Who runs the pop world? Beyoncé. After a year away to spread her wings, Queen Bey is back to reclaim her throne.
This feature appears in Complex's August/September 2011 issue.
Conventional wisdom holds that people should be afraid of turning 30. It’s the dreaded age when the biological clock starts tickin’ with the menace of a time bomb. Thirty is the point at which someone can call a woman “old”—and she will actually believe it. Conventional wisdom says that turning 16, 18, and 21 kicks ass. Turning 30 kicks rocks.
Of course conventional wisdom isn’t all that wise. Thirty ain’t all that bad. (In truth, women tend to be the most well-rounded and sexiest during their 30s. #justsayin) Still, it has a way of focusing people. Beyoncé Giselle Knowles turns 30 in September. She’s acutely aware of time slipping into the future. Her ticking clock, however, has nothing to do with insecure thoughts of feeling old or washed up. Not by a long shot.
No, Beyoncé is in a race against time because of a simple, bluntly put question: Where the f*&k does she go from here? What does thirtysomething feel like if you’ve accomplished everything most people could ever dream of—wealth, fame, artistic accolades, love—in your teens and twenties?
It turns out that, for Beyoncé, the answer to that question is equally simple (and bluntly put). Where does she go? Wherever the f*&k she wants to. Bey has spent the last 15 years paying dues. Now a worldwide icon, she has set her heart and mind to establishing a legacy that she’s determined will be dictated by artistic freedom. She’s not afraid of turning 30. If anything, the world should be afraid of her turning 30.
In March 2010, Beyoncé came off the world tour for her album, I Am…Sasha Fierce, and did something she hadn’t really done as an adult: She lived a normal life. After years maintaining a grueling work schedule that included exhaustive touring, she took a much-needed vacay. For the next year, she did all sorts of—for her—novel things. She slept in her own bed for days at a time. She went to concerts and movies and museums with friends. She spent time picking through the iTunes of her younger sister, Solange (who has a side gig as a DJ and whom Bey credits as her unofficial A&R), playing with her nephew, and watching documentary footage of Jean-Michel Basquiat painting from scratch.
Of course the whole “vacay” concept is a little different for Beyoncé. (For one, she traveled, too. And suffice it to say that you and I aren’t invited to a lot of the places she visited.) What did you do on your vacation? Well, the hardest working woman in entertainment started a production company and learned how to edit movies. And, in studios across the world, she recorded more than 60 songs, 12 of which appear on her latest album, 4, which was officially released in June. You see, whereas a yearlong hiatus for one of us might involve an inordinate number of hours spent in our pajamas, for Beyoncé, even downtime is work time. “I traveled; I read; I watched films,” she says. “Inspiration is all around us every second of the day.”
The inspiration for 4 came from a variety of sources, with the end result being something that doesn’t sound exactly like any of them. Dissatisfied with the state of contemporary radio, she set about brewing a concoction entirely of her own design, based on influences you’d expect her to cite, as well as ones that might surprise. “Figuring out a way to get R&B back on the radio is challenging,” she explains. “Everything sounds the same on the radio. With 4 I tried to mix R&B from the ’70s and the ’90s with rock ‘n’ roll and a lot of horns to create something new and exciting. I wanted musical changes, bridges, vibrata, live instrumentation, and classic songwriting.”
She started the process by jamming with the band from Fela!, the Broadway musical based on the life of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, and recorded tracks everywhere from New York to Australia to Peter Gabriel’s studio in the English countryside city of Bath. And—hewing again to the “no rules” mantra of the process—she worked with collaborators both old (The-Dream, Babyface) and new (Switch, Sleigh Bells). She even chopped it up with Odd Future. “Jay had a CD playing in the car one Sunday when we were driving to Brooklyn,” she recalls of hearing Frank Ocean for the first time. “I noticed his tone, his arrangements, and his storytelling. I immediately reached out to him—literally the next morning. I asked him to fly to New York and work on my record.”
Andre 3000 is also on board. He makes an appearance on the Kanye West-produced track “Party.” Although it wasn’t her first time working with ’Ye, Beyoncé was particularly keen to reconvene in the studio with the man who made the moody “Runaway,” a song that drove her to the edge of tears the first time she heard it in a van heading to one of Jay’s shows. ’Ye played it for Bey on his birthday.
“The fact that he’s belting out his pain, his confusion, and his anger, with no pre-written lyrics, was so moving,” she says. “He’s singing his heart out for five minutes. He is so vulnerable. I love when an artist can be so honest.”
Released in April, the lead single, “Run the World (Girls),” swagger-jacked the beat from Major Lazer’s “Pon de Floor,” but it’s Bey’s full-throated vocal styling and her trademark feminist stamp that made the insane and souped-up riddim her own.
“I’ve found that with hit records the melody and lyrics come together [naturally],” she explains. “I usually know from the hook if the song is something that transcends language, race, and genre, and if it’s something that affects pop culture. It’s something I can visualize people singing in stadiums all over the world. But my favorite songs on my albums are usually not my singles.”
The world premiere of the “Run” video was, as expected, an event, presenting a post-Rapture world of sandy destruction and kinetic dancing. Bey channeled a bit of Tina Turner in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome mixed with a dash of Grace Jones in Conan the Destroyer, symbolically demonstrating that her drive to take over the world is still in effect.
