Saturday, July 21, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Before Tampa's Formation World Tour stop, our critic wonders, is Beyoncé critic-proof?

The reviews are in! We now go live to the BeyHive for Twitter reaction to Beyoncé's new album and HBO special Lemonade, which dropped last weekend.

"NON. STOP. CHILLS." — @nicolejlange

"This is more than Bey's life. This is life. The whole story." — @mariaso1200

"So do we have to have that election now or can we just all agree that @Beyonce is president?" — @julie_yost

There is so, so much more where this came from. But then, there always is whenever Beyoncé is involved. There may be no figure in entertainment whose every move is as universally praised, from her music to her stagecraft to her beauty to the ineffable attitude she projects to the world. It's a smart bet that her ambitious new Formation World Tour, which hits Tampa on Friday, will elicit even more rapturous praise.

Yes, Beyoncé has her haters — those who say the video to her single Formation was anti-cop, those who can't resist picking apart her personal life, those who simply don't dig her music. But for the past few years — and especially in 2016 — Beyoncé's work has been so well-received, and her personal life so secretive, that any move she makes, however slight, is met with instant, vociferous and near-universal acclaim from both fans and critics, giving her an air of infallibility that even peers like Adele and Taylor Swift can't match.

"The people who love Beyoncé, really, really love Beyoncé," said J. Randy Taraborrelli, author of last fall's unauthorized biography Becoming Beyoncé. "She's so compelling a personality, and so compelling a performer, that even if you didn't understand Formation when you saw it at the Super Bowl, and you couldn't remember it five minutes later, you still remember the performance of it. That's where she gets you."

• • •

More reviews! Let's turn to Beyoncé's fellow celebrities.

"I feel changed. How was that THAT good?? HOW???" — Anna Kendrick

"Not since Thriller have we seen something on the scale of #LEMONADE right???" — Jerry O'Connell

"And now nothing is the same. Not one damn thing." — Melissa Harris-Perry

• • •

It might shock you to learn that Beyoncé was not always so beloved. Less than a decade ago, fresh off the breakup of Destiny's Child, her solo concert at Tampa's St. Pete Times Forum drew only a few thousand fans — so few, in fact, that ticket holders were invited down from the nosebleeds to help fill out the bottom bowl.

She was already a huge star, with hits including Crazy In Love and Ring the Alarm. But she had not yet dropped the iconic single Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It) or her albums I Am...Sasha Fierce or Beyoncé, both of which were nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys. (Lemonade will almost certainly contend for top honors at next year's ceremony.)

What happened? It could be that Beyoncé simply stopped talking and forced the world to focus on her work. People may obsess over her relationship with Jay Z, but she yields nothing but the occasional Instagram photo. A recent interview with Elle was her first in two years. Before Lemonade, she hadn't tweeted since Aug. 19, 2013.

"It's ingenious that she's able to do that, and that there's not pushback from it," Taraborrelli said. "She has done the thing that every artist wants to do — you hear this, but you don't see it often — 'I want you to appreciate me for my art and stay out of my personal life.' I've heard Madonna say this for decades, yet she can't resist giving you bits and pieces of her personal life. Most celebrities, they can't resist it. But Beyoncé, she does."

Because people hunger for something, anything from Beyoncé, every new project becomes an event for her fanatical base, which gobbles it up with such enthusiasm and glee that the only possible reaction is positivity. More measured reaction and analysis might trickle out after a day or so, but by that time, the BeyHive has already made up its mind: Queen B has done it again, and if you disagree, you clearly just didn't get it.

"Her elusiveness is such a part of who she is that people don't even question it anymore," Taraborrelli said. "She is even bigger than her songs. When you're that kind of performer, you can get away with anything."

• • •

Fans and celebrities are one thing. How about actual critics? How do they feel about Lemonade?

"Stunning visuals, urgent themes" — Rolling Stone

"Among the boldest artistic statements of 2016" — Newsday

"The kind of artistic statement only she can get away with" — Forbes

And then there's this:

"This is probably the best Beyoncé has ever looked on film." — Jay Cridlin, Tampa Bay Times

That would be me.

• • •

Remember that Saturday Night Live sketch "The Beygency," in which people who say they aren't into Beyoncé are rounded up and jailed for their heresy by a shadowy government bureau? I loved that sketch, because, well, I was never into Beyoncé, either. WAIT, LET ME FINISH.

She's a great live performer. Single Ladies is a classic. But rarely, if ever, have I found myself humming a Beyoncé or Destiny's Child song just for fun. I gravitated toward Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, you name it … but never Beyoncé. We just never made that connection.

Then came Lemonade. I found the HBO special, the "visual album," artistically stunning. The album is more musically ambitious than anything she's ever done — pop songs, R&B songs, rock songs, even a country song. This was an album built to reach — and win over — the world beyond the BeyHive, an entity predisposed to praise it to oblivion.

I have to say, I dig it. There's no Single Ladies — Beyoncé doesn't seem interested in making another Single Ladies — but it already holds up to repeated listens, and I'm incredibly curious to find out how songs like 6 Inch and Freedom will come across live on Friday.

Does this make me an official member of the BeyHive? Probably not yet. But I've started drinking the Lemonade. And like the rest of civilization, I'm very much liking the taste.

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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