The booty shaking goddess with a talent matched only by her beauty. The performer of our generation is back with her masterpiece, get ready to bow down once again at the house of Beyoncé.
Beyoncé by Matt Jones
Beyoncé Knowles looks astonished.
She buries her head into her elegantly manicured fingertips and pushes it into the neckline of her white bathrobe. An overwhelming sense of personal embarrassment is overtaking her. She looks stunning, naturally, hair scraped back into a bun with not so much as a layer of foundation on.
"They actually played a 'we-love-Beyoncé' medley?"
They did. One week before we travel to Manhattan for an audience with Ms Knowles, her record company has orchestrated an early listening session for five scorching tracks from her new opus, B'Day (it is a pun on the release date - her birthday, September 4th - and nothing to do with the French lavatorial situation). The assorted UK print, TV and radio media that are interested in Beyoncé - thus, essentially, everyone - have been assembled at a fetching inner London hotel sanctum to quaff champagne, eat canapés and get a sharp dose of her particularly affecting new take on the funk.
I'm looking at timeless now," says Beyoncé, a rare thread of confidence seeping into her voice, "I want this record to be played in 30 years time. I want to play it to my children. And I want to make them proud. If I have done this right then this is going to be my own Writing's On The Wall.
But first we must wade through the obligatory, obsequious platitudes heaped upon her, in her absence, by an elective from her US record company, a portly fellow by the name of Goose. Then the medley. A video screen descends from above and select highlights from Beyoncé's entire musical opus - grinding with her boyfriend, Jay-Z, strutting in a stadium as the Bushes applaud virulently, vibing off Prince, tributising Tina, hollering The Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl, not to mention all the superjams you have come to know and love from her joint supremacy with Destiny's Child and singular supremacy solo - are condensed into ten minutes of audio-visual soundbite. For approximately two seconds, I imagine Mr Goose travelling the world, like some sleep-deprived travelling salesman for Beyoncé Inc., before the opening and now immortal horn break of Crazy In Love fires in. At this precise moment I forget about everything that exists in the world apart from the futuristic, streamlined groove emitting from the house of Beyoncé.
The message is crystal clear, and one that Beyoncé herself will quietly acquiesce to and echo over our time in her company. In an age where the Hilton-Ritchie axis of fame has come to define 'celebrity', Beyoncé Knowles has come to define 'stardom'. Next stop? Legend. But first, we must sort out this thing called Beyoncé and who she is. Beyoncé Knowles has quietly engineered a position for herself in an elaborately confessional celebrity age in which nobody knows much about her, at all. If she has failed in anything, it is in tapping our collective National Enquirer graph. In Destiny's Child, when the dual foil of her cousin Kelly Rowland and gospel-hollering neighbour Michelle Williams protected her, it hardly mattered. After the initial misfire of their self-titled, neo-soul debut album, the trio knuckled under to define a new epoch of girl-pop empowerment at the end of the last millennium, beginning with the clipped R&B menace of Bills, Bills, Bills and bowing out on a glorious high with their hot military stomp, Lose My Breath. Their breakthrough record, the multimillion selling The Writings On The Wall, would come to sit alongside Mary J Blige's What's The 411? and TLC's CrazySexyCool as the sound of urban female American attitude in the 1990s.
Initially, the Destiny's Child brand was stronger than the individuals it incubated, though a corroboration of stunning dance manoeuvres, vocal licks and a hungry bodyswerve towards the spotlight steadily marked out Beyoncé as both Destiny's mistress and its star. She became a new benchmark for ambition and a ruthless, almost maniacal bellwether for showmanship. Beyoncé morphed into the compelling female performer of her age. She didn't come just to leave other female R&B singers quivering in her shade; there was simply no other female of her generation that commanded attention like her. The closest equivalent you could find in popular culture to watching Beyoncé command a stage was watching a Williams sister's winning serve at a Wimbledon final. Many lesser singers attempted to borrow Beyoncé's moves - the stirring booty shake, the narrow eye to camera, the frenetic way her voice could mirror both bassline and staccato drum trill, all at once - but none matched them.
