heritage she loves, from her child and her Jackson Five nostrils to hot sauce. (Big Freedia adds cornbread and collard greens to that list, bitch.) In Beyoncé making no concessions to her accumulated riches, marching band refrain befitting any proper American champion filtered through a trap beat that renders it all really, really damn danceable. In Beyoncé throwing up middle fingers as she revels in her sexual pleasure (and her love for fast-casual seafood), top hat obscuring her eyes from our view; for once, it is she who sees us, even as she refuses to be seen. With the caveat that “Formation” probably wasn’t even meant for me, except at the abstracted experience of being a person of color in the United States, “Formation” suggests that the experience of joy holds immense political power, even (especially) in a world that can make that prospect feel either impossible or irresponsible. So Beyoncé dances, in the hallways of homes painted with blood, in swimming pools wanting for water, in entire cities that have been flooded and have still come up surviving, thriving. She lies on a police car, snippets of gunfire echoing in the distance, as the water threatens to swallow them both; she sinks underwater, but she carries that essence of performative ease we know so well of her, refusing all the while to explain herself.
[9]

Edward Okulicz: Beyoncé’s animated-GIF machine generally wears me out, but “Formation” chucks out quotable lines in a way that’s funny, sexy, and confronting. The idea of her doing it at the Super Bowl and pissing off a bunch of white dudes with opinions makes me positively giddy. Stupid? No, whimsical and delightful. Not even a song, just a self-glorifying spectacle? No, a spectacle and a catchy song — it’s Madonna-level arrogance, opulence and provocation like “Vogue,” “Express Yourself,” and that Pepsi ad rolled into one, and she’s got the haters well and truly beaten this time.
[8]

Thomas Inskeep: “I DID NOT COME HERE TO PLAY WITH YOU HOES. I CAME HERE TO SLAY, BITCH!” Beyoncé brings Big Freedia into her world — and takes us into Big Freedia’s in the process. This takes “Flawless” and amps it up several notches. This song is so queer, so black, so feminist, so Nawlins, and I love every moment of it. “Formation” marks Mike WILL Made-It’s best production in a couple years, and additionally reminds — or tells — us that being a global superstar gives Beyoncé a platform from which she gives no fucks, frankly; she will do what she wants to do, whether anybody likes it or not. And that’s when she’s at her best. 
[9]

Andy Hutchins: A bravura performance, undeniably soaked in Beyoncé’s swag down to the foundation, over an immaculately-calibrated cacophony. But it’s not as good as the video — an impossible standard, yes — and suffers signficantly for the loss of the imagery, the “What happened at the New Wil’ins?” intro from Messy Mya, and the Big Freedia interlude, all spiky things that queered and enhanced the power of the vehement blackness on display. I don’t think “Formation” is meant to be enjoyed as song alone, though, and even the absurd stickiness of the handful of lines that just have to be products of Swae Lee’s pen won’t get it a run to the winner’s circle at radio anyway: Better for it to live in memory as a perfect five-minute audiovisual masterpiece than a streamlined single.
[8]

Anthony Easton: Two thoughts have stayed with me all weekend: this might be the beginning of a mainstreamed Big Freedia, which makes me happy, and that this expands the idea of what country is to a larger audience. Claiming country and sounding country are terribly racialized spaces, but that this does both seems vitally important. 
[7]

Jonathan Bradley: An evolution of “Bow Down,” which eventually became “***Flawless,” and similarly sunk Beyoncé into Southern specificity, as well as that region’s blackness, gender inversions, and, especially, its hip-hop. The least essential lines here are those insisting “I work hard/I dream it ’til I own it”; this is the eternal Beyoncé theme and she has wider interests now than the capacity for capitalism to, while not overcome, at least negotiate oppression. Bey can’t help but class up Mike WiLL Made-It’s grubby two-note beat, but then, that’s what she does: she is so reckless when she rocks her Givenchy dress. The poise with which she expresses pride in her racial heritage is electrifying, but “Formation” is as much a song concerned with overwhelming force: Beyoncé elegance, Beyoncé arrogance, Beyoncé hot sauce, Beyoncé Red Lobster, all arrayed to — like the songs says — slay.
[9]

