I was twice lifted out of the M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore last Friday night. Two performances during Beyoncé’s Formation World Tour were so tremendous that my reaction began to feel extraphysical, something akin to aesthetic transcendence.
I was first plucked upward more than halfway into the concert, during “1+1”, which segued into a cover of Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones”. Beyoncé belted out both songs on her knees, emoting alone to a cloudless night sky and for her rapt audience. There were no pyrotechnics involved, at least not any that required gunpowder. Her voice delivered the requisite fireworks. When she exited the stage for a costume change, the boxy video apparatus looming behind her split in two and turned purple. “Purple Rain” then played from the speakers in her absence. The lonely stadium suddenly became speckled with cellphone lights, artificial fireflies floating to-and-fro in unison. The crowd chanted along with Prince’s disembodied voice, joyously.
The second near-divine moment came toward the end of the show. Beyoncé and her troupe of dancers emerged, barefooted, to splash in a shallow pool for an exultant rendition of “Freedom”. It was pure spectacle. Lucky fans were showered with water from swinging heads, hands, and feet. The song’s power, however, came from the convergence of sight and sound. There was the ablution of the act, which directly recalled the spiritual “Wade in the Water”, an obvious artistic citation for “Freedom”. Every droplet flung into the crowd appeared to hang, mid-air, in slow motion. Beyoncé, in turn, sang with pulse-quickening coarseness, in stark contrast to the perfection of her usual vocal execution. That this was happening in Baltimore, a little over a year after the tragedy of Freddie Gray, only added to an overwhelming sense of pathos and redemption.
Those two moments were, for me, the pinnacle of the Formation World Tour. But its audio-visual exhibition, in general, offered the final installment to a triad that includes her latest album Lemonade and its cinematic sibling, which first aired on HBO in April. Both the record, and its theatrical incarnation, provide the context for Beyoncé’s stadium extravaganza. (The aforementioned video-cube plays clips from Lemonade throughout.) Her oldest songs (such as “Survivor”, “Ring the Alarm”, and “Me, Myself, and I”) emerge from the crucible sturdier and more commanding. Later entries from 4 and her self-titled work (which provide the bulk of the material here, in addition to half of Lemonade’s tunes) serve as proof that Beyoncé has long been on a singular trajectory. This is their culmination.
Though the Formation World Tour is purportedly a pop show, it strikes a balance between the thrilling artistry of Kanye West’s Yeezus Tour (a high-water mark for overblown production) and the intimacy of a theater performance. There’s, of course, a lot of dancing and it’s fabulous all around. Notably, every dancer is a woman, if not also a woman of color. (The same is true of every musician I could see, including the shredding guitarist who opens an incredible staging of “Don’t Hurt Yourself”.) The costumes are spangly, sexy, menacing, and (in one instance) outright heroic. But this is, ultimately, a showcase for Beyoncé’s vocal talent, which is as impeccable, and at times unrivaled, as ever.
As she declares during one of the few chatty asides during this remarkable roadshow, Beyoncé has been a popular performer for 19 years now. The Formation World Tour attests to that fact. It also feels like a capstone to, and an inflection point for, a career that’s soaring upward to even greater heights.