"You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation," Beyoncé sings in her new single, "Formation," released Saturday to the music streaming service, Tidal. If those words are true, then Beyoncé is very much "that bitch," in the best possible sense. In the video, Beyoncé comes out swinging, taking on stereotypes, social injustice, her heritage and all of her haters with her Hot Sauce (TM) swagger.
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"'Formation' is a booming meditation on black identity, the validity and transience of a person's roots and history, and the crushing interplay between power and helplessness, agency and victimization," writes Kevin Fallon at the Daily Beast. "Bask in it. Dance to it. Listen to it. But, for the love of god, hear it."
Because she's saying a lot in "Formation." Whatever low profile Beyoncé had previously kept in the realm of social activism, she's blown it up with this video. Here are the five elements of "Formation" that prove the 20-time Grammy winner is not just woke, but paying vigilant attention and refusing to let anyone trample her culture.
1. Black Lives Matter
The first thing we see in "Formation" is Beyoncé crouching the roof of a waterlogged New Orleans police cruiser, floating in the floodwaters of the post-Katrina city. Then a stream of NOLA footage: a shot of a man with glowing grills, the back of a police jacket, the neighborhoods, a black preacher, homes flooded. In the opening images, Beyoncé puts us in the middle of a community and casts the police as a peripheral presence, not quite a part of it but always around.
Fast forward to the final scenes: A kid, dressed in a black hoodie, dances in front of a line of police officers. When he finishes, he stretches out his arms and the audience — thinking, maybe, about the Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice references bundled up in these shots — braces for the moment when the cops go for their guns. But instead, they all put their hands up and the camera pans across the message "Stop Shooting Us" spray-painted on a brick wall in the background.
And then Beyoncé sinks a cop car, the same one she was riding in the opening scene. She lies on the roof as the vehicle goes under, looking more like the victor than the car's drowning victim. The police cruiser is no match for the full force of Beyoncé. Taken all together, the video is a statement — one in which no explicit mention of the Black Lives Matter movement (which she and her husband, Jay Z, support) is made because no explicit mention is necessary.
"Formation" shows, rather than tells. Beyoncé touches on BLM imagery, but situates it within a larger video argument: More than just mattering, black life should be celebrated.
2. A powerful ode to black heritage
"'Formation' isn't just about police brutality — it's about the entirety of the black experience in America in 2016, which includes standards of beauty, (dis)empowerment, culture and the shared parts of our history," as Jenna Wortham said in conversation with Wesley Morris and Jon Carmanica of the New York Times. In it, Queen Bey revels in where she came from.
"My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana / You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texa bama / I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils. / Earned all this money but they never take the country out me / I got hot sauce in my bag, swag."
And as Wortham pointed out, those lyrics represent a bold move. "Calling yourself a 'bama' is an ultimate power move, especially if you're from the South," she said. "That was the most lethal insult growing up," but Beyoncé makes it just another part of her incredible swagger. This is me, this is where I'm from, "I twirl on them haters / Albino alligators."
"Formation" pulls its imagery from various periods in southern history and makes over each in her image: Here's baby Blue Ivy, hair natural, shaking her shoulders proudly to her mom's words. Here's Beyoncé with her coterie of elegantly dressed ladies, sitting in the parlor of what's possibly a plantation house, owning every inch of that room.
Here's Queen Bey, out in front of her male lady-in-waiting types, throwing up two bejeweled middle fingers as she sings, "When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster, 'cause I slay." Because she is supremely herself, which brings us to...
3. The Illuminati myth vs. feminist reality
In "Formation," Bey roundly dismisses the rumor that she and husband Jay Z are members of the shadowy underground elite organization. "Y'all haters corny with that Illuminati mess / Paparazzi, catch my fly, and my cocky fresh / I'm so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress."
Beyoncé has amassed staggering wealth. She's erected her own empire. But she hasn't achieved her success through covert governmental control or weird cult sorcery. She's done it on her own, which is what makes this newest song so fantastic: It demolishes the sexist concept of a sugar daddy.
"When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster, cause I slay / If he hit it right, I might take him on a flight in my chopper, 'cause I slay / Drop him off at the mall, let him buy some J's, let him shop up, 'cause I slay / I might get your song played on the radio station, 'cause I slay / I might get your song played on the radio station, 'cause I slay / You might be a black Bill Gates in the making, 'cause I slay / I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making, 'cause I slay"
Queen Bey will be the one handing her man some money so that he can go and buy himself something pretty. She's the one who can launch his career because she owns the airwaves. She's the one with the indomitable career. She's the one calling women to "get into formation" and slay with her. The men in this video are either silent and statue still behind her or features of candid footage that flash onscreen for a few seconds.
"It's also not insignificant that she's electing to parade her substantial wealth and ability to outearn most men in the music industry (including her husband, Jay Z) during the Super Bowl — the flagship event of male virility and violence in this country," Wortham said. Indeed, it's not. 2016's halftime show is going to include a black-feminist-self-love anthem. Which is why...
4. She slays, in every sense of the word.
Consider the word "slay." It's one with many meanings. As used by kids these days, it can mean "to kill it" — whether it is your look or your life — and it can mean "to take someone or something down," as in, internet trolls and/or haters, Beyoncé's "albino alligators." Another definition that fits nicely with feminist "Formation" is the misogynistic one, "to mercilessly fuck, bone and or screw a shady/skanky girl," according to Urban Dictionary.
Applause all around if Beyoncé is firing that rape-y rhetoric back at its originators. And general agreement on the point that she's killin' it in/with this video, in spheres personal, professional and pop cultural. But Morris, Times critic at large, added an interesting caveat to the conversation. He pointed out another layer of meaning in Queen Bey's majestic word choice.
"'Slay' is an amazing word here, and the choreography seizes on it," Morris said. "It's violent, obviously. But, in a gay context, it's also triumphant: He slayed. I'm moved by her use of that word, knowing that she knows how to use bounce music to have it work both ways: funereally and as fun."
Beyoncé breathes even more fire into "Formation" by layering it with language that says something meaningful in each of its contexts. Slay, Bey, slay.
Probably the most obvious theme in the "Formation" video is floodwater: Viewers are in Louisiana from the first few seconds, when we see the floating cop car. The Hurricane Katrina reference is clear. But it's another moment of activism. In 2005, Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland's charity, the Survivor Foundation, began providing aid for Katrina refugees in Houston, Texas.
In 2007, they funded the construction of the Knowles-Rowland Temenos Place Apartments, also in Houston, to provide housing for "at risk populations" and those left homeless by the hurricane. According to the Huffington Post, she'd donated some $7 million to the project as on Sept. 2014. In "Formation," Beyoncé reminds viewers that the destruction Katrina wrought hasn't been completely cleaned up; that much of the south is still laboring under the weight of rebuilding whole cities and innumerable lives. It's maybe not a call to action, but she's certainly calling the lingering damage to our attention.
Full lyrics for "Formation" can be found on Genius.