Colossal. Enormous. Reviews of Beyoncé’s latest shows have been enthralled by the sheer size of the spectacle. In the words of NME, “Nothing about The Formation World Tour is small-scale.” And what else could we expect from the biggest pop star on the planet, whose album releases, televised performances and, yes, world tours, have become bigger and bigger cultural events over the 13 years of her solo career? When her latest visual album, Lemonade, had its surprise release on HBO and Tidal earlier this year, the world was watching.
Audiences were captivated by the strange visuals, the hot rage, and the radical politics of Lemonade. On the Formation World Tour, which hit the UK last week, the extent of forward planning behind that release becomes clear. The tour started just two days after the release, combines visuals from Lemonade as well as huge numbers of shots that are either outtakes or filmed at the same time specifically for the tour. The result is that the aesthetic and themes of the album are magnified: both metaphorically, as Beyoncé expands to fill the vacuum of energy caused by tens of thousands of voracious fans, and literally – via a 72-foot-tall LED cube called “the Monolith”, which plays clips, backing imagery and tracks, and rotates to indicate a new “section” of the show has begun (drawing heavily on the structure of Lemonade, the show is split into thematic sections, beginning with the defiance of “Formation” “Sorry” and the “Bow Down” section of “Flawless***”, and ending with the spirituality of “Freedom” and “Halo” performed in shallow water).
Lemonade is leant a new violence: as Beyoncé whispers the searing Warsan Shire poem that begins “If it’s what you truly want, I can wear her skin over mine,” the Monolith shows a close-up of her mouth, as she drags the flat side of a razor over her tongue, then her punching the walls of a glass box, dressed in white fur. Anger is amplified via hissing CCTV screens in “Hold Up” and thunderstorm effects during “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, as Beyoncé swirls around the stage in a serpent-embroidered cape, her voice cracking with fury. These songs feel designed for this setting.
But much of Lemonade’s power lies in its intimacy. It feels voyeuristic, like we really are glimpsing the private agonies of a marriage on the brink of collapse. Its rage and disappointment hits as hard in whispers (“What are you doing my love?”) as it does in shouts (“Who the fuck do you think I am?!”). Can you translate those moments of quiet anguish to a 90,000 capacity venue?
Beyoncé can. Two acapella moments stand out. “Irreplacable”, a tour favourite for so many years, takes on a new meanness sung without backing amid red lighting, transforming the song from a smiling shrug to a snarl: “I can have another you by tomorrow.” Beyoncé lets the audience sing the majority of “Love On Top”, and here the acapella strategy is joyful, ending with B giggling: “I’m going to stop there, or you guys will just keep on going!”
And if a 60-foot screen risks leaving the audience with a mostly virtual experience, this tour employs a range of tricks to remind you that you gaze upon Beyoncé made flesh. The Monolith is often used to house performers, framing them with larger images of themselves – we’re treated to seeing the real Beyoncé dancing between her own virtual legs, for example. When “Diva” begins, the screen’s visuals switch to black and white, and the audience’s eye follows the real Beyoncé and her dancers as they stride down the runway in sequined gold bodysuits like twinkling coins.
Perhaps the greatest strength of this tour is how seamlessly it integrates Beyoncé songs old and new, Lemonade visuals and spoken word clips, as well as samples from other artists, into a cohesive narrative. Songs that could easily be dismissed as trivial feel infused with new politics. “I Care”, “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Ring the Alarm” cross decades to form a perfect trifecta of indignation. Even “Me, Myself and I”, one of Beyoncé’s most inoffensive mid-Noughties tracks, feels potent. And samples of Kanye West’s “New Slaves”, Skepta and JME’s “That’s Not Me” and Wine-O’s “Pop My Trunk” feel so at home here you could almost miss them.
By all rights, a setlist that takes you from 2013’s haunting exploration of post-natal depression, “Mine”, into the Middle Eastern-infused 2002 dancehall hit “Baby Boy”, into Lemonade’s gleefully vengeful “Hold Up” should feel utterly scatterbrained – especially when it does so via samples of French Montana’s “Freaks” and Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam”. But somehow, here, it makes perfect sense. Regardless of size and spectacle, on the Formation World Tour, Beyoncé’s gift for storytelling shines through.