“Tonight, I want to tell you guys my story,” Beyoncé divulged to a sold-out crowd at New York’s Roseland Ballroom last night. The 90-minute, guest-free show, the first of four this week, found the 29-year-old diva splitting the difference between hushed torch singer and stadium belter, running through a 30-minute revue of her greatest hits before performing virtually all of 4, her latest album released earlier this year.
For a singer long accustomed to stadiums, Sunday’s show was the most intimate performance most fans would see from the ubiquitous superstar. Backed by a 20-piece, all-female orchestra, including a conducted string sextet, three-piece horn section, three backup singers, and a harpist, the singer devoted the first third of the show to a “VH1 Storytellers”-type greatest hits showcase-cum-history lesson. If you didn’t know Beyoncé’s biography before—auditions with Destiny’s Child starting at age nine, her father’s early and frequent involvement managing his daughter’s career, getting dropped by Elektra, etc.—she laid bare her entire musical history starting with a Michael Jackson obsession at age five. Opening with Jackson’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are,” the singer interspersed minute-long snippets of her greatest hits both as a solo artist and with Destiny’s Child, stopping each track to discuss her life and mindset during each stage of her career.
After recalling her father’s interrupting of an audition for numerous labels because “they’re not ready yet,” B talked about entering the studio by herself at 18, hearing Stevie Nicks’ guitar riff for “Edge of Seventeen” that would inspire “Bootylicious,” and how the last years of Destiny’s Child were a “reality show like ‘Survivor.’” “It was trying to figure out which member would be the last one on the island,” explained the singer.
The medley combined the quick blasts of a Las Vegas revue with the emotional candor of a singer-songwriter performing to a near-empty room. It was an odd, yet effective juxtaposition; a global superstar who could effortlessly shuffle between slick, bombastic R&B and awkwardly honest confessions of a tumultuous career. By the end of the set though, humility, as one expects from a singer with 16 Grammy awards and more than 75 million records sold worldwide, turned to sly confidence. “[The label] told me I didn’t have one hit song on my album,” she said of her 2003 debut Dangerously in Love. “I guess they were kinda right. I had five.” With the exception of a slowed-down, jazzier version of “Crazy in Love,” the orchestra augmented rather than transformed the tracks, as if deviating too much from the recorded versions would violate the victory lap feel of the show.
“1+1,” the opening song on 4, found Beyoncé kneeling atop a piano, her coy, torch singer poses bumping up against wind machines and spotlights beaming from above the singer’s head. The contradiction was emblematic of the set, as the deservedly entitled diva shared space with her populist alter-ego. For every fog machine, there was a 3,000-person sing-along; for every extravagant light number, there was a heartfelt emotional moment. Tonight was Beyoncé being all things to all people without pandering or condescension.
Performing the album virtually front to back (“Start Over” was curiously left off Sunday’s setlist), the singer displayed both the stamina and vigor that makes for stadium-perfect shows. “End of Time” and “Run the World (Girls)” utilized flamboyant light displays to bring elaborate routines to a smaller stage, though most of the time, Beyoncé viewed the reduced space as advantageous over limiting. B ended the last song—the self-empowering ballad “I Was Here”—with “Roseland, we were here.” In less confident hands, the line would’ve come off as hokey. For Beyoncé, it was the recognition of a singular event before returning to the stadium.
“4 Intimate Nights with Beyoncé” Setlist:
“I Wanna Be Where You Are” (Michael Jackson cover)
“No, No, No (Parts 1 and 2)”
“Bills, Bills, Bills”
“Say My Name”
“’03 Bonnie & Clyde”
“Crazy in Love”
“Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”
“I Miss You”
“Best Thing I Never Had”
“Rather Die Young”
“Love on Top”
“End of Time”
“Run the World (Girls)”
“I Was Here”