The video for "Formation" appeared online the day before Beyoncé's Super Bowl 50 halftime show.
That's just a flat, boring fact. And the rest of this review will stick to digging up a few more facts related to this song—most of which, though, won't be quite so boring, we can promise you.
"Formation" the song is both a straightforward and obscene shout-out to black culture and self-importance.
"Formation" the video, meanwhile, is loaded with imagery designed to provoke not just a cocky attitude or a cultural awakening, but curiosity and controversy, too. And it's doing exactly that … just as Beyoncé's big halftime performance at the Big Game did.
I Slay, Therefore I Am
There are several ways to interpret "Formation." Two of them readily rise up through the murky flood waters shown in the video: 1) Overcoming to become, and 2) bragging just to boast.
Beyoncé clearly starts on the overcoming side of the equation, giving a shout-out to her Southern roots: "My daddy Alabama, my ma Louisiana/You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama." Then guest performer Big Freedia adds, "I like cornbread and collard greens, b--ch." From Beyoncé's background and culture, we move on to anatomical elements that she's rightfully proud of: "I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros/I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils."
From that solemn salute to family history and racial identity, Beyoncé goes on to talk about the future: "I see it, I want it/ … I dream it, I work hard, I grind till I own it/ … Sippin' Cuervo with no chaser/Sometimes I go off/I go hard/Get what's mine (take what's mine)/I'm a star/'Cause I slay."
So on which side of the interpretation coin does that chorus land? We'll let Queen Bey, as she's tellingly called, answer that with her next verse: "When he f--- me good I take his a-- to Red Lobster, 'cause I slay/If he hit it right, I might take him on a flight on my chopper, 'cause I slay/Drop him off at the mall, let him buy some j's, let him shop up, 'cause I slay."
So, again, is Beyoncé celebrating her heritage … or herself?
There's simply no good answer to that except both.
Slain by the Spirit
The song's video, set in New Orleans, features Bey and her retinue of dancers layering sensuality and lots of skin under both historical and modern costumes that represent different aspects of the South's history. It also takes aim at the police, visually accusing them of taking aim at blacks. (Beyoncé is shown sitting atop a police car that's sinking into the water; a message written on a wall reads, "Stop shooting us"; a row of officers are seen wearing full riot gear.) During the Super Bowl halftime show, the Black Panther Party and Malcom X were also invoked.
The live performance and video have drawn both acclaim and criticism. DeRay Mckesson, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement, tweeted, “The #Formation shout-outs to Malcolm X & MJ were excellent.” And writing on romper.com, Margaret E. Jacobsen said that the video is a "powerful proclamation of being a proud, powerful black woman."
But former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani said on Fox & Friends, "This is football, not Hollywood, and I thought it was really outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers who are the people who protect her and protect us, and keep us alive." Business Insider reports this comment on Beyoncé's Facebook page: "As the wife of a police officer, I am offended by this entire video. Rise above and stay above the strife. For a girl who grew up in a privileged, wealthy family, she has no business pandering to those who didn't."
We'll end with one final fact. It's the kind of fact that Plugged In so often must lay out on the table when it comes to reviewing music: "Formation," for all of its controversy, for all of its potential benefit and harm, for all of its political posturing, is also a salacious song. It's consumed with not just social and cultural issues but, looking at things through a biblical filter, the lust of the flesh and the pride of life as well.