On a bright Friday morning in lower Manhattan, Beyoncé Knowles is dining in a back room of the haute sushi mecca Nobu, which opened early at her request. "I was in bed literally 20 minutes ago," she tells me with a husky, homey laugh. Beyoncé is mostly unadorned — the only jewelry she wears are large leaf-thin filigree earrings that sway lightly beneath a wall of hair. But when she takes her chopsticks and lifts a hunk of sashimi to her lips, I catch a glimpse of some sort of black lettering on the silver acrylic nails on her left hand.
"Can I see?" I ask.
And suddenly Beyoncé becomes bashful. "It's nothing," she says, letting her left hand slip below the table and out of sight. "They're just reminders," she offers.
"Reminders of what, exactly?"
"Happiness," she says, with a coy tilt of her head. "They just make me smile when I'm working."
Lately, Beyoncé has been doing little else. When we meet, she is at the center of a massive 90-person effort to ready and refine her latest world tour, I Am . . ., which will keep her on the road through 2010. In just two weeks, Planet Beyoncé will lift off and begin to orbit the globe, touching down in 110 cities worldwide, and the woman who is its supreme leader and primary life force is busting her iconic ass to make sure it dazzles at every stop along the way. "Fifteen years from now, I want to be able to look back and say, 'Wow. That's where I was at 27,'" she tells me. "'That was my best.'"
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Can you really imagine Beyoncé delivering anything less? Her work ethic, her nerve, has always been up to the task; I'd be surprised if there weren't a rehearsal leotard underneath her simple black jeans and lived-in leather jacket. But Beyoncé oozes more than mere focus and competence. "She's a rarity — she just totally gets it," says her longtime creative director, Frank Gatson Jr. "I knew it when I met her when she was 15 years old. I said, 'How can you be so sweet? How can you be so tactful? How can you be so hands-on? What is that?'" It's one of the things that makes Beyoncé special: Beneath the juggernaut facade, there's the hint of a girl who'd just as soon be back in bed with her husband in their apartment nearby.
"Here," she says, finally offering her left hand, and blushing like the newlywed she is. Spelled out on her index, middle, and ring fingers are the appliquéd letters J-A-Y; on the thumb is a mini likeness of Mr. Beyoncé, Jay-Z, the world's preeminent rapper, wearing a cocked Yankees cap and a cocky smile.
Beyoncé giggles at herself. "It's just a silly thing that makes me smile," she repeats. And then she's off to work.
Beyoncé skirts up the Hudson in a helicopter bound for Hartford, CT, where she'll be deposited behind a BMW/Mini dealership in an amphitheater that is the full-service incubator for her world tour. Inside is a re-creation of the extravagant production — the space-age stage craft, the band's three-story risers, the video screen the size of a Dade County McMansion — along with a battalion of headset-wearing pros whose job it is to make the show flawless and spectacular, night after night, from Saskatoon to Osaka. In the mix now, the lady of the house is crouched at the edge of the stage, her booty resting on a pair of 6-inch heels, her arms stretched straight over her knees, mike in hand. Suddenly, her voice comes from every corner of every amp in the massive sound system. "Two times," she calls, and her band responds: Bam. Bam.
"Five times," she demands.
Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam.
"Seventeen times!" she cries, thrusting her mike overhead in sync with the band. Beyoncé stretches up, takes a long stride across the stage, and launches into the sassy, suggestive "Check on It." "She understands that her time is valuable, so when she comes in the room, she's in it to win it," says Gatson. "She doesn't have the time to learn the choreography in flats, because eventually she's going to have to do it in heels. She feels like she's gotta get to it."
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According to her mother, Tina, "She stays up late reviewing tapes, studying them to make it better. It's hard for me — it's one of the reasons I go on tour. I'm always the person to make her go to bed. I'm still her mother, so I can walk up and close the computer and tell her to go to bed."
But Beyoncé was driven even before she had a reason to be. When she was 9, her parents took her to see Luther Vandross; they half expected her to be curled up in their laps long before the encore, but she was rapt. When Beyoncé was 15 and on the verge of breaking out with Destiny's Child, Tina took the girls to see Janet Jackson. "The others were like, 'That was great,'" Tina remembers, "but Beyoncé was already pulling it apart, trying to figure out what made it good. She said, 'One day I want to have a concert like that.'"
