Live albums usually fall flat. Artists rarely capture the same sound of their studio recordings, and even if they do, their performances seldom add to the original product. Live albums can be a disservice to the charisma a bonafide star can provide in person.
Beyonce’s “Homecoming” is an exception.
Taken from her 2018 Coachella show, it gives her fervent fans a perfect mix of hits and deep cuts, familiar songs with new instrumentation and show-stopping solo performances with welcome guests.
Leading with “Crazy In Love,” the first single she released as a solo artist 16 years ago and first of six Billboard No. 1 hits, the performance blasts off her brilliance throughout the set. Supported by a full band that includes horns, strings and backup singers, its triumphant blare builds to a half-time breakdown that heightens the already grandiose hit. It’s fitting she begins with her debut solo track — the rest of the set is a journey through her career, from her days with Destiny's Child to her zeitgeist-shaking visual album “Lemonade.”
“Homecoming” runs at 109 minutes but never feels self-indulgent. She takes advantage of every second on stage, playing some tracks in their entirety and making a medley of others with perfect discretion. Transitions are effortless and attention-grabbing, sampling Kanye West’s “Famous” and historically black college and university anthem “Swag Surfin’” with vocal interludes from DJ Khaled and her daughter Blue.
She performs “I Been On” for only the third time in her career, bookended by “Bow Down” and “Drunk In Love.” The nine-minute stretch highlights the best from her “Beyonce” era, a time when she embraced her sexuality and ventured into a new hip-hop and electronic-influenced sound. She goes from the swaggering growls of “Bow Down” to the chopped-and-screwed homage to Houston in “I Been On,” complete with pitched-down vocals and shoutouts to her hometown.
The three-song sequence exemplifies how her backing band offers fresh takes on classics. The arrangements give her trap masterpieces stunning new elements and her funk and R&B songs a sound large enough to match the 125,000-person audience. It inspired the same feeling I got the first time I heard these songs — total awe of her songwriting ability and instrumental innovations few pop stars can provide.
She nods to her beginnings by reuniting her former group, Destiny's Child, as well her black heritage with covers of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “You Don’t Love Me (No No No).” These covers strengthen the theme that binds her performance together: black pride. Backed by a primarily black band and dance team, she includes interludes talking about her dream of attending an HBCU, a life defined by making music and touring and the struggles of being a black woman in America.
It’s a bold protest only three years after her Super Bowl 50 performance of “Formation” that included dancers adorned with references to the Black Panthers, most notably its signature black beret. The costumes, raised-fist black power salute and “X” formation made by the dancers sparked massive controversy and led to many accusing her of being “racist” toward white people.
Beyonce’s bravery is a huge part of why this Coachella performance is historic. She took the opportunity of being the first black woman headlining the festival to broadcast her beliefs during an increasingly divisive time of race relations in America. Despite her mother’s concerns about exploring the black experience in front of a primarily white audience, the contrast only strengthens Beyonce’s message.
But her politics are only part of the set’s greatness. It’s a performance of a lifetime captured by a live album that shares its magic with everyone who couldn’t see it live. As one of the premier stars of the last two decades, she presents her six solo studio albums and extensive body of collaborative work in a two-hour window that transports the audience into Beyonce’s world — one where she’s the queen.
After rejecting pop music in high school, “Lemonade” showed me how experimental, engaging and exhilarating Top-40 artists can be. Beyonce is a generational talent and tastemaker, shaping the mainstream through her albums like the funk-centric “B’Day” and her trap opus “Beyonce,” as well as shaping the industry by jumping the trends of surprise releases and visual albums. Just how Beyonce transformed my view of pop music with “Lemonade,” “Homecoming” showed me how transcendent a live album can be.
Contact Graham Schiltz at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.