Much like Simone Biles in gymnastics or Ryan Lochte in stunning feats of idiocy, Beyoncé is really just competing against herself at this point.
Earlier this year, the reigning queen of pop music and also the world raised the awards show performance bar at the 15th annual BET Awards. From the excerpt of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech to the foot of water that blanketed the stage, Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar’s rendition of “Freedom” was pitch-perfect. It’s rare to find a performer so confident in her own charisma that she voluntarily chooses to follow the disembodied voice of Martin Luther King Jr., let alone one who can seamlessly bookend her sociopolitical commentary with perfectly executed gyrations.
At Sunday’s VMAs, Beyoncé upped the ante, performing a medley of songs from her groundbreaking visual album Lemonade. In terms of marketing, music, and sheer pettiness, it’s safe to say that Lemonade is the defining concept album of 2016. Imma let you finish Kimye, but Beyoncé is the true mastermind behind the year of celebrity receipts. Beyoncé’s tangy-sweet creation led the nation through a lush narrative, darting between southern plantations and empty parking lots. It also told a story—fiction, true tabloid fodder or something in between—of a husband’s infidelities and a wife’s journey toward acceptance. Because when life gives you a cheating rap mogul husband, you make millions of dollars by humiliating him via his own streaming service.
On Sunday night, our patron saint of catchphrases and hairography did not disappoint. The medley opened, just like Lemonade, with Warsan Shire’s poetry: “I tried to make a home out of you. But doors lead to trap doors.” Naturally, Beyoncé is wearing one of her many massive hats; the better to throw shade under. She is also draped in a massive white fur cape—because she is Beyoncé, this will not be the last white fur cape she debuts during this performance. From the get-go, we’re getting heavy smoke machines, flame imagery, and a full spectrum of flashing colored lights.
But what Beyoncé lacks in subtlety, she more than makes up for in giving the people what they want. Her Lemonade medley hit almost every one of the album’s most iconic moments, from “Are you cheating on me?” to “Ashes to ashes, dust to side chicks.” And don’t think that the presence of a visibly terrified, transfixed Rita Ora in the crowd was going to stop Bey from calling out Becky with the good hair.
After Louboutin-stomping her way through an epic rendition of “Hold Up,” pulling out her trusty bat and smashing the camera, Beyoncé segues into “Sorry.” For this portion of the performance Beyoncé, a woman who has born a child, is wearing a pair of performance underwear and over-the-knee leather boots. Spoiler alert: Beyoncé can pull this look off. After scaring away every Becky within a hundred-mile radius, Mrs. Carter slips into something a little more comfortable: her second fur of the evening.
Next comes “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” and Bey struts up and down the stage and works the camera like an ANTM contestant. This portion of Beyoncé’s performance is also marked by the reckless antics of a random audience member hysterically trying to get on stage and occupy Beyoncé’s shot. In a way, this wasted white girl who had to be physically restrained from performing alongside Beyoncé is us all.
“Tonight I’m fucking up all your shit, boy.” With this not-at-all-veiled threat, Beyoncé is immediately surrounded by flames. Poor Jay Z.
For most performers, a promise to annihilate their husbands followed by an explosion of fire would be a pretty good finale. But Beyoncé isn’t going to give up a single second of her unheard of 16 minutes of airtime. Cue “Formation,” Lemonade’s highly political ode to black women and post-Katrina New Orleans.
At the beginning of this performance, we were at the VMAs, just waiting to see how badly Britney would screw up her lip-synching. Now, five songs in, we’re firmly entrenched in Beyoncé’s world. You can tell because the crowd of backup dancers is now fully outfitted in their own huge hats, and seems to be growing exponentially. Beyoncé is slaying, the smoke machine is turned up to 11, and the dancers are performing some sort of elaborate, landed synchronized swimming routine. As the crowd bursts into thunderous applause, Beyoncé hits her last beat and goes silent. All around her, the dancers have fallen to the floor, their bodies forming a Venus symbol, the universal sign for women and femininity. There are no words. Better luck next time, Britney!