Beyoncé: Homecoming: The Live Album - Album Review

Beyoncé’s surprise-released live recording of her 2018 Coachella set is a stunning document of music history.

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In what has now become her standard method of delivery, Homecoming was surprise released on a chilly Thursday night; the one-year anniversary of Yoncé’s career-defining Coachella set, which featured a pre-built pyramid stage and over 200 dancers and musicians. Not unlike Aretha Franklin’s recently released Amazing Grace concert film, Homecoming arrived with a visual counterpart, another style that has become synonymous with Bey. Between seamless editing, careful inclusion of rehearsal footage, and radical performance, it’s the perfect way to consume the music of Homecoming, replete with Bey-isms and a plethora of quotes from black icons like Nina Simone, W.E.B. Dubois, Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou. Marvel at the sight of a yellow-sweatered Bey stomping out the opening salvo of “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” and catch a brief dance session with Solange. The album Homecoming stands apart from the film, however, in such a way that it asks to be examined as Bey’s defining release, live or recorded in a studio.

Few live albums are as fresh and redefining as Homecoming. Hell, few studio albums strike such a balance between fan service, motivated thought, reinterpretation that goes beyond 4-4 transitions, and unbelievably great singing. Coming from Beyoncé, this shouldn’t be a surprise, but one of the best things about this time in music history is that even though she’s at her peak, Bey can still surprise us. The benefit of a pseudo-greatest hits is that it cuts the filler: Beyoncé has more than enough material to fill a two-hour show with only showstoppers, no “6 Inch”’s or “Beautiful Liar”’s.

Even the best Bey releases have their low moments, like the shaky concept of I Am...Sasha Fierce and the aforementioned Lemonade downer featuring none other than the Weeknd (insert joke about the red-light-district Frank Ocean), but on Homecoming, there are only smashes. This is the easiest layer of Homecoming, what you’ll notice after your first listen when the final ad-lib peters out and the image of a sweating Bey exiting the stage crosses the mind; but then you start over, back to “Crazy in Love,” and the magic is only enriched. There is more to Homecoming: much, much more.

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For one, there’s the outrageous band: a full brass section, conventional four-piece rock setup, and leagues of background singers are stacked upon Bey’s pyramid/school bleachers set-up, and it sounds as if the songs were meant to include them. Listen to the rollicking chorus of “Freedom” and say you can’t feel the momentum. Mixing of the various instruments is consistent, crisp, and above all, legible: a moment never comes when strings are buried during a solo, or the background vocals to “Sorry” shrink in the wake of a much-larger horn section. Homecoming is balanced with expert precision, the rare live album that doesn’t require a constant readjusting of the volume knob. Foot claps, stomps, and every delicious note Yoncé belts are presented in technicolor, without a single obfuscated dip.

“Formation” juggles powerful vocals, a bouncing lead synth, backing from the horns, and trap hi-hats and 808 bass; it sounds lush, arranged to be more than a simple recreation. Songs are flipped, diced, and faded into each other with clean, hype-building precision. Listen to the whirlwind of “7/11,” which balances auto-tuned Bey, audience participation, and a multitude of hip-hop tracks and live brass, all without losing a single note. The logistics of Homecoming are staggering.

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No, really, “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is better live. Listen to Bey rolling in with her “Who the fuck do you think I am?,” it’ll give you chills. In terms of ear-shredding musical climaxes, Homecoming delivers the goods: 4 highlight “I Care” is given centerpiece treatment, and though it’s not the only ballad on the tracklist, Bey and her team deliver the song with tension, rough edges, and very real boom-claps that send it into the pantheon of lovelorn heaven (as if she needed another spot). The song precedes “Partition,” Bey’s sexiest tune, but it could have slotted in anywhere on Lemonade.

Beyoncé’s singing is guttural, pristine, and classic; 90s R&B classic, of course, complete with whistle tones and plenty of vocal runs, which is a whole other kind of game to master. As if in homage to her constantly evolving vocal style, Homecoming includes a full-on Destiny’s Child reunion. You can hear the audience spike in volume when the opening lyrics of “Say My Name” roll off the trio, and to no real surprise, it’s like they never parted ways. The reunion may be pure fan service, but the dynamic band means that every song on Homecoming is imbued with some kind of refresher; even “Mi Gente.”

Homecoming isn’t just an exceptional live album: it’s a statement to black women and the misrepresented. In a quote from the film, Bey says that she wanted “every person that has ever been dismissed because of the way they look to feel like they were on that stage.” It’s an arrival of talented artists, displayed proudly on university bleachers for the world to see. Homecoming captures the plight of the labeled, the cast off, and tells them “you have a place.” The album and film are an opportunity, a chance for those ignored in youth to be given the spotlight, conveniently on a stage next to Beyoncé. It’s a celebration, another step in preserving the red-hot streak she’s been riding since 2013: the perfect surprise.