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Master Class

We Break Down Exactly Why Beyonce's "Formation" Is (Non-Traditional) Ear-Crack

Police boycotts be damned. Beyoncé's "Formation" isn't just good—it's an evolution of song form.

We Break Down Exactly Why Beyonce's "Formation" Is (Non-Traditional) Ear-Crack

It’s been a few weeks since Beyoncé dropped the flaming hot single "Formation" in our laps, upstaged Coldplay (naturally) at the Super Bowl performing said single, and then clenched the weekend of the century by announcing a world tour starting this summer.

But, apparently, because black people can’t have nice things (yeah, I said it), a certain breed of exceptionally salty haters immediately cried foul over the pro-black lyrics and video imagery for "Formation." And no wailing has been louder than police forces across the country.

Since Beyoncé and her squad’s nod to the Black Panthers during the Super Bowl Halftime Show, police officers in Florida, New York, Tennessee, and beyond have gone full-tilt Bey bashing, claiming her political message with "Formation" is anti-police.

To quote Queen Bey herself, "You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation."

Instead of misinterpreting the lyrics of "Formation," how about we focus on how the song itself is verified ear crack. And it’s not just because it’s Beyoncé—the structure of "Formation" breaks from the norm of contemporary pop, tripping the listener up in the most glorious way possible.

"It feels new because you get a little bit lost in the form—you’re not being catered to," says Mike Errico, a singer-songwriter and adjunct instructor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. "[Producer/songwriter] Max Martin is very much a caterer—he’s a good escort and he’s a reliable narrator, musically. But this is actually pushing it. You don’t have control of the plane. That’s something that’s exciting about this."

What’s happening in "Formation" is what Errico describes as not necessarily a break from the traditional verse-chorus form, but an evolution of it.

"I do suspect that the way present-day songs are conceived does impact the ways writers chose to innovate," Errico says. "For instance, if you are writing a melody over a groove that is static, looped, and extended out—a process referred to as ‘toplining’—a creative mind will accept the track as an unmovable parameter and generate interest by changing up the melodies and hooks. At the end of a topline session, the writing team may have several sections they love, but instead of tossing them out in order to preserve preconceived notions of song form, they will line them up and make multiple hook-laden sections out of each."

The switching beats and snippet-like lyrics seem to condition our brains to listen a little harder—you hit replay over and over because you feel like you missed something the first, second, or third time.

Errico gave "Formation" a thorough listen—like everyone else in the world—and annotated the lyrics, highlighting elements of the song’s unique structure. So hit play and get "information"—see what I did there?

VERSE 1

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
I'm so possessive so I rock his Roc necklaces

PRE-CHORUS

My daddy Alabama, my ma Louisiana
You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama

CHORUS

[Errico: "While this is not repeated (a characteristic of choruses) it is set up like a normal chorus would be—it's a kind of deception. When you think you've reached the summit, guess what...you haven’t."]

I like my baby heir 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 "SUPER-CHORUS"

[Errico: "One could simply call it the second half of the chorus and not be 'wrong,' but to my ear, it's a new plateau that could exist on its own. Unlike a bridge, which functions in relation to sections that precede it, this section blows what we thought was the chorus out of the water. Hence, the name ‘super-chorus.’"]

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

THE POST-SUPER-CHORUS

[Errico: "If you buy the term ‘super-chorus,’ then logically, this is the post-super-chorus. It serves the same function that many Max Martin/Dr. Luke 'post-choruses' do—Katy perry's ‘Roar’ being a particularly sticky example. It's characterized by a de-emphasis on actual words and a stress on infectious repetition for its own sake. In this way, a section like this ‘internationalizes’ a song, since knowing the language is not required in order to jump in and participate. This works for K-Pop, Beyoncé, or any soccer-stadium anthem with lyrics that basically read like a string of ‘whoa’s.’"]

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)
I slay (okay), okay (okay), I slay (okay), okay, okay, okay, okay

VERSE 2.1

[Errico: "The second verse often builds variations on the themes of verse one, and we see that here. Basic verse elements remain and the rhyme scheme stays close to the ‘AAAA’ of verse one. However, she retains the ‘cause I slay’ hook from the post-super-chorus. I know, that sounds crazy to me, too. In short, at this point we're getting some repetition, but it's also being recast."]

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

VERSE 2.2

[Errico: "I’m calling it ‘2.2’ and not simply verse three because it's building off verse two and retaining the post-super-chorus hook at the end of the lines. Rhyme scheme remains ‘AAAA,’ although liberties are being taken with ‘chopper’/‘shop up.’"]

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

VERSE 2.3

[Errico: "This retains qualities of verses 2.1 and 2.2, but the arrangement is scaled back. The breakdown is a new look at the verse form we're hearing for the third time in a row, and her stripped vocal delivery serves as a callback to verse one. Breaking the arrangement down also creates contrast, and the following super-chorus will sound that much louder because of the relative quiet that preceded it. This technique was used to great effect by Nirvana in ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ and by Max Martin/Dr. Luke—among others—in the breakdown after the bridge of Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Since U Been Gone.’ These three verses in a row are not common, and I think it’s a symptom of the topline writing style."]

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

SUPER-CHORUS

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

POST-SUPER-CHORUS

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)
I slay (okay), okay (okay), I slay (okay), okay, okay, okay, okay

VERSE 2.1b

[Errico: "Very traditional, and sung in the style of the verse at the top of the song. A kind of bookend is created, and the song lands with a summarizing bit of wisdom/advice. From a songwriting standpoint, this is practically Dylanesque."]

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

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