Katherine St Asaph: If you told me that Beyoncé’s next single would be a Mike WiLL song written by half of Rae Sremmurd, that makes hashtaggery of swag and slayage, I’d have said that’s a horrible idea, the sort of thinking that brought us Rihanna’s “Woo.” Celebs like Beyoncé tend to retcon every idea and staffer they alight upon; I’ve seen director Melina Matsoukas mentioned as fact then derided as hack then praised as legend in a year’s span. But Mike WiLL contributes a track that sounds like pogoing through piles of money, and Beyoncé contributes so much more: more of her meta-stardom, the sort she’s taken to “Survivor” to Dangerously in Love to Dreamgirls to here while people self-discombobulated over Britney’s “Piece of Me”; more of her signature vocal harmonies, metallic and impeccable; more of the brass woven through her self-titled; more sexual “Partition” politics, more bow-down formation of Beyoncé and a dozen spotters, and no more apology; more assertion of black Southern identity than perhaps for her ever, which is more the point, and the point is more. Beyoncé gets more, and will take more (one of many perfect little details, lyrical and otherwise), and who are you to disagree? The question isn’t rhetorical.
[8]

Danilo Bortoli: “Formation” surely does not need all the political ramblings surrounding it. It’s a rather simple song, a self-congratulatory return single we’ve come to expect from Beyoncé every once in a while. That’s why it’s simply better to listen to it as what it truly is and praise it accordingly: the production is indeed flawless (as probably everything that will come from her will be from now on), her delivery is phenomenal as usual. The message? Complain all you want, fight your battles, but when the chips are down she will just tell you to “always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.” That is, strip away the forced contextualization and you can’t get any simpler than that. It’s probably better this way, really: her music does not need to confirm anyone’s longing for identity (but hers, that is) and that is actually just fine.
[7]

Josh Langhoff: Beyonce uses her power for good, stirring an indelible song/video/moment from only the best elements — Rae Sremmurd, Big Freedia, Mike WiLL’s boings and sproings and horns, #BLM, Red whooping Lobster, “that Illuminati mess.” (Isn’t that exactly what an Illuminati member would say? Wake up, sheeple.) Although the song/video/moment has pissed off and cheered the right people, Beyonce’s tedious flow, committed to compulsive clarity in a way the Sremm brothers’ dive-bombing syllables aren’t, means I never need to hear it again. An eternal protest pop conundrum.
[5]

Alfred Soto: Anchored by a sampled boing that reminds me of the hook in King Missile’s “Detachable Penis,” Beyoncé’s single is another manifestation of her will to power: money and the serenity (and Givenchy) it can buy, the religion of hard work. Distinguishing it from her other singles is its use of black tropes, and if the first acquaintance with “Formation” is with the video it’s also a look at the limits of black power in a white world. She asks: what good is it to be the black Bill Gates if you can still be left to die during a hurricane in New Orleans? Well, the rest of us ask. The contradiction — the impressiveness — of being Beyoncé means recording musical affirmations that reality will refute. Rhyming “chopper” and “Red Lobster” encompasses a totality of black experience, never mind class experiences, which is enough for the moment, especially for a musician. Cedric Johnson and Ta-Nehisi Coates can battle it out.
[7]

Will Adams: The point I scratched at two years ago when writing about “Partition” still applies, perhaps more so this time around: more than ever, Beyoncé seems to be prodding the tension of making challenging, provocative music intentionally not catered to the white mainstream while being one of the most universally recognizable superstars. It’ll be fascinating to see her artistry continue to unfurl from here, but it’d be a shame to ignore the song at the center. Mike WILL’s production snaps like a rubber band in spots, and engulfs like a marching band in others, with Beyoncé as unshakeable leader. I’ve complained before about the trope of Beyoncé as meme machine, but “Formation” might be its best application. There’s silliness, sure (Red Lobster! LOL!), but Beyoncé has an astounding ability to take all of her catchphrases and render them as complete fact even before she’s finished spitting them.
[7]

