"It was our generation's version of James Brown's ‘Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud.'"
Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
After stopping the world in 2013 with her surprise self-titled album, headlining the Super Bowl XLVII halftime show and joining husband Jay-Z for the first installment of their On the Run Tour (which grossed over $100 million and landed its own HBO special), the only question for Beyoncé was: What’s next?
In 2016, she proved that she would continuously set the standard -- not only for her own artistry, but nearly everyone else in the music industry. Beyoncé surprise-dropped the earth-rattling song and video for “Formation,” just a day before its live debut at Super Bowl 50 alongside Bruno Mars and Coldplay. The performance was ingrained in Blackness, with Bey's Afro-sporting back-up dancers wearing Black Panthers-inspired leather attire. The singer, whose outfit paid homage to Michael Jackson’s 1993 Super Bowl get-up, fiercely dominated the show with an all-knowing smirk on her face.
Pluss, one of the song’s co-producers alongside Mike Will-Made It and Beyoncé, tells Billboard he didn’t hear the final version until the performance: “To see it come out in that way was amazing. She really blessed us with her queen-like essence, so our jaws were on the floor. I was getting phone calls that I never got before.”
The rollout was an urgent callout that Black lives always matter, as it was released at the start of Black History Month and around the birthdays of two fallen victims of hate crime: Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland.
“If you were a mainstream urban station that didn’t play ‘Formation,’ you were left out in the cold,” Reggie Rouse, program director at Atlanta radio station V-103, tells Billboard. “When Beyoncé releases a record or a song, it’s an event -- everyone listens. If someone else did that, it wouldn’t have the same effect. She was political, she was social, she brought it back to everyday life.”
With nearly two decades in the game, Beyoncé had already racked up an impressive amount of coveted accolades that reflected her mainstream appeal. But for the better half of her solo career, the music didn’t rattle with bold statements. She later began to interweave themes closest to her (like women empowerment) with 2013’s self-titled album, as seen with the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie-sampling “Flawless” and the word “FEMINIST” serving as the backdrop for her 2014 VMA Video Vanguard performance. Yet “Formation” was the signal that cemented a musical shift. Bey was now digging into her southern-fried Black roots deeper and fearless as ever.
“Formation” was a buzzing anthem that showcased all the elements that defined her Blackness: the ever-present hot sauce in her bag, treating her man to Red Lobster (the singer’s mention resulted in the food chain’s sales spiking 33 percent), her daughter Blue Ivy’s baby hair and afros, and her family’s Jackson Five nostrils.
“For somebody as big as Beyoncé, [the song] needed to sound really expensive and made sure that she stands out the most,” mixing engineer Jaycen Joshua, who first worked on the artist's “Single Ladies,” tells Billboard. “It was extremely important for me and Mike Will -- and I think she wanted this too -- to have that heaviness, distortion and upper harmonics of the 808 that's so key to make a record like this palatable to the culture.”
The song was a statement in its own right, yet the accompanying video transformed it into a bonafide anthem. Directed by frequent collaborator Melina Matsoukas and featuring the voices of New Orleans stars Big Freedia and the late Messy Mya, the visual was not shy about broadcasting the social destruction caused by police brutality, racism and the neglect following Hurricane Katrina.
“Beyoncé took the bar and raised it to another level,” Rouse raves. “Not too many people can get away with putting out a popular song like this with so many symbols. For the African-American community, Red Lobster is the spot! Everybody talks about their cheddar bay biscuits, and she’s bringing it home.”
The star putting on for the culture led to both cultural and industry success: “Formation” was nominated for three Grammys and took home a trophy for best music video, peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and helped spark a raw conversation about some of this country’s ongoing racial issues that were bubbling over in an alarming way.
“‘Formation’ bridged the gap between having fun and being serious,” says Pluss. “The beat was so bubbly but the message was still there. There weren't too many people doing that at the time.”
The single, which served as the closer for her acclaimed visual album Lemonade, gave insight to just how monumental the visual album was going to be. Not only did it redefine Beyoncé’s sound, but it also reshaped her grown womanhood: politically commanding, having gone through the insufferable cycle of heartbreak and forgiveness, and not taking shit from anyone.
“‘Formation’ was needed at that time. And the fact that she used the Super Bowl as the platform was outstanding,” says Joshua. “It was our generation's version of James Brown's ‘Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud.’ He didn't have to go against the grain and upset anybody [back then], and this was Beyoncé's moment.”