From her perch at the edge of the stage in Hartford, she issues a stream of questions and notes about kinks that need to be worked out. "Can people hear the lyrics enough to sing along?" she wonders. "Is it too crowded up here? Am I missing a chance to connect with the audience a little?" This song needs a segue, that dance needs work, and the jumbo-size close-up of all those hands doing sign language on the big screen is just plain "silly." As for the planned interstitial segment, where the band plays instrumental snippets of "My Neck, My Back (Lick It)," Khia's brazenly candid appreciation of oral sex, it could easily strike the wrong note. No small issue for someone who has thus far managed to strut that fine line between semi-wholesome pop princess and pussycat doll.
"Band!" Beyoncé calls to the fully empowered all-girl group. "Do we need the Khia thing?" "No!" they respond, striking a note for emphasis. "Hell no!" they add. "Yeah, I'm a lady . . ." Beyoncé mutters, almost to herself, and in seconds the band is playing Tom Jones's "She's a Lady" in her honor.
When you see Beyoncé strutting and crouching and shaking her stuff in Barbarella boots, a push-up bra, and what looks to be shimmering shorts for a 9-year-old, it's easy to forget that she's been cranking out girl-powered message music for over a decade. With songs like "Survivor" and "Independent Women," she's taken the usual relationship struggles—money, sex, power—and dragged them out on the dance floor, challenging women to pull their own weight and warning their men not to take them for granted. "I just try to write songs that people are going to have a dialogue about," she tells me, "songs that people are going to feel . . . at dinner, at the club. I want people to have some type of emotion."
Last fall, in the guise of her power-diva alter ego, Sasha Fierce, Beyoncé tapped into a vast craving for respect with the infectious, ubiquitous "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)." Although it was only the second song she released as a married woman, Beyoncé doesn't see it as an homage to the fact that her longtime love went ahead and put a ring on it. "More than anything, the song celebrates being single," she tells me. "It's like, if you've been doing all you can and it's not happening for you, go out and have you a good old time. Put on your sexy dress and move on."
She considers that. "I know I'm stronger in the songs than I really am," she says. "Sometimes I need to hear it myself. We all need to hear those empowering songs to remind us." This from a woman who has sold 100 million records, won seven Grammys, launched her own fashion label (House of Deréon), and starred in popcorn flicks like The Pink Panther and Dreamgirls, as well as the small, serious Cadillac Records, in which she plays a broken-down Etta James. Consider her empowered.
Before getting married, Beyoncé had endured fewer serious relationships than most college sophomores. And while her courtship with Jay-Z could not have been more public—immortalized in a multimedia scrapbook of duets and video clips of them popping champagne corks in speedboats—they made the decision not to let it define them, opting for a private wedding in New York with 40 guests in April 2008. Clearly, this potentially blingiest of couples wants to keep a little something for themselves. At one point, while telling a story about her hard-to-impress 4-year-old nephew, Beyoncé refers to the boy's "Uncle Jay," only to retract it in a fit of giggling. "Oh Lord, I can't believe I just said that! That slipped. 'Cause I don't do that."
Maintaining the balance can't be easy, given the amount of time she spends in the spotlight—collecting Grammys, high-kicking with Hugh Jackman on the Academy Awards, serenading the Obamas with the Etta James hit "At Last." Beyoncé says she was so overcome by the sight of Barack and Michelle that her throat seized up and she nearly blew a crucial note. "I had to tell myself, 'They asked you to do this. You have to do a great job. This is their history. Calm down. Calm down.' I barely made it. Literally seconds before the song started, I was crying like a 5-year-old." But she got through it; no doubt the O-B-A-M-A spelled out in acrylic on the singer's left hand had a calming effect.
And so does the knowledge that there's more to life than monster fame. "I think she has learned that you have to work hard but you need your time off," says Gatson. "It's like, 'I'm not gonna go through this life doing all this and not have any fun.'"
In other words, catch a basketball game with your man whenever possible; have dinner at that out-of-the-way candlelit pizzeria in Brooklyn. "We try to sync our calendars," Beyoncé says. "I started working on my tour a year ago just to make sure that I had time at home. But you know, that's part of it. Any other woman who has to go to work and pick up the kids and make dinner—that's way harder than what I have to do. At least I can say I'm taking two weeks off and really take two weeks off."
Beyoncé smiles slightly to herself. "My priorities are slowly changing. So after this tour I might be tired and want to take two years off. I've worked hard enough to be able to do that. I'm in a very good place."
Mark Healy is the director of editorial projects at GQ.