April means the start of music festival season. For about 20 years now, Coachella has attracted thousands of music fans to Indio, California. The music and arts festival has penetrated culture in a way that no other American festival has yet to do. With many celebrities in attendance, the festival has garnered a certain allure and become its own fashion event.
The festival takes place over two back-to-back weekends. The first round of this year’s installment took place this past weekend. Performers included the likes of The Weeknd, Haim, SZA, Borns, Eminem, Cardi B and many, many more. Thanks to Coachella’s partnership with YouTube, fans around the world were able to take in a large portion of the festival via livestream.
Perhaps the most highly anticipated act to take the stage was the Queen Bey. Beyonce had been announced as a headliner for last year’s festival, but did not end up performing due to her subsequent pregnancy. When she announced her performance cancellation, Beyonce promised to return the next year. Lady Gaga took her slot, and she welcomed twins Rumi and Sir Carter into the world just two months after the festival took place.
Staying true to her promise, the singer took the stage on day two of the festival. And she gave the crowd much more than anyone could have predicted. Her performance made her the first African American woman to headline the festival since its inception.
Music festivals have largely become about curating a vibe. Musicians are strategically placed on different stages throughout the weekend so that the crowd can ride the wave of music, rarely disrupted by dramatic shifts in genre or arrangement.
Beyonce threw this idea out the window, and it was obvious from the moment her set began. A lone female drummer stood in the spotlight. As she gradually sped up into a roll, the camera zoomed in. She cut, and blew a whistle to count off. In came the sound of horns. A lot of horns. Then came the step team. This was not going to be your average festival set.
Beyonce strutted from the satellite stage dressed as an Egyptian queen. She didn’t utter a single word before disappearing behind her grandstand stage set. While the step team went at it downstage, the lighting racks rose to reveal the marching band and approximately 100 other dancers, backup singers and other instrumentalists.
When Beyonce re-appeared at the top of the set she was in jean short shorts and a yellow cropped hoodie repping her self-made sorority Beta Delta Kappa. The band went quiet, as everyone turned in her direction. The crowd was screaming their heads off.
The performance was a tribute to historically black colleges and universities steeped with culture, history and intriguing rearrangements of Beyonce’s hits. Throughout the almost two hour set she payed homage to the traditions of black fraternities and sororities through dance, skits and voice over. There were also excerpts from speeches by Malcolm X and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
The music flowed from song to song with few breaks. It was arranged more like a symphony than a series of songs. The setlist was packed to the brim with Beyonce hits, but the arrangements also interpolated many Jay Z cuts and classic hip-hop tracks.
She also took a moment out of her set to perform “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The song is often referred to as the African American National Anthem. She sandwiched the 118 year old hymn between her own powerful black anthems “Freedom” and “Formation.”
After “Formation” came another track from “Lemonade,” the kiss-off anthem “Sorry.” The Queen took this song to a new level, pausing the track for a rousing, emphatic step chant of “Suck on my balls.”
The choreography throughout the show was intense and precise. Minor deviations were made towards the end in what seemed like an attempt to avoid a wardrobe malfunction. But, she barely let it show, and didn’t let it take away from the performance.
Many of Beyonce’s contemporaries have deemed it acceptable to stop singing if they are doing a bit of intriguing choreography (I’m looking at you Justin Timberlake). But, Beyonce’s vocals power through the choreography. It seems as if she isn’t even breaking a sweat. Her ability to perform insane vocal runs while dropping it low, picking it up and twirling it around should be studied by doctors to confirm she’s actually human.
Many classic Beyonce tracks that we hadn’t heard in a while were revived during the set. She obviously took the time to figure out which songs would sound best with the full band backing, and match the HBCU theme.
One of the most surprising setlist choices was “Deja Vu.” Off the 2006 album “B’Day,” “Deja Vu” is one of the most neglected Beyonce / Jay Z collaborations. It wasn’t even performed when they went on tour together in 2014. It was a welcome surprise to hear the song performed.
Another welcome surprise was the Destiny’s Child reunion! This year marks 20 years since the release of the girl group’s eponymous debut album. Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams joined Beyonce on stage to perform “Lose My Breath,” “Say My Name” and “Soldier.” The reunion was one of the most talked about moments on social media the next day. Rowland and Williams’ ability to still shine next to Beyonce is incredible. They were much better than they had been during Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance.
Yet another guest appearance was made by Beyonce’s younger sister, Solange Knowles. The duo did the dance break from the “Get Me Bodied (Extended Mix)” together, redefining sibling goals.
She closed her performance with “Love On Top,” encouraging the crowd to sing along through all four key changes.
From start to finish, Beyonce’s set was mesmerizing. The performance was bigger than Coachella. It felt like its own special event. It will be interesting to see where Beyonce heads next as she prepares for the On The Run II tour with Jay Z this summer.