A Yellow-Bone’s Analysis of Beyonce’s “Formation”

Like most of Black America, I watched Beyonce’s “Formation” video yesterday in wonder. And like most of America (not just Black America) I’ve had dozens of opinions flash across my newsfeed. As a fellow “yellow bone,” I’d like to weigh in and suggest that Beyoncé’s lyrics are revolutionary not because they express a unique viewpoint, but because this viewpoint was expressed by one of the most salient Black women in America. I also argue that Beyoncé uses the sometimes “-shallow” lyricism of traditional Pop and R&B songs to dismantle, or at least disrupt, the very genre itself.

Here is my (layman’s) analysis, stanza by stanza*:

What happened at the New Wil’ins?

Bitch, I’m back by popular demand

Beyoncé begins “Formation” with a standard self-aggrandizing line, but with an almost slip-of-the-tongue reference to Hurricane Katrina at the forefront, signaling a shift from the norm.

Y’all haters corny with that illuminati mess

Paparazzi, catch my fly, and my cocky fresh

I’m so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress (stylin’)

I’m so possessive so I rock his Roc necklaces

Again, Beyoncé is using a common tool to establish herself to her listeners and viewers, but with emphasis on her appearance and outward persona, which she will soon challenge.

My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana

You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama

I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros

I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils

Earned all this money but they never take the country out me

I got a hot sauce in my bag, swag

The most famous lines of “Formation,” these bold words assert Beyoncé’s self-acceptance, not just as a “yellow bone,” light-skinned pop star, but also as a Black woman who loves her Black features. “Afros,” “negro nose” and “Jackson Five nostrils” are all representative of the stereotyped features of both “revolutionary” and “unsexy” Blacks, as defined by media representation and Western standards of beauty. If Beyoncé wanted to praise features most aligned with “Black beauty,” she would instead have discussed other body parts, such as her “big lips” and “big butt.” Instead, she focuses on what makes her powerfully, and almost defensively, Black.

Oh yeah, baby, oh yeah I, ohhhhh, oh, yes, I like that

I did not come to play with you hoes, haha

I came to slay, bitch

I like cornbreads and collard greens, bitch

Oh, yes, you besta believe it

To me, these lines represent Beyoncé’s singular focus. In my mind’s eye, she’s expressing her desire not to just “shake her booty” with other performers, but rather to assert her place in the entertainment industry, all the while not letting go of — or whitewashing — her Black roots.

I see it, I want it, I stunt, yellow-bone it

I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it

I twirl on them haters, albino alligators

El Camino with the seat low, sippin’ Cuervo with no chaser

Here is Beyoncé’s first and only direct reference to her light skin. Over the course of her career, she has amassed fans that cross boundaries of race, culture and class. Ever aware of her light skin, she has used it as a platform to blend her way into the mainstream, only to then both own her dreams and own — literally — a large fortune. Her Southern roots enable her to slip those “albino alligators” (white haters) over her shoulder. She cruises down El Camino Real, a historic locale of brown-skinned consumerist pride.

Sometimes I go off (I go off), I go hard (I go hard)

Get what’s mine (take what’s mine), I’m a star (I’m a star)

Cause I slay (slay), I slay (hey), I slay (okay), I slay (okay)

All day (okay), I slay (okay), I slay (okay), I slay (okay)

We gon’ slay (slay), gon’ slay (okay), we slay (okay), I slay (okay)

Most indefinitely, these are the lines that cause many academics to dismiss Beyoncé’s lyrics as shallow and one-note. At first listen, it seems as though she is purporting the idea that she’s just another “diva,” and her repetition of “I slay” could come across as unintellectual. These lines are also perhaps the ones that most rely on the video images in order to convey their true meaning.

Beyoncé is never alone while singing these lines. Sometimes she’s dancing in military fashion with her crew, and sometimes she’s contorting and shaking her booty in true pop form. In the former case, she’s not slaying for herself. She’s slaying for us all — for the dark- and light-skinned women and men of America. Those who have become displaced from Hurricane Katrina, those who have experienced police brutality or live in fear of such experience. During her contortions, she’s almost not present. It’s as if her body and mind are on separate spheres. She’s doing what people want, all the while focused on a goal that goes beyond stardom, as if she can see right through this façade.

When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster, cause I slay

When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster, cause I slay

If he hit it right, I might take him on a flight on my chopper, cause I slay

Drop him off at the mall, let him buy some J’s, let him shop up, cause I slay

Okay, here I can’t speak with any authority about Beyoncé’s meaning. I comfortably know my place and sit on the bleachers while my other sisters feel the power of these words. I’ve never had Red Lobster, but judging from my friends’ reactions, it means something.

I might get your song played on the radio station, cause I slay

I might get your song played on the radio station, cause I slay

You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making, cause I slay

I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making

In both these lines and the one before, Beyoncé seems to be coyly, and rightly, putting men in their place. As a billionaire and VIP, Beyoncé is above many men in status and power. Yet, some may think she owes them something, simply because they’re men. “Sure,” she says, “You might be a Black Bill Gates in the making. But you know what? I already am.”

Okay, okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation, cause I slay

Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation, cause I slay

Prove to me you got some coordination, cause I slay

Slay trick, or you get eliminated

Beyoncé is inviting other Black women to join the revolution. She’s not so daft as to think that she can go at this alone, nor does she want to. She knows that despite her wealth, there is equal power in numbers. However, she also knows how easy it is to lose everything, reiterating the importance of continued dedication and resolve.

Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation, I slay

Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation

You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation

Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper

She knows she’s about to cause a conversation. “Keep above the fray,” she says, “because wealth and credentials are the best revenge.”

Girl, I hear some thunder

Golly, look at that water, boy, oh lord

She knows she’s about to get backlash, from conservatives, from the police, and from politicians. But she’s ready, because she has us with her.

*I noticed that Genius.com has its own analysis. I’m purposefully ignoring reading through them, as I want to specifically share my layman’s viewpoint, which, of course, represents Beyoncé’s target audience.