Which makes Beyoncé in the flesh all the more confusing. It is almost impossible to join the dots between the human being and her full- voltage stage electricity. The natural, if cynical reaction to this has tended to presume that the head of the house of Beyoncé is actually some kind of automaton, groomed for success from an early age by her vicariously ambitious parents, manager father, Matthew, and wardrobe mistress mother, Tina. Yet strip away the coy tentativeness from a conversation with Beyoncé and little could appear to be further from the truth. She has warmth by the shovel-load, an appealing, girlish laugh and even a tactile tendency to tap your knee for affirmation. She is very, very Southern (at 24 years of age she confesses to the fact that she's "just getting used to New York") and has impeccable manners. The diva thing is clearly saved for the stage.
I can break loose. Yeah, it [Crazy In Love] was sexy. For the first time. I felt that thing and let it go.
Do you sometimes feel like people want to attack you for being private in a culture where we know everything about everybody?
How do you manage the celebrity age?
Do you know what? Honestly? I don't know.
Why aren't you gossiped about like Paris and Nicole or Britney? Is it because your talent earns you the right not to be?
I hope that's why. I'd love to think that's true. But it's weird. There are little things that are passed about. People do say things that I hear once in a while. It's nothing so offensive that I feel like I have to speak out about it and set the record straight. And I understand it. I just hope that people don't make up really ugly things like they do about other people. I hope I don't get patronised or harassed but that is the game now, isn't it? You just sit and hope it doesn't happen to you because everyone seems to have this need for endless information. Maybe it's because I've never really talked about private things, so people don't expect me to. Because I don't really go out looking for that. Maybe people see that. Who knows? I think I have been fortunate enough to have respect from the media. They do seem to have respected my privacy. But when I was growing up and loving Michael and En Vogue and Mariah I wanted to know things about their private life. I wanted to know they were human beings just like me. I understand the curiosity because I've had it.
Do you read the celebrity magazines?
Yes I do! I must say.
Naughty. Do you find them interesting?
Yeah, I do. My mother reads them, that's the problem. And she tells me 'you know such and such did this' and I'm like 'momma, they probably didn't! How could you possibly repeat anything from there when you know they sometimes write stuff about me that is so not true.' Like, last week there was a story that I put Jay on a diet. Apparently he can't have any candy. He doesn't even like candy! It's this whole, big, hilarious lie.
You understand the subtext, though, that he's under your thumb?
[laughs] Yeah, like I'm gangster. I'm like Lil' Kim! We're pure gangster. [explodes in laughter]
Don't mess with Kimberley.
Do you think you and Jay-Z are like the hip-hop Clinton administration?
[laughs] Go! Why?
Well, we'll never know exactly what goes on behind closed doors but the work you're putting in and the quality control is so high it kind of doesn't matter...
That's great. Thank you. I'll take that. I really like that idea. I'm having it!
Jay's an incredible man.
You met him?
I sat in his office!
He is [goes off to some wistful place]. He sure is an incredible man. Wow. You sat in his office? That's where the magic happens, baby.
I want you to get Swizz [Beatz], I want you to get Rich [Harrison] and Rodney [Jerkins] in the studio. I want three rooms and to see what happens.' That's what we did and two weeks later I had my record.
I called my dad and told him it's done. He was like 'you're supposed to be resting. You told me you don't want to do a record.' It was magical.
Over the last three years, Beyoncé Knowles has become interested in her own maturation. Two key events have happened. One, she met her first true love. Two, her baby sister Solange eschewed the Knowles' career path of singer and performer - she supported Destiny's on the 2002 Arena tour of Europe and America - to play the part of the young wife and mother. Because she's just back from vacation in Miami with sister and nephew, this stuff is still fresh in Beyoncé's mind. And it kind of freaks her out.
"It does. It was amazing spending time with her just then and seeing the reality of how beautiful and tough having a baby is. Just watching all the things that she went through emotionally. It was initially very shocking. I was like 'are you serious?' My baby sister is a wife and cooks better than me and is a great mother and I just freak out if the baby starts crying. And she's really amazing at it. And she's only 20." She isn't ready for kids herself yet - "not for two or three years. At least!" - perhaps mirroring her own experience as a child. She says that she was a shy kid, something she didn't lose "until I was maybe 19 or 20" though there are still elements of that shyness about her now, further distancing her from the confidence-on-legs that appears on stage. She didn't feel comfortable around other children and always preferred the company of adults. There is a distinct sense with Beyoncé that she has been waiting to be a woman all her life and that part of the initial buzz of Destiny's as an early teenager was about trying on the outfits of womanhood for size.
