“When I sing a song,” Beyoncé Knowles said, as her car went from the photo studio to the recording studio, where she was deciding the final cuts for her new album, “I definitely have the image for the video in my mind. I kind of hear the choreography that will be in the video, and I can see how I’ll look, even before anyone—the record company, the director—has heard the song.” Beyoncé, who was speaking to me by phone, was interrupted. Her life in the last month, judging by the weeks of delays and canceled dates before our phone conversation could, at long last, take place, was a jam-packed series of planned and unplanned activities: photo shoots for the covers of magazines; a video shoot for the new single “Run the World (Girls)”; glam appearances at events like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala, where she was booed for not spending enough time on the red carpet. “My friend is coming over to the car with her baby,” Beyoncé told me now. “I don’t want to be rude.” I agreed to be put on hold. The line went dead. “I’m so sorry,” Beyoncé said, when she called back 10 minutes later. “That was a first for me. I’m sure it was for you, too.” She laughed softly.
Frankly, I was prepared to be annoyed (our interview was set for 4:00, and it was now 7:30; I’d been staring at the phone for hours), but Beyoncé, who has a mix of intensity and girlish Southern charm (she grew up in Texas), is instantly compelling. During her 18-year career, which began when she was 12 years old with Destiny’s Child, she has hardly been out of the spotlight, and yet she has the zeal and drive of a beginner with something to prove. “I wanted this record to come from a raw place,” Beyoncé continued. “Playing Etta James in the movie Cadillac Records really changed me. It was a darker character, and I realized that if anything is too comfortable, I want to run from it. It’s no fun being safe.”
Beyoncé’s little-seen performance as James was remarkable—she was no longer the perfect Beyoncé. As James, who sang the blues and was addicted to drugs, she was complex and haunted. That performance may have inspired Clint Eastwood to cast her in his soon-to-be-filmed adaptation of A Star Is Born, in which she will play a singer on the rise who falls in love with a famous actor in decline. “Oh, my God,” Beyoncé exclaimed. “That scares me the most.”
Before that movie starts filming, there’s the new album to finish. On the six tracks I heard, the beats are more jagged and deeper than on previous albums. In one song she berates an ex-lover (“It sucks to be you right now”), and in another, celebrates losing a not-good-enough man (“Thank God you blew it/Thank God I dodged a bullet”). Her voice has more rasp, more raunch, but there’s also an instant-classic power ballad that swells with female empowerment. “The fans have named the album 4,” Beyoncé explained. “And four is my favorite number. It’s an important number in my life: the date of my birthday, my mom’s birthday, my husband’s birthday, the day I got married. Barack Obama is the 44th president, and I performed ‘At Last’ by Etta James at his inauguration.”
In honor of that fourth solo album, we asked Beyoncé to pick some images from her post–Destiny’s Child career that illustrate her ever evolving persona. “All these images have something in common,” Beyoncé said. “In my videos I always want to be a powerful woman. That’s my mission.”
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Hair by Kimberly Kimble for Margaret Maldonado; makeup by Francesca Tolot for Cloutier Remix/Dior Beauty; manicure by Lisa Logan for S. Murray Management. Fashion: Louis Vuitton’s silk top, cashmere shorts, hat, and mask; Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci’s silk satin bra. Lorraine Schwartz’s earrings, David Yurman’s ring. Beauty: L’Oréal Paris Magic Smooth Soufflé makeup in Classic Tan; Studio Secrets Professional The One Sweep Sculpting Blush Duo in Poppy; HiP Concentrated Shadow Duo in Mischief; Voluminous Million Lashes mascara in Black; Infallible Le Rouge Lipstick in Perpetual Peach.