Before she takes over the world, though, Beyoncé is taking control of her career. In March, she announced that she would no longer be managed by her father, Mathew Knowles. Both sides took pains to describe the split as amicable, but it was nonetheless a giant step for an artist whose family has played such a vital role in her career. Still, it’s a natural progression, and it’s not as if she doesn’t have other family members to bounce ideas off these days.
“Jay’s music is more than music. His lyrics have fathered generations,” she says of her husband of three years. “All that he has overcome gives millions so much hope. There are moments when I see his lips moving and I can see lyrics floating above his head and I think, ‘Wow! How did I get so lucky to be able to witness this level of genius so closely?’”
Whenever I feel bad, I use that feeling to motivate me to work harder,” says a much wiser, more mature Beyoncé, who learned from some early ordeals, including a period of depression during the first breakup of her first group, Destiny’s Child. “I only allow myself one day to feel sorry for myself. People who complain really get on my nerves. When I’m not feeling my best I ask myself, ‘What are you gonna do about it?’ I use the negativity to fuel the transformation into a better me.”
That same call for inner strength was loudly spelled out in Destiny’s Child’s string of smash hits. Songs like “Independent Woman Part 1,” “Survivor,” and the extra-jelly-is-A-OK anthem “Bootylicious” forever linked DC with the term “female empowerment.” As a solo artist, Beyoncé would continue belting out pro-female calls to arms like “Irreplaceable” and “Best Thing I Never Had,” the second single (co-written by Babyface) from 4. Lines like “You showed your ass and I, I saw the real you” and “Oh yeah, I bet it sucks to be you right now,” have become the sassy method by which Bey can connect with her female listeners (the fellas can't deny the tracks either).
Admittedly, there are times when the female unity is not so unified, like when Beyoncé was photographed for the artwork of the “Best Thing” single. She wrote “King B” on a mirror with red lipstick, a nod to womanly control. The problem was that noted video director/tastemaker Vashtie Kola had previously appropriated the royal moniker for herself, and made a sly remark on Twitter about Bey’s use of it.
There have been other confrontational moments—or, at least, perceived conflict. A portion of the public has been convinced for a while now that there’s tension between Beyoncé and her ex-bandmate Kelly Rowland despite the two of them denying reports and appearing together in public as friends. The fact that both released singles on the same day back in ’08 was somehow interpreted to mean that Bey was trying to sabotage Kelly. (This year, the Internet went nuts when Rowland’s latest single, “Motivation,” toppled “Run the World” on iTunes, as if it was some sort of karma.) The gossip queens also insisted there would be a full-scale war between Beyoncé and Lady Gaga even though the two have collaborated twice in the past. The rumors, as it turned out, were just that—rumors.
Then, of course, there is Bey’s “rival” Rihanna. This “feud” at least makes sense to a degree, even if both women have insisted there is no rivalry. The Bajan superstar, who has had a shorter yet stellar career of her own, has repeatedly (and respectfully) stated in interviews that she has always looked up to Beyoncé, rightfully so.
Bey, who continually makes Forbes lists and racks up Grammys (her six wins in one night at the 2010 ceremony is a record for a female artist), doesn’t fret too much over the drama—even if you can tell the question irks her, simply in the asking. “There is room on this earth for many queens,” she begins diplomatically, before drawing a few not-at-all subtle lines of distinction. “I have an authentic, God-given talent, drive, and longevity that will always separate me from everyone else. I’ve been fortunate to accomplish things that the younger generation of queens dream of accomplishing. I have no desire for anyone else’s throne. I am very comfortable in the throne I’ve been building for the past 15 years.”
The funny thing is, her effortless comfort in that throne is the thing that separates her from the competition—the Queen is a commoner at heart. She’s chummy with Oprah and sang the first dance for the new generation President and his wife, but she’ll stop and boogie at a block party while visiting her mother-in-law in West Orange, New Jersey (as captured on a YouTube clip last year).
Beyoncé’s not claiming perfection; she’d just like to be afforded the freedom that goes with being what she rightfully is: one of the most accomplished recording artists of the 21st century. She’d like to explain to you what that’s like, but ultimately, she’s the only one who really knows how it feels. “It’s important to have no boundaries in my music,” she muses. “The beautiful thing about art is that you can create a fantasy in your mind about what you think a song is about. Only the writer truly knows what or whom the song is about.”
Talent and drive. Style and design. The former may come naturally, but the latter are products of work, work, and more work: “I just want my legacy to be great music. Someone who was a risk taker and someone who had songs that struck conversation and emotion.” You can be afraid of 30 if you want, but that’s not what’s keeping Beyoncé up at night.
(STYLING) Matthew Henson and Peju Fajumore. (SET DESIGN) Amir Ebrahimi. (HAIR) Neal Farinah. (MAKEUP) Francesca Tolot. (MANICURIST) Lisa Logan. OPENING SPREAD: Top by OMO Norma Kamali / Shorts by Yigal Azrouël / Necklace by Armani Privé. NEXT SPREAD: Top by Brian Lichtenberg / Bra by The Girl Can’t Help It / Shorts by Kevork Kiledjian / Bracelets and Earrings by Jessica Robinson / Rings by Delfina Delettrez / Shoes by Gianvito Rossi for Hakaan. FOLLOWING SPREAD: Jacket by Moschino / Swimsuit by Lisa Marie Fernandez / Collar by Uncommon Matters / Bracelet and Ring by Jessica Robinson / Bangle by Osanna Visconti. THIS PAGE: Vintage dress by Versace from Resurrection New York.