Beyoncé is not one of us. At several different points throughout her show, she is a ball of light (literally), a seductress, a ghostly, omnipresent matron, a chinle-printed “African Queen,” a 1950s housewife in heels and pilot gear and much more. Somewhere between costume changes and carefully curated visuals is the actual Mrs. Carter, the mother/wife we’ve all unconsciously learned to wrap our heads around. She dances, she grooves, she shimmies and shakes, but then she’s off again, gearing up for another act. With set changes came positional changes as well, and Beyoncé handled it all with a zipline operated system — and plenty of grace.
The truth is that after sixteen years, ten albums, and a baby, Beyoncé is still an experience. She’s rich in hits and in energy. The proof is in the fans’ faces, their screams of recognition, the almost church-style level of adoration, and their tears. But the proof also lies in the performance itself, which is tight from beginning to end. Everyone knows their cues: when to smile, when to step here and pop there, when to allow the French breakdance duo Les Twins to do their dance. In fact, the backing acts proved so magnetic, had Beyoncé not been there in all of her legend, the real stars would have been her all female back up band, Suga Mama. Suga Mama ripped through her biggest hits, a Rebirth Brass Band rendition, and a Michael Jackson ditty like they owned the show. At any time during the performance, you could catch a member of the brass section laughing or glance at a jumbo screen to watch the drummer gleefully tear up her kit. Even the back up dancers, who braved the entire set in a collection of very high heels, traded smiles. Beyoncé, when not fiercely emulating or shedding a tear, also looked genuinely happy to be home.
If you didn’t like Beyoncé’s latest studio album, 4, a ballad-heavy ode to a certain rap star husband, you probably would have spent half of the show agitated and annoyed like the couple in front of me. That album’s opening track “1+1,” my personal favorite, found her positioned on top of a piano, and “I Care” brought Suga Mama’s main guitarist Bibi McGill to center stage. (I’m a huge fan of Bibi, who didn’t disappoint, and I’m sure her pyrotechnical details, particularly the spark-shooting guitar, delighted many younger fans.) There were heavy allusions to other eras, and Beyoncé did take time to croon out slower hits. The Frank Ocean-penned “I Miss You” was the surprise of the night for me, as I’ve only ever heard Frank Ocean perform the song live. Another highlight included “Flaws and All,” the underrated B’Day track-turned-thank-you-note for the fans. But the real star was “If I Were a Boy,” off I Am… Sasha Fierce, which is normally a track I don’t care for. Head to toe in Givenchy, Beyoncé performed a beautiful if abridged rendition, and quickly moved into Alanis Morisette’s “You Oughta Know,” a transition that could only ever please a 1990s teenager.
The opening horns to “Crazy in Love,” fast on the tail of a “Countdown” teaser, had the crowd in an uproar. In the midst of such hits, it’s not hard to see why Beyoncé has braved the years with her slew of hard-knocking, hip-moving, you-go-girl tracks. “Crazy in Love” ended in a crescendo of roars; “Diva,” the swagger-pulsing, money-maker anthem, which was laced with the backing track of G.O.O.D. Music’s Mercy, had the whole crowd feeling themselves; “Grown Woman” crashed into its climax with Beyoncé quickly step-ball-changing into the song’s signature line: “got a cute face and a booty so fat/go girl!” (When Beyoncé said go, the crowd went.) The lower-tempo party songs, such as “Party” and “Irreplaceable,” didn’t zap the energy, but Beyoncé is really about her anthems. I even jammed to the oft-controversial “Run the World (Girls).”
“Halo,” the show’s closing track, opened with a beautiful moment of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” and for what felt like the millionth time that night, I felt like a teenager again. But for all of its ballad-y glory, the show managed to end on a higher note. The crowd was hesitant to make their way out of the arena, but their rumors of an encore only lasted for a second. We all cleared out despite our better intentions.
Beside me, one fan stumbling her way upstairs turned to her friend and summed it up: “When Beyoncé’s gone, she stays gone.”