Beyoncé surprised fans this past Saturday, Feb. 6 (the eve of her performance at Super Bowl 50) by debuting the video for her song “Formation,” her first new release in over a year.
The music video version of the song opens with Beyoncé standing atop a New Orleans police cruiser sinking in water, accompanied by strange bendy synths and a sound byte of the late YouTube star Messy Mya saying, “What happened at the New Wildins?” (Or “What happened after New Orleans?” depending on how you choose to listen to it.) Then, “Bitch, I’m back – by popular demand.” In rapid succession, we see shots of someone riding a bicycle past a fire truck, the back of a police uniform, silhouettes dancing and flooded streets. Right away, the video is powerful, unapologetic, cinematic and politically frank.
The visual and lyrical references in the video are thick and multi-layered, touching on Hurricane Katrina, Creole culture, police brutality, racism, feminism and the black experience in America. Perhaps one of the most memorable visuals is that of a small boy in a black hoodie dancing in front of a line of policemen sporting riot gear and doing the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture, followed by a shot of a simple graffiti on a tan wall that says “Stop shooting us.” Additionally, Beyoncé works to reconcile past and present, standing in front of an old Louisiana mansion in lavish jewels and throwing up both middle fingers.
Queen Bey also praises the beauty of black features, saying “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros” while her daughter Blue Ivy makes a cameo, smiling sweetly and striking a confident pose.
Sound-wise, the song is peppered with clips of New Orleans bounce musician Big Freedia and the aforementioned YouTube personality Messy Mya, who was also from New Orleans (and murdered there while leaving a baby shower for the mother of his unborn son). These clips fit seamlessly (and somewhat hauntingly) between verses. The track pulls from the New Orleans bounce music style, characterized by repetitive melodies, quick drum machine beats and call-outs. Beyoncé’s lyrical delivery is sharp and authoritative, showing that this song is both an unabashed display of empowerment as well as a call to action.
Overall, “Formation” is an assertive and straightforward black power anthem, written for black America by a self-assured and aware black woman. It’s an act of unity and reclamation, expertly curated and fearlessly communicated.
The video closes with Beyoncé and the police car becoming entirely submerged.
“Formation” is available for download exclusively through Jay-Z’s music streaming service, Tidal.