Beyonce's 'Homecoming' Album Is Steeped in R&B's Rich Live Tradition
“Coachella -- you ready? Let’s go get ‘em…”
Beyoncé’s Homecoming arrived in what’s become spectacularly Beyoncé fashion this week, with the megastar dropping the Netflix documentary, alongside a new live album, unleashed to all streaming services. “Beychella” was already the most talked-about performance of 2018, but the release of the doc and album have cemented that epic live set as a definitive cultural moment -- one that highlights an era-spanning talent at the height of her creative powers.
There’s no one who makes a moment like Beyoncé. But more than just the fire and fury of spectacle, she's mastered the fusion of expression to that kind of superstar exhibition, which very few pop artists can command. And in doing so, with Homecoming, she reaches back through the richness of Black art and her R&B lineage. From the echoes of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and the strut of an HBCU homecoming, to the bounce of NOLA and chopped and screwed Houston, the performance and the preparation convey how much Beyoncé wants to the world to celebrate the vastness of Black creativity and experience. But most significantly, she wants her culture to be in full celebration of itself.
While quoting luminaries such as Toni Morrison and Nina Simone, Beyoncé’s Homecoming is a powerful fête for R&B and re-emphasizes how much the live experience has given the genre its most stirring musical statements. In many ways, the live album is R&B’s most important musical exposition: It’s been the format by which so many of the genre’s greats have delivered the genre at its most immediate and intimate -- and its most impactful. So many of R&B’s biggest stars were often tasked with “crossing over” to pop audiences (i.e. white audiences), and it's impossible to ignore how often that played into how they were received.
That’s not to suggest that artists like Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke were watered down on their studio releases. Quite the contrary: The legacy of so many great 60s artists, in particular, is how much they were able to project the Black church onto the mainstream American pop charts. It recalibrated the sound of popular music, and seismically shifted the culture in ways that set the stage for today’s biggest stars. But it is also true that live albums gave many soul superstars the space to emphasize the wholeness of their art and its origins, in the most organic way.
Despite James Brown’s late-'50s and early-'60s success with R&B audiences, his King Records label head Syd Nathan had no faith in a live album. After Nathan refused to bankroll a live album at the famed theater, James Brown elected to fund the project out of his own pocket. Brown’s Live At the Apollo would be an across-the-board hit, hitting No. 6 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and both cementing James Brown as the most kinetic performer of his generation, while also announcing his commercial power and cultural influence. Recorded on a Wednesday after Brown had already played a week of shows, it features Brown and the Famous Flames in full flight. Running through classics like “Night Train” to slow burner “Try Me,” Apollo served as a signpost for soul music and in many ways, Black pop music’s reclamation of its voice.
Like Brown, Sam Cooke was one of his generation’s pre-eminent soul stars; but Cooke hit the pop charts earlier, a regular presence since 1957's chart-topping “You Send Me.” His presentation as dapper crooner sometimes obscured the former gospel star’s grit and passion, sort of a proto-Motown imaging that would be a familiar current throughout many Black pop stars’ careers. But on Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, Cooke served notice that his status as soul music’s greatest singer--delivering his gutsiest, most thrilling performance on record. Performing in Miami in front of fans who’d followed him since his gospel days, Cooke’s unfiltered grit was too much for mainstream-leaning RCA; the album would be shelved until 1985.
Aretha Franklin’s Fillmore West from 1971 is one of the greatest live records of all time, and it stands as an interesting document of Franklin’s ability to transcend and transpose the long-haired hippie hits of Stephen Stills and The Beatles into her own brand of urgent soul. But the live album that follows it, 1972's Amazing Grace makes it plain that the Detroit native’s gospel upbringing was bringing pop fans to the soul of the Black church -- not the other way around. It’s the best-selling gospel album of all time, and widely hailed as one of the 20th century's greatest recordings. The double album was recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles and is the subject of a thrilling new documentary by Alan Elliott.
