Beyoncé released this song and its accompanying video on February 7, 2016 - the day before she performed it at the Super Bowl halftime show. Coldplay was the headlining act, but Beyoncé, who got top billing for the halftime show three years earlier, pretty much took over the show. At the conclusion of the show, a spot ran announcing Beyoncé's upcoming Formation world tour.
The Super Bowl is not where you expect to hear a new song (particularly one with "negro" in the lyrics), but Beyoncé is a ringer when it comes to halftime performances, so producers were willing to accommodate.
In this song, Beyoncé expresses pride in her heritage, declaring, "Earned all this money but they never take the country out me" (she was raised in the Houston area). She also makes it clear that her African-American features are an asset, when she sings, "I like my negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils." This line refers to Michael Jackson's pre-surgery nose when he was still in the Jackson 5.
The song is filled with the kind of swagger we're accustomed to hearing from her husband, Jay-Z; she even turns the tables by saying that if her man treats her right, she'll reward him with a trip to Red Lobster. Bey wants her ladies to fall into formation so they can all rise up together.
Beyoncé wrote this song with Swae Lee of Rae Sremmurd. The track was produced by Mike WiLL Made-It and Apluss. It originated when Swae Lee freestyled the words "ladies, let's get in formation" over a Mike WiLL beat. As soon as Beyoncé heard the demo she saw its potential.
There are two guest artists that provide spoken interludes on this track. The first voice we hear is Anthony Barre, who used the name Messy Mya (he was shot dead in New Orleans in 2010). The other voice is Big Freedia, a New Orleans habitué who specializes in Bounce music. These New Orleans voices tie in with the video which takes place in the city.
Melina Matsoukas directed the video, which uses footage from a 2013 documentary about the bounce music scene in New Orleans called That B.E.A.T.
Scenes of a police car going under water and riot police holding their hands up recall Hurricane Katrina and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Matsoukas also did Beyoncé's videos for "Why Don't You Love Me
" and "Pretty Hurts
Beyoncé shout outs the US seafood chain restaurant Red Lobster:
When he f--k me good
I take his ass to Red Lobster
Cause I slay
It's not likely that Jay-Z and Beyoncé will be sharing an Admiral's Feast anytime soon, but Red Lobster got a nice bump from the mention: they saw a spike in sales on February 7, 2016, up 33 percent on the corresponding day in 2015. They also received 42,000 mentions on Twitter in just one hour.
Bill Gates gets a shout out when Beyoncé sings that she "might be a black Bill Gates in the making." So what did the Microsoft founder think of his namecheck? He told tech publication Wired, "Yeah, I hadn't realized that she did that until somebody in the office actually sent me a copy of the lyrics and I said, 'Are you serious? This is kind of a strange set of words here.'"
Beyoncé addressed accusations of the video having an anti-police message in an interview with Elle. "I'm an artist and I think the most powerful art is usually misunderstood," the singer said. "But anyone who perceives my message as anti-police is completely mistaken. I have so much admiration and respect for officers and the families of the officers who sacrifice themselves to keep us safe."
"But let's be clear: I am against police brutality and injustice," Beyoncé added. "Those are two separate things. If celebrating my roots and culture during Black History Month made anyone uncomfortable, those feelings were there long before a video and long before me. I'm proud of what we created and I'm proud to be part of a conversation that is pushing things forward in a positive way."
This won for Video of the Year at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards, where Beyoncé performed the song. It also took the awards for Best Pop Video, Best Choreography (Chris Grant, JaQuel Knight, Dana Foglia), Best Director (Melina Matsoukas), Best Cinematography (Malik Sayeed) and Best Editing (Jeff Selis).
Kanye West later claimed that Bey got the award over "Hotline Bling
" and "Famous
" because she agreed to perform. "Beyoncé, I was hurt because I wanted to present a video called 'Fade' and I don't expect MTV to help me," he said in a November 20, 2106 rant during his concert in Sacramento. "Mr. West, I don't respect you. I will let you know that Beyoncé is winning the video tonight for 'Formation' over 'Hotline Bling' and 'Famous.' They told me beforehand so I wouldn't run on stage."
This was ranked by Time magazine as their Best Song of 2016. They said: "It's the boldest, weirdest song she's ever made, a trap-marching band monster sturdy enough to bear all of that cultural weight."
The "I take his ass to Red Lobster" lyric was originally about luxury fashion designer Maison Margiela. Speaking during a lecture with Red Bull Music Academy in Montreal, Mike WiLL Made-It explained that the lyric was first co-created as a reference track by Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmy of Rae Sremmurd:
"Beyoncé had already reached out to me to send some music and then I had sent a couple ideas," the producer recalled. "We're just messing around and freestyling... Swae Lee had said, 'OK. Now let's get in formation,' and I was like 'Man, what did you say'... that might be hard for Beyoncé, bro."
"He [Swae Lee] went in and he did a whole 'nother freestyle to the beat, but he ended up laying that 'Formation' part and Jxmmi just went in the booth and Jxmmi said, 'If you f--- me good, I'll take your ass to Margiela.' And he was just rapping and s---," Mile WiLL continued. "And then I just took that reference track and just sent it to Beyoncé, along with a couple other reference tracks."
Mike WiLL explained that the majority of the song was written by Beyoncé.
"She wrote all her lyrics for the most part," he said. "The thing is, she's fair. It was a real collaborative effort between me, Pluss, Sremm, and her. We just split everything collectively, but she wrote both of her verses and she got inspired by what Jimmy said."
"From there, it was really more about her family," Mike WiLL added. "It was really more about her family, her heritage and where she comes from, so that's something that Swae Lee or anybody really couldn't write the way she wrote it, because she probably really 'got a hot sauce' in her bag."
The family of the late YouTube personality Messy Myas sued Beyoncé for unauthorized usage. They claimed that the sample used at the start of the track was unauthorized and they didn't receive proper credit for it. The estate sought $20,000,000 in back royalties and other damages.
This won for Best Music Video at the Grammy Awards in 2017. Lemonade also won for Best Urban Contemporary Album.
This topped Rolling Stone's list of the greatest music videos of all time compiled in honor of MTV's 40th anniversary. The magazine said: "If Beyoncé's self-titled visual album established her as one of the greatest artists of all time, her surprise-released 'Formation' video (and ensuing album Lemonade) marked her as one of the most important."