In the first North American date of a world tour dubbed the Mrs. Carter Show, Beyoncé was the main attraction at
And although Mrs. Carter (the tour's name refers to her husband, the rapper Jay-Z) did a number of remarkable things, including belting out a verse of "I Will Always Love You" without accompaniment and zip-lining over her fans while wearing maybe the tightest, sparkliest cat suit ever made, the singer's most impressive feat wasn't her vocal power or the arena-sized set pieces that suggested she was born to perform in venues the size of small communities.
What left the deepest impression was something far more elemental: Beyoncé's ability to make self-aggrandizement seem like an expression of humility.
"I want to leave my footprints in the sands of time," she said in a video segment near the end of the show, quoting – who else? – herself in her song "I Was Here" from her 2011 album, "4."
Yet Beyoncé's ambition seemed in proportion with her fans' expectations; she came by the sense of scale honestly.
In "Run the World (Girls)," which opened the two-hour show, she grabbed her crotch as the song's dance hall rhythms boomed so loudly, my eyeballs vibrated. In "Baby Boy," she and a crew of female dancers did synchronized moves before a video screen flashing realistic images of even more dancers.
"Schoolin' Life" was an ecstatic homage to chewy mid-'80s R&B, while "1+1" slowed the tempo to showcase her eruptive singing – a sign that, for Beyoncé, even ballads are cause for perpetual climax.
After that zip-line ride, she performed several songs – "Irreplaceable," "Love on Top" and "Survivor," the last by her former group Destiny's Child – on a secondary stage in the middle of the arena floor, providing the kind of close-up glimpse audiences crave.
Then, before "Survivor" was over, she grabbed the zip line again and zoomed back to the main stage, vocals perfectly in key, long hair trailing luxuriantly behind her.
Backed by a band of 11 women, the singer also provided a taste of new music from the studio album she's reportedly set to release this year. But just a taste. Though she performed "Standing on the Sun" last month at a Mrs. Carter Show stop in Belgium, Beyoncé skipped the unreleased track at Staples Center, perhaps as a result of the song having leaked online several days before the concert here. (The 31-year-old is a tireless protector of her work and her image, to the extent that media outlets including The Times were barred from photographing Friday's concert.)
She did sing "Grown Woman," a lively new tune in which Beyoncé insists, "I can do whatever I want," over an African-inspired groove. Images of pyramids and lions accompanied the song, as did a portrait of the singer wearing a Nefertiti-style crown, one of several pieces of royal headgear she donned Friday.
No doubt Beyoncé is serious about doing whatever she wants. How else to explain her bewildering conversion of the lovely "If I Were a Boy" into a dreary grunge song with lines borrowed from the Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony"? Later, when she got the packed house on its feet with an appealingly overdriven "Why Don't You Love Me," you had to wonder: Who exactly doesn't love Beyoncé in 2013?
Yet "Grown Woman" presents the singer's autonomy not as a function of her celebrity or her wealth. It says freedom derives from age and experience, which is partly why so much of Beyoncé's chest-pounding Friday seemed inviting rather than alienating.
She's hardly Everywoman, of course: Even in bits of ostensibly candid video, such as the "I Was Here" sequence, her physical beauty felt profligate, almost punishing in its extremity. The same went for the physical strength with which she moved through complicated choreography in "End of Time" and "Get Me Bodied."
But Beyoncé carries that load lightly, especially compared with Rihanna, for instance, who constantly (and often thrillingly) appears to be assessing the rewards and the demands of her fame. Mrs. Carter, meanwhile, is so unworried by it that she used the track "Flaws and All" to insist, with a jiggle of her upper arm, that her flawlessness is an illusion.
The result is a pop-soul superstar with a politician's flair for bringing her fans closer even as she demonstrates precisely what distinguishes her from them.
We saw it in January at a Super Bowl news conference when, after a controversy over whether she’d lip-synced at President
And Beyoncé did it Friday with "Irreplaceable," one of her biggest songs, in which she somehow transformed a kiss-off emphasizing her desirability – "I could have another you in a minute," she warned – into a demonstration of her essential goodwill.
If she runs the world, the people put her in power.