Soul, gospel, R&B and rock were all born of the same Black voices and in the early 1970s that was still apparent in the most indelible artists. Like the gone-too-soon genius of Donny Hathaway -- 1972's Live is an inarguably essential recording for both soul/R&B enthusiasts, and anyone looking to learn about the inimitable Hathaway. Accompanied by a band that includes Cornell Dupree and Phil Upchurch -- and brilliant bassist Willie Weeks, who shines especially bright on “Voices Inside.” The Isley Brothers' Live cements that famed musical family’s prowess, having officially reconfigured as a full band (younger brothers bassist Marvin Isley and guitarist Ernie Isley and in-law Chris Jasper became full-time members in 1972) after tearing through the '60s as a vocal trio. The Isleys take on the pop standards of the day, while also showcasing Ernie’s guitar skills in a set performed at New York City’s The Bitter End -- where Hathaway also recorded the previous year.
In the 1990s, as the emergence of hip-hop and the slickness of digital production yielded the club-friendly pulse of new jack swing, the richness of live performing was still very much present among the decade’s most definitive acts. Uptown Unplugged is the most effective rendering of both the emergence of hip-hop soul circa 1992-93 and why that moniker was always more than just empty signifying. Featuring Uptown Records mainstays like Mary J. Blige, Christopher Williams and Jodeci, Unplugged reaffirmed just how reconnected R&B remained to its soul and gospel tradition -- even if was now wearing sagging jeans. Coming on the heels of so many pop-leaning '80s stars, it now stands as an important document of R&B’s traditionalism in the 1990s.
Mariah Carey would come to embody the straddling of the “R&B” and “pop” fence; sustaining a decades-long catalog of smashes that run the gamut from adult contemporary to hip-hop hybrids. But in 1992, Carey was years from her hit Ol’ Dirty Bastard collaboration and later adult reinvention circa Butterfly. She was still America’s most successful middle-of-the-road superstar, and MTV Unplugged coincided with the release of her multi-Platinum smash Emotions. The hit album served notice that Carey wasn’t just the product of Sony slickness, and that her soaring vocals had deep roots -- stretching from those ever-present pillars again; gospel, soul, pop. Carey conveys the vastness of her influences, not via covers (though her rendering of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” is a classic performance), but mostly through the richness of her performance of her own hits, like “Someday” and “Make It Happen.”
As neo-soul became near-ubiquitous, the reconnections with the music’s past was more casually emphasized. The lineage had always been there, but when artists like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Maxwell were specifically evoking of forbears like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Minnie Riperton, it also brought that Black singer-songwriter tradition into a hip-hop-influenced context that seemed just as at home with A Tribe Called Quest or Pete Rock. Yet another stellar addition to the Unplugged canon, Maxwell’s 1997 performance melded the singer’s romantic groove, charisma and versatility into one of the best releases of the late 1990s. Badu released her Live that same year, and it’s just as compelling a rendering of her talent and presence -- and yielded one of her most enduring hits in “Tyrone.”
So much of R&B’s history has been tethered to Black artist and their ability to “crossover” or not; and that is understandable given the term “R&B” was born of “race music” categorization that lumped all Black popular music together for commercial purposes and racist pandering. Beyoncé’s Homecoming is a thrilling experience because it both acknowledges the freedom and expressiveness of Black music -- both historically and currently -- while also recognizing how often that voice is filtered through a white lens. Her approach and the experience of the filming and rehearsing in the run-up to Coachella reveals just how much intentionality has always gone into her biggest moments.
When Otis Redding performed at Monterey Pop in 1967, he announced that he was performing for “the love crowd,” and tore through everything from his own “Respect” to a Rolling Stones cover, for an audience that was more familiar with Jefferson Airplane. It brought Memphis soul to the Haight-Asbury audience -- and more than 50 years later, Beyoncé brought soul back to the “love crowd.”
“Instead of me pulling out my flower crown -- it was more important that I brought our culture to Coachella.”
It was her homecoming. But she did it for all of us.