Beyoncé is about a quarter of the way through her Formation World Tour, and if you don’t have tickets by now, you’re likely not going to see it, which is a damn shame. Hers is perhaps the most electric live show currently playing — and with the passing of Prince, the forever-king of live performance, there are few, if any, challengers to her crown. I held court with the best of the Beyhive at San Francisco’s Levi’s Stadium on the gloriously long evening of May 16. It was a homecoming that could have been awkward. Beyoncé last played here in February when she woke up the Super Bowl halftime show with her debut performance of “Formation,” which sparked controversy for its call to action against police brutality. No hard feelings, though. On this night, as at the Super Bowl, she played to a sold-out crowd. Nothing compares to seeing Beyoncé’s blond waves swinging through the air and her body gyrating in front of your eyes, or hearing her voice project across a football field then back again, seemingly delivered directly to your ears alone. But here’s my best attempt to give you a sense of what it’s like to get in formation with the queen. Three hours to showtime: It’s sooo early, but there’s already a line of cars ensnarling the venue. I get a good parking space, which only cost $50. I don’t blame Beyoncé for this robbery, nor for the $8 vegan hot dog and $7 lemonade (of course) that had to suffice as dinner. Two hours to showtime: Beyoncé tailgating is a thing. I park myself next to a group of three friends who've known each other for 11 years. They have a cooler full of sugar-free Red Bull and Sprite, which they pair with tequila shots. They spread out folding chairs and nosh on grilled salmon salads. The trunk of their Subaru Outback is open, and out of it blares Beyoncé through the years — from Destiny’s Child-era “Bills, Bills, Bills” to “Formation.” More cars park and crank up Beyoncé. None of the songs play in unison, but the result is a mashup as good as any DJ could spin. One hour to showtime: Beyoncé fans are in epic form. A pregnant woman wears a homemade “Bey” T-shirt that stretches perfectly across her third-trimester-size belly. When I ask to take her picture, she assumes the power stance: middle fingers up. There’s a trio of Beyoncés: “Hold Up” Beyoncé, dressed in a yellow dress with long, flowing waves; “Miss 3rd Ward” Beyoncé, displaying a pageant sash and perfect bouffant à la the “Pretty Hurts” video; and “6-Inch” Beyoncé, sporting waist-length braids and a fierce Baron hat. Countless women are sporting blond cornrows, gray jumpsuits, and military-inspired leotards, all nods to B’s various looks in the Lemonade visual album. 30 minutes to showtime: There’s a glowing cube in the center of the main stage that stretches up into the night sky. Each of its four sides is an LCD projection screen. During the show, a roving camera on the stage follows Beyoncé’s every move and broadcasts it on the screens, ensuring that every fan has a front-row seat to her performance. Scheduled showtime (7:30 p.m.): Warm-up act DJ Khaled appears with fog machines and hypes the crowd up with sing-alongs to Tupac’s “California Love,” DMX’s “Lose My Mind” and Jay Z’s “Izzo,” the song in which he dubs himself God. No booing, but the reaction is mild. 8 p.m.: DJ Khaled brings out '90s-era rappers Too $hort and E-40. The stadium floor vibrates from all the bass, and a little from the spontaneous screaming and jumping that’s happening. Everyone can sense Bey’s impending arrival.
Beyoncé seems to be issuing a commandment to all the women in attendance and perhaps all the women in the world: Stand up and say you're fucking awesome. Be fucking awesome. Be like Beyoncé.
8:45 p.m.: The lights shut off and the smoke machines kick up. Flashes of Beyoncé’s face fill the cube as it turns. The twangy opening notes to “Formation” blare through the speakers, and 50,000 people lose their fucking minds. Dressed in a black-and-gold long-sleeved bodysuit and flanked by a team of all-female dancers, she performs a quartet of self-confidence anthems: “Formation” followed by “Sorry” (she so isn’t); “Bow Down,” featuring red fireworks shooting from the stage; and “Run the World (Girls),” which one-ups the fireworks with volcano-sized flame shooters. 9:25 p.m.: Beyoncé and the dancers go backstage to change as we watch a video of naked women walking through flower fields, followed by an aggressive video montage featuring Beyoncé wearing diamonds as a mask, chewing on razor blades, and smashing car windows. The cube opens up like a puzzle to reveal dancers hanging like angels as Bey — now dressed in a fluttering cream bodysuit that looks like the Seinfeld puffy shirt after a sexy makeover — sings “Mine.” Members of Beyoncé’s Beyhive fan club occupy special pits on either side of the main stage. They are treated to face-to-face interaction with Queen B. She squeezes hands, caresses cheeks, and shoves her golden microphone in their faces. They respond by singing along to “Baby Boy,” “Hold Up,” and “Countdown.” Their perfection makes her giggle. Her giggle causes the rest of the crowd to shriek, “I love you, Beyoncé!” 9:40 p.m.: Members of the all-female backing band get some solo time, slaying drum and guitar interludes and reminding us that the power on this stage — from every single body on this stage — is that of a strong, confident woman. 