Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships. In Greek mythology, her power was so singular and her beauty so striking, men went to war in their quest to claim her.
In 2018, the only person with the ability to whip thousands into that kind of fervor is Beyoncé, the most compelling artist of our time.
Unlike Helen, Mrs. Carter-Knowles is fully the master of her own fate. Her power is a product of her trademark Virgo fastidiousness, unimpeachable craftsmanship, insistence on operating on her own terms, and ability to strike listeners straight in the heart in the span of three minutes.
And on Saturday night, 49,000 people at the sold-out Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara for the 'On The Run II' tour were putty in Beyoncé’s hands.
Nearing the end of its summer-long run, the tour is, technically, a co-headlining show with her husband Jay-Z. But let's be honest, the Beyhive—her intensely loyal international fan base—swarmed because the queen, not Jay, called. This was abundantly clear near the middle of the show, after her rendition of “Countdown” and before “Sorry,” when the music came to a full stop to accommodate the stadium’s spontaneous, exuberant roar for a full minute.
Even hours earlier, the buzz of excitement was palpable. Throngs of people spilled into the stadium from surrounding parking lots and sidewalks in their Sunday’s best. Many opted for yellow collegiate wear, a call to Beyoncé's Coachella performance in April, during which the singer paid homage to the country’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Such outfits weren't as plentiful or extravagant as the attire in the audience the last time Mrs. Carter came to Levi’s Stadium, in 2016. Then, fans arrived at the 'Formation' tour with their best approximation of the singer’s looks: the ebullient, yellow Roberto Cavalli dress from “Hold Up,” the all-black Southern Gothic gown with a wide-brimmed hat from “Formation,” and the Ms. Third Ward pageantry from “Pretty Hurts.”
And still, the unofficial dress code was heeded Saturday night. There were yellow berets, blinding highlights, bodysuits, thigh-high boots, “Yonce”-inspired plaid and glittering fishnets galore. Navigating the stadium was chaotic. Long, winding lines snaked down both sides of the concourse as people tried to ready their supplies—food, tour merchandise and plenty of alcohol—before the night’s main event.
By 8 p.m., the sun had gone away, R&B duo Chloe x Halle had performed and DJ Khaled was onstage doing his best approximation of a DJ. You’d be hard pressed to get more than 20 seconds of a song out of him, but his meme-able enthusiasm and array of special guests—Kash Doll, Sage the Gemini, Oakland’s Jonn Hart and Naughty by Nature—do the job. Below me, two men began yiking to Sage the Gemini’s “Gas Pedal,” and all around me people writhed in their seats.
But just after 8:45 p.m., as Petey Pablo’s voice was interrupted mid-“Freek-a-Leek,” it was time. “THIS IS REAL LIFE” flashed on the giant screen, followed by clips of Bey and Jay as lovers on the lam, resuming their roles as Bonnie and Clyde-esque figures riding through the streets of Kingston, Jamaica. Judging by all the noise, it’d be safe to say fans were wondering if what they were about to witness was real life, too.
The screen cut to black, the couple appeared in all-white, and I can only assume it was a product of Beyoncé's benevolence to open the show with “Holy Grail,” her vocals breathing new life into the misstep in Jay Z’s discography.
The next two and a half hours constituted an elaborate, well-crafted couple’s journey through trials, tribulations, and eventually, reconciliation. Past the show's pyrotechnics, lush cinematic montages and painstakingly precise choreography, it served as a campaign for the enduring force of love (theirs, in particular), capable of softening the hearts of even the coldest of cynics among the hive.
Maybe now, after a summer of performing his penance, Jay-Z will be forgiven for his transgressions against Beyoncé. But while Jay’s charisma, ease and nimble lyricism were a necessary presence, on Saturday night he was the second most compelling rapper in the room. After all, Beyoncé is the glue at the heart of this.
In fact, the centerpiece of the show came about an hour and a half in, as the Houston singer strolled down the catwalk in an angelic gold number with a sweeping train behind her. She was alone to sing “Resentment,” the vulnerable ballad about the aftermath of a lover’s betrayal.
The track off 2006’s B-Day offers no pretense, and gets to the core of why she’s more than just a stellar pop star. Resentment is supposed to be a bad thing. There is an expectation that women ought to be above the sickly feeling of indignation that eats us up inside after being wronged. As a black woman, that expectation of strength and grace is triple-fold for Beyoncé. But on “Resentment,” and throughout her career—not least of all with her magnum opus “Lemonade”—she rejects that expectation.
She’s unflinchingly vulnerable about the pain, anger and sorrow of experiencing heartbreak. Graciousness isn’t appropriate here—rather, she leans into rightfully earned anger, insecurity, and even bitterness, because it’s honest.
For Beyoncé, the personal is the political; she knows that for her, and for many of her fans, it’s impossible to separate the two.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.