At 9:01 p.m. Friday, Beyoncé entered the third dimension.
She was no longer a specter, an abstraction, a flawless face and voice preaching gospel through the world's earbuds. The BeyHive's Queen B, the evasive figure that launched a thousand thinkpieces on race and sex and feminism and fame, was at long last present in the flesh, statuesque in a Victorian lace bodysuit and funereal wide-brimmed hat, striking a pose of singular fierceness for more than 40,000 fans at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium.
"Welcome to the Formation Tour," she said by way of invocation. "How y'all feeling tonight? If you're ready to have a good time tonight, say, 'I slay!' If you slay every day, say 'I slay!' If you know who you are, say, 'I slay!' "
This was the second date of her much-anticipated Formation World Tour, launched in the still-rippling wake of her wildly acclaimed surprise album Lemonade. But even if it lacked the historic significance of Wednesday's tour opener in Miami, it will still go down as a landmark date.
The singer and her crew spent most of April rehearsing at RayJay, polishing and perfecting her most ambitious outing yet. While the tour may not have been born in Tampa, it did incubate here for a month, earning the city at least a footnote in what may go down as the pop music story of the year.
Fans who'd spent the past six days memorizing the lyrics to Lemonade started lining up as soon as the parking lots opened, styled in their BeyDay finest, from pricey workout gear from her Ivy Park line to homemade T-shirts referencing Beyoncé's songs (Slay, Flawless, I'm Not Becky), eager to experience this latest incarnation of their idol.
"I think people know her more personally now," said Tandra Faulkner, 28, of Tampa, wearing a custom-printed WAKE, PRAY, SLAY T-shirt. "We know her more as a person than just a celebrity. If you listen to the songs, it really tells a story about what she's been through."
Radio stations parked outside brought Beyoncé cutouts, lemon candy, even a fake lemonade stand. For the BeyHive, any glimpse of anything remotely tied to Beyoncé was cause for a celebratory selfie. At one point, there was a line more than 30 deep just to take a take a photo with the merch truck.
That's where Donna Henderson and Gerrell Taylor of Orlando were waiting when they spotted a pair of Beyoncé's backup dancers who'd popped out to grab some swag. The fans recognized them on sight, freaking out accordingly. One of the dancers Snapchatted an image of Henderson's right ring fingernail, bejeweled with a cobalt crown in tribute to Beyoncé's daughter Blue Ivy.
"This show means everything," said Taylor, 21, relishing his first Beyoncé concert. "She's more than just an entertainer. She's a healer. She's a friend. She's a confidante."
She's also an inspirational figure in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, said Linette Smith of Lakeland.
"The movement is what's most important," said Smith, 28. "For the longest time, she's been behind the scenes, her and Jay Z; they've been financing a lot of it. Now she's out in the open with it."
"And we're gonna get in formation with her," added friend Annette Hawkins, 25, of Lake Wales.
So could every other fan, in the form of an official $45 "BOYCOTT BEYONCE" tour T-shirt, a winking nod to the uproar over the rebellious imagery of her Super Bowl single and video Formation. (Before the show, Tampa police spokesman Stephen Hegarty said he wasn't aware of any problems or protests, although a plane did circle overhead tugging a banner reading #BlueLivesMatter — a reference to a Twitter movement of "proud Americans who support police.")
Unlike Taylor Swift's 1989 World Tour, which hit RayJay last fall, the Formation Tour does not, in the early going, appear to rely too much on special guests. Here, there was only one celebrity that mattered — two if you count her rapper husband.
The focal point of Beyoncé's stage was a gargantuan obelisk of a video screen that spun and flashed and projected building-sized images of the singer and her squad of 16 dancers to the cheap seats. For something a little more up-close-and-personal, she had an L-shaped catwalk that jutted nearly to midfield.
There she stood, so close, so real, that were it not for the barricade keeping her just out of arm's reach, you'd swear you could reach out and touch her.
Times staff writer Chelsea Tatham contributed to this report. Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.