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Beyonce is, above all else, an artist driven by the visual. Her songwriting and singing have always been secondary to the spectacle-driven brand she’s constructed. So it’s weird that she’s released a live album, Homecoming, in tandem with the Netflix documentary about her already well-documented 2018 Coachella headlining performance.
The album kicks off with a drumline and New Orleans brass music, two elements Beyonce has recently started to thread into her work, and continues with an over-the-top buffet of songs, ideas and themes that have a hard time cohering as an audio-only product. The kitchen-sink program touches on various styles of black diaspora music with an emphasis on Southern music as a sort of audio correlative to the exploration of her identity that started in Lemonade. The live album also scrolls through her greatest hits, like “Crazy in Love,” for example, which don’t seem to have much connection to the conceit of the show.
The record ultimately feels rather superfluous, especially given that a Netflix film covering the same territory but with more interstitial interviews was released simultaneously. The Homecoming album indeed feels like a souvenir — like buying a copy of the Hamilton soundtrack after seeing a regional tour of the show. It’s an easy way to rinse more profit and exposure out of an event from a year ago, though from a consumer’s perspective it’s certainly cheaper and more enjoyable than actually going to Coachella.
This is Bey’s first live album, a milestone for any artist in the second, third and/or last acts of their career. And in some ways it makes complete sense that she chose her most critically lauded performance as her first live album; it’s more interesting than the program from last year’s bloated co-headliner tour with doddering husband Jay-Z.
But what’s the point, really? There isn’t any improvisational moment or anything previously unpublished. Obviously, Beyonce’s highly scripted approach to everything is the opposite of spontaneity, which many live albums thrive on. Last year’s Coachella experience felt so thoroughly consumed and deconstructed, creating its own cottage industry of think pieces, that one has to ask, “Why this, now?”
The timing of the record’s release is odd and steals some of it’s impact; it feels like it’s coming out either too soon or too late. Sure, it’s pegged to the fact that we’re between Coachella 2019 weekends right now, but this album would have had a lot more resonance if it had been released closer to the 2018 performance, when bootlegs were still circulating — or in a few years (or decades), when the memory wasn’t as fresh.
Like most of Beyonce’s moves, this feels like a calculated bid to repackage something that already exists rather than present anything truly new. On “Formation,” she boasts, “You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making, ’cause I slay.” Her goal, like Gates, seems to be monopolistic domination. The record’s 41 tracks will certainly help her rack up streams and other statistical points for the record books. But they don’t make the listening experience any more cogent, especially without the visual spectacle that really outshines the aural elements. The album will likely satiate diehards, but there’s nothing revelatory here.
More than juking sales or streaming stats, though, the whole album comes off like an awards play. Beyonce didn’t get the prizes and accolades she wanted or many believed she deserved from Lemonade. So this live record will likely sweep at next year’s Grammys. Which, sure, fine. Get those statues. But on its own merits, it isn’t much more than a collector’s item and a significantly less dynamic version of the documentary or live experience.
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