9:45 p.m.: Shh, Beyoncé is talking!: "This song talks about the most important relationship in your life; the one you have with yourself. Every other relationship is a bonus. I am so grateful for all of you," she says to introduce “Me Myself and I.” 9:50 p.m.: The cube is turning again and Beyoncé is on it, drowning. The real B emerges and performs the Naughty Boy cover “Runnin’ (Lose It All).” Then Beyoncé talks to us again: “This song is my favorite because it’s about redemption — the peaceful calm after the storm.” She throws her soul into an all-out performance of “All Night” as home videos of Beyoncé, Jay Z, and Blue Ivy grace the screen. On Lemonade, this sentiment of forgiveness closes the narrative. During this show, it sets up the storm. The cube takes over again — broadcasting snippets of Lemonade — as Beyoncé disappears to prep for the next segment. When she emerges, she’s wearing a two-piece red-and-gold sequined bodysuit. Her lead guitarist is wailing on a solo. The stage is cast in red. The fire is back. And Beyoncé is sneering. “Who the fuck do you think I is?” She pauses. The crowd roars. This is the mad-as-hell portion of the evening. Her dancers, also in gold, also mean-mugging like crazy, perform hair-flipping, deep-squatting, routines to “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” “Ring the Alarm,” a mashup of “Independent Women Part 1” and “Diva,” a bit of Nicki Minaj’s “Feeling Myself,” and finally, “Flawless.” During the latter, Beyoncé seems to be issuing a commandment to all the women in attendance and perhaps all the women in the world: Stand up and say you're fucking awesome. Be fucking awesome. Be like Beyoncé. 10:15 p.m.: After another cube video montage, B is back and she’s wearing red latex. We’ve reached the sex portion of the show. Beyoncé writhes to “Yonce,” “Drunk in Love,” “Rocket,” and “Partition.” The cube opens and closes like two legs, a blinding light shining from the crease. Mirrored panels open doors that turn into compartments filled with leather straps, which Beyoncé and her dancers play on. She mixes in the chorus of D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” the only song that evokes even sexier imagery than what’s being presented on stage. She finishes this segment by dry-humping a chair that could have been designed by JimmyJane. 10:29 p.m.: Beyoncé has changed into a black-and-gold military leotard and it’s time for “Daddy Lessons,” which she lets the audience sing most of. We’re not bad. But when she asks us to sing “Love on Top,” which requires four key changes, we can’t quite get there. She rewards us anyway with a serenade of “1+1,” which she sings on her knees. 10:40 p.m.: “I thank God I was alive to witness Prince,” Beyoncé says before braving a cover of “The Beautiful Ones.” I’m not sure anyone alive can — or should — cover Prince to perfection. Beyoncé comes close. When she finishes the song on her knees, she disappears, the cube turns purple, and Prince is singing “Purple Rain” over the speakers. Tens of thousands of smartphones sway to the music. The crowd sings along, and some of us cry. It still hurts. When Beyoncé comes back, she’s in a box singing a dark and twisty version of “Crazy in Love.” Her slowed-down, “Uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, oh no no,” feels like a warning. It’s eerie, and the crowd stills a bit. Then she’s out of the box and strutting down the stage’s catwalk to the original track of the song. Bouncy Beyoncé is back! She puts that wiggle into “Naughty Girl,” “Party,” and “Blow.” 10:56 p.m.: We’re treated to a home-video montage of Blue Ivy frolicking in typical Carter family locales: the 50-yard line at the Super Bowl, a yacht, a five-star suite. 11:05 p.m.: Beyoncé and her tribe of dancers walk out to the end of the catwalk, which is now filled with water. They begin to march in circles as the music to “Freedom” begins. It’s perfectly placed in this set. We’re well into the third hour, and I have seen some yawns. But when Bey sings, “Tryna rain, tryna rain on the thunder / Tell the storm I’m new,” everyone wakes up. And if that didn’t do it, she and her dancers splash water into the faces of the immediate audience. Spray from Beyoncé’s feet flies directly into my eyes, up my nose, and — somehow — under my iPhone case. I’m grateful. I have been baptized. “Survivor” is next, and the crowd sings along to every word. The dancers then leave Beyoncé in the water alone. She playfully kicks drops at the fans, who beg for more. She twirls in the water — Sound of Music style — her hair now soaked and plastered to her body. She ends the show alone, barefoot and wet, singing “Halo” along with a stadium full of backup singers. We nail this one. 11:15 p.m.: Beyoncé has disappeared under the stage. She blew us her last goodbye kisses. The stadium lights blare on, visibly shocking everyone. People begin the long, slow exit. Mothers scoop up their young daughters who wear sleepy smiles on their faces. Couples — gay, straight, mixed-race — link arms and nuzzle as they walk out. Gaggles of girlfriends teeter out on their stilettos, not caring about their aching feet, still owning their wardrobe armor. Everyone wears the same expression of awe.