A Sunday evening in Los Angeles; a drive into a discreet set of gates for a candid dinner with Beyonce.
Two days before I find myself here, at Beyoncé’s home, we had convened in West Hollywood with photographer Rafael Pavarotti to make a fashion story. New music is coming – a thrilling abundance of it, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. In what might be her most ambitious musical project to date, the culture-shifting, Grammy-dominating Queen Bee of all she surveys has trained her considerable artillery on America’s musical soundscape of the late 20th century. Do I need to add there is also a little mystery at play?
Beyonce Knowles-Carter, a writer of excellent and lengthy texts, had taken to messaging me as we brainstormed the direction of her Vogue shoot together. A fashion fantasia spun from the tropes of club life during the last century’s final quarter. Mirror balls, light boxes, headdresses? Of course. A horse on the dance floor? Certainly. A motorcycle for her to adorn in Junya Watanabe leathers and Harris Reed & Roker boots? Why not. B wanted to play with fashion like never before, and as we swapped references (from the 1990s garage scene to ’80s excess), talked hair and beauty, and got to know her team, a vision of glittering retro-futurism began to take shape.
She remained true to her word, though. On a bright morning in early April this year – a few days after her performance at the Oscars (and first nomination) – she arrived fresh from the school run and ready to shoot. White T-shirt, skinny jeans, a Louboutin heel, hair in a ponytail: this was B in relaxed collaborator mode. As is Raf’s way, he began the shoot day by gathering everyone into a circle for a shared moment of prayer. It was a magical mood and soon B was walking around feeling easy and free to be herself. Her husband and kids came to surprise her on set. It was a family day out – albeit a slightly surreal one.
And now, two days on, I find myself truly en famille, sitting at Beyoncé’s dinner table on a Sunday night. I’m a little stunned at how relaxed it all is. Sure, the house is impressively minimalist, with acres of white walls, gleaming glass and beautiful art. As a scrumptious dinner of ribs, cream corn, peas, and mashed potatoes is served, I’m not sure the mood could be any cosier.
I’m so struck by how tranquil our hostess is. At this point, her ironclad devotion to professionalism and privacy is legendary and yet here she is at home with her hair loose, not a stitch of make-up on, wearing a hoodie, just being herself. Her armour is so lowered, her laughter so infectious, her skin so glowy, she honestly looks like a teenager.
I can’t help thinking how all those walls we perceive Beyoncé putting up don’t exist to facilitate ego. Quite the contrary. They exist so she can let it all go. “My earth, my heart, my soil and my sanity” is how she refers to her innermost unit, and a great deal of protection goes into allowing her to experience her pocket of the world as calmly as possible. Perhaps it took her a while to get to this point? Either way, the energy shift is beautiful to behold. This is a precious time in her life. Now 40, she’s feeling so good as a mother, an artist and a woman.
She then asked me if I wanted to hear her new music. As someone who first saw her perform live with Destiny’s Child 23 years ago, a moment’s walk from my family home when the group played at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1999, I can feel the tingling excitement build as we make our way to her home recording studio. With minimal ceremony, she takes her laptop and plugs it in as we all sit on some sofas. Quietly, the superstar hits play on her upcoming album.
Instantly, a wall of sound hits me. Soaring vocals and fierce beats combine and in a split second I’m transported back to the clubs of my youth. I want to get up and start throwing moves. It’s music I love to my core. Music that makes you rise, that turns your mind to cultures and subcultures, to our people past and present, music that will unite so many on the dance floor, music that touches your soul. As ever with Beyoncé, it is all about the intent. I sit back, after the wave, absorbing it all.
The creation has been a long process, she explains, with the pandemic giving her far longer to spend thinking and rethinking every decision. Just the way she like.