Entertainment Music

Friday 30 September 2016

Music: All rise for Beyoncé, the Queen of Pop

Published 10/07/2016 | 02:30

Beyoncé’s global stadium tour lands at Croke Park tonight.
Beyoncé’s global stadium tour lands at Croke Park tonight.

In November 2003, I was granted an interview with Beyoncé, who had been having a pretty special post-Destiny's Child year thanks to her ubiquitous single 'Crazy in Love'. I met her backstage at the Point several hours before she played the venue that night - and I struggled to get a single interesting quote out of her.

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She seemed both timid and bored and I still haven't forgotten the look her enormous bodyguard, who was standing behind her, shot in my direction when I asked her if the rumours were true that she and Jay Z were a couple. The conversation was wound up shortly afterwards.

It quickly emerged, of course, that she and Jay - who had duetted with her on 'Crazy in Love' - were an item, and would go on to be the biggest 'power couple' in showbiz.

Superb as that song was - and it remains a defining pop tune of the 2000s - there was no guarantee at the time that the then 23-year-old Texan was going to be able to sustain her career in the extraordinary manner she's managed since 2003. After all, her erstwhile bandmates Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams were both tipped to succeed - but where are they now?

And, that night in Dublin, her show felt flat for large stretches - she was still very much finding her feet. And how she's found them. No other artist has owned 2016 like Beyoncé and few others could deliver the global stadium tour that calls at Croke Park tonight.

The reviews have been largely euphoric and the European leg kicked off in the glamour-free city of Sunderland last week. Make no mistake: this lady, more so even than Taylor Swift, is the Queen of Pop.

And her position at the summit of the pop firmament has been assured by Lemonade, her sixth album, and one of the most consistently strong, creative and - in places - daring albums of the year. For the second album in succession, she released it suddenly, without the usual record-company fanfare, and once more, it swept all before her.

On this occasion, she partnered with US cable channel HBO for an hour-long film which essentially soundtracked the album. Lemonade, the movie, became a worldwide trending topic on Twitter - perfect time, then, to immediately release the album on the Tidal streaming service owned by Jay Z.

Much as I appreciate the giddy pop rush of Taylor Swift's 1989, that was an album that played it pretty safe. Chief songwriter/producer Max Martin was charged with delivering hugely commercial pop songs and he did it spectacularly. Swift's transformation from goofy country-lite wannabe to fully fledged pop icon was complete.

But Lemonade goes much further. This is an album that features samples of Led Zeppelin and Andy Williams, where James Blake and Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig have writing credits, and where Jack White is on hand to deliver one of the strongest guitar riffs of the year. There's nothing homogeneous about Lemonade, and that's not something that can be said about all of 1989, despite its considerable merits.

Nobody should have been surprised by how sonically adventurous Lemonade is, because her previous self-titled effort really pushed the boat out and was the sound of a A-list musician who no longer wanted to merely repeat herself.

And Lemonade is an album packed with fantastic, catch-all tunes like 'Don't Hurt Yourself' and 'All Night' as well, of course, as one of 2016's most defining tracks, the racially aware, feminist-charged 'Formation'. She performed the song during the Super Bowl interval show and, in all its Black Power fury, blew nominal headliners Coldplay off the stage.

No other album, with the possible exception of David Bowie's Blackstar, has been subjected to so much analysis this year. Its overarching theme of infidelity - and its fallout - launched a million glossy magazine features and gave the paparazzi even more cause to keep Bey and hubby in their sights. And their union has been a source of much scrutiny from the moment in 2014 when footage was leaked to TMZ of sister Solange attacking Jay in a hotel elevator while Beyoncé looked on.

Even solitary lines - "Better call Becky with the good hair" - have been dissected with the sort of rigour one might normally associate with Joycean scholars and Ulysses.

These days, Beyoncé doesn't bother with interviews - she doesn't need them to shift truckloads of albums and expensive concert tickets - so she hasn't allowed herself to be subjected to the sort of interrogation about her marriage that every showbiz hack dreams of.

She's let the music - and those striking videos - do the talking, but one would dearly love to have been a fly on the couple's mansion wall when she first told Jay she was going to be releasing an album whose lines include "if you try that shit again, gonna lose your wife", and "watch my fat ass twist, boy, as I bounce to the next dick, boy".

Lemonade was released to overwhelmingly enthusiastic reviews and it's been something of a commercial sensation, too. Incredibly, all 12 of the album's tracks found themselves in the Billboard 100 simultaneously - the largest number of songs to appear in the US chart from a single act ever.

And the album gave Tidal a much needed boost, too, with the company claiming that there had been more than 300 million streams of Lemonade songs in the first three weeks of its release. Now, it's rumoured that Apple are interested in acquiring the service, which, if true, would confirm Jay Z's status as a man as brilliant for his business instincts as he is for his raps.

Despite Lemonade's brutal frankness, the pair's marriage appears to have survived: Bey has made some loved-up comments from the stage. Irrespective of what happens next in the Beyoncé story, she's proved to be far more than just another pop star.

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