When she reminisces back to helping out in her mother's hair salon, Headliners, with the checkerboard floor and the 12 stations, her anecdotes are riddled with the idea of escape from her own peer group, something that has equally marked her performing career. "While I was around the adults in the hair salon I thought I was one of them," she says, rich with nostalgia, "I'd act like their girlfriends and I would be eavesdropping and listening to their conversations and I'd put in my two cents and my mom was like 'girl! you supposed to be sweeping the floors!' I would play receptionist and answer the phones. 'Headliners hair salon, how may I help you?' I loved being around all that female energy."
She would perform for the women having their bangs attended to at Headliners - "And they'd be like 'girlfriend, can't you just put me under the dryer and tell her to stop'" - but says that many of the old customers come to her concerts now with their daughters "and they'll say 'I knew her when she was nothing. Nothing!'"
If there is an underlying feeling around Beyoncé that she gave up her childhood in search of her own brilliant escape as an artist, she regrets none of it. I ask if she ever thinks she might have benefited from going to college instead of touring the group and after a little think she says, no, she wouldn't. "You know what? I don't think college would have worked for me. I wouldn't have gone to the parties. I would have been so quiet. I know what I would have been like at college. A bookworm. If socially is the reason I sometimes regret it then it's probably for the best that I didn't go. I would have retreated."
If there were hints in Destiny's that she had foregone a traditional ascent into womanhood, then that has long since been parlayed.
Beyoncé can herself identify the moment that sexiness became part of her performance. "Of course I can," she laughs nervously, "you can see a line. It begins with Work It Out, then it's starting to get a bit more provocative in [her first co-credit with Jay-Z] Bonnie And Clyde '03. And then by [her second] Crazy In Love it is all there."
You're a sexy performer.
I can break loose. Yeah, it was sexy. For the first time. I felt that thing and let it go.
It doesn't take Dr Freud to join the dots of what went on here. The story of B'Day's conception is equally as pivotal in the Beyoncé trajectory of maturity. It is quite a tail. Having wrapped the film Dreamgirls, in which she plays the character loosely based on Diana Ross from the smash Broadway musical, Beyoncé had found a new fire in her soul.
"[her character] Deena is trying to find her voice. She was held back and she was hurting with her husband who was using her like some kind of puppet and I guess what I did with the record was all the things that she needed to do for herself. I could channel her and do it myself. Because I worked on the movie for six months I thought I would be exhausted and want some time off but it had exactly the opposite effect. It inspired me so much. I kept coming up with concepts and I thought I had to go to the studio. I had a new A&R guy, Max, who my dad found. I just met him a couple of times and told him 'look, this is our first time working together and I'm gonna have to trust you. I don't want you to tell my dad, the label, my mom, your wife! I don't want anybody you know to know that we're going to do this. I want you to get Swizz [Beatz], I want you to get Rich [Harrison] and Rodney [Jerkins] in the studio. I want three rooms and to see what happens.' That's what we did and two weeks later I had my record. I called my dad and told him it's done. He was like 'you're supposed to be resting. You told me you don't want to do a record.' It was magical."
I tell her I love the sound of the A&R meeting and ask her if she threw a hat down on the table at the end of it all.
"No," she demurs, before toughening a little in her stride, "But I shoulda."
Prepare yourself for Beyoncé time once more, because this time she means business. If there was some valid fear that the towering edifice of its introductory single overshadowed her solo debut Dangerously In Love, there is no such danger this time around. Deja Vu has a bass-throb that is meticulously time-stretched to eternity and hooks so solid they lodge in the brain after a first listen. "It is," says its author, "the kind of record you can listen to 100 times and never tire of."
But behind the opening groove there's a catalogue of enchanting street moves designed to pulsate through the public conscious over the coming year. Freak 'Em Dress manages to marry that unique symbiosis of praise-be acolyte and willing harlot that Beyoncé has fine-tuned over her ascent to the top of the pop tree. There is a cowbell symphony fashioned with Work It Out collaborator Pharell Williams that escalates into a thundering, atonal, techno chorus. It is sterling stuff. "I'm looking at timeless now," says Beyoncé, a rare thread of confidence seeping into her voice, "I want this record to be played in 30 years time. I want to play it to my children. And I want to make them proud. If I have done this right then this is going to be my own Writing's On The Wall."
Text Paul Flynn
Photography Matt Jones
Styling Marina Burini
[The Health Issue, No. 268, August 06]