Brad Shoup: Another Beyoncé banger, with catchphrases for weeks and ad-libs that function like so much more trap programming. She’s never wanted for assurance, but she’s never laid out her particular power this plainly. You won’t take it from me, though: this is the wonder of pop music, how a statement of black Southern womanhood — almost the definition of specific — becomes (depending on the person) something to embrace or interrogate, to dance to or just to witness. This kind of effect doesn’t necessarily make the song better or more worthy of consideration. But it’s a rare pleasure to observe a discussion this thorough.
[8]

Leonel Manzanares: The most amazing thing about this song is not the absolutely necessary affirmation of Southern blackness, it’s the way Bey owns Mike WiLL’s fierce, heavy beats. That moment, in the second chorus, when the sampled/synth horns kick in, is just massive; it’s the triumphant climax in a joyful, fuck-everything display of true musical power. This just gave the phrase “YAAAAS QUEEN!” a reason to exist in our lexicon. Maybe it should only exist when discussing anything Beyoncé. 
[8]

Jonathan Bogart: I spent the first ten years of Beyoncé’s chart career despising her superhumanly fluid, world-commanding voice. R&B had (I thought, in my ignorance) fallen from being the authentic rough-voiced cry of a dispossessed people in the ’60s and early ’70s, to being a wholly commercialized, mechanized, and depersonalized stage for emotion-free vocal gymnastics by the early 2000s, a bizarre cross between bubblegum pop and operatic aria with none of the virtues of either. I have since got my head right — rhythm was the missing ingredient in my dumbass white-boy analysis, and rhythm changes everything — but hearing Beyoncé let her voice be as tired and creaky as it is in the slow-burn introductions to “Formation” is still a delight. She’s human after all, and she insists that she always was, and while other people are better positioned to decide how well this stands as an authentic cry of a dispossessed people, as a matter of sheer aural texture, “Formation” is everything I, in all stages of my understanding of music, could have desired.
[9]

Jessica Doyle: For all the energy she builds up in that first verse she never quite reaches a shout. Her low delivery makes me feel like in “Formation” I’m overhearing her address herself, alternately chanting, scolding, reassuring before she takes a last deep breath and heads out the door. The result is both world-striding and vulnerable: how often do we get that? And who else could have done it?
[7]

Megan Harrington: It’s fair to wonder what’s next for Beyoncé, what worlds remain unconquered, what dreams still wait for her each night when sleeps. She’s a singular performing artist, musician, vocalist, and entertainer. There is no one from the dawn of Beyoncé (roughly also the turn of the century) who maintains even half her monetary or creative presence. Stars ten years younger might someday reach her, but they’ll always belong to another generation. She has everything, she has it all. “Formation” isn’t restless, it isn’t futuristic, it isn’t what’s next. Instead it’s a firm insistence that fame, fortune, and this fantastically fucked up universe we all share with her won’t change her. This defiance and simplicity billow out and form a sort of umbrella which Beyoncé uses to shield her girls from the elements. At the core of the song is her command, stand behind her and she’ll protect you. It speaks to those long tangled roots she traces at “Formation”‘s beginning. Her strength, her generosity, she was raised with those values and nothing will reverse them. 
[10]

Reader average: [7.09] (44 votes)

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2 Responses to “Beyoncé – Formation”

  1. one thing I appreciate about the video is the brief shot at 2.40 or so of a young Black kid in full Native regalia — non-Black Native people have a *huge* problem with being super exclusionary toward Black Native folks, it’s a major issue in our communities…so seeing Beyoncé include that kid among the depictions of Blackness in this video is, I think, really important.

  2. Madeline’s blurb for this has probably been the piece of writing that has stuck with me the most from this year (something about the importance of both being able to choose to make music that the artist wants to make really clicked in me just from putting it into words). That said all the areas the writers covered on Formation are so mind-bogglingly wide and dense that I can’t help but feel thankful to all the writers for bringing their opinions, outlooks, and experiences out for the readers to see and grow from.

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