Before you add any other superlative to her name, Beyoncé is, first and foremost, a performer. She spent her childhood being trained not just to be a great singer but to become the type of athletic vocalist who could sing while in constant, rapid, muscle-and-bone defying movement on a stage for hours. She would get the chance to show that off early with Destiny’s Child, and by the time she launched her solo career, her live abilities were otherworldly.
So much of the mythology of Beyoncé as being a god-level artist, even before she released two industry-changing albums (2013’s Beyonce and 2016’s Lemonade), came from her live shows, where her craft shines. So it wasn’t surprising that her 2018 Coachella headlining set was nothing short of awe-inspiring, with Beyonce finding yet another way to outdo herself with an entirely new, two-times only concert experience.
In the Netflix documentary Homecoming, her diligent, meticulous preparations for such a show as a performer and a creative director offers insight into the type of hard work it takes to be Beyoncé. As the behind-the-scenes footage in the concert film progresses, her role as director comes with the particular challenge of translating the energy of the massive performance, not only to the live audience but to the people either watching the show’s livestream or even the just-released concert film.
Listening to the live album version of Homecoming, which was dropped as a surprise-release on all streaming platforms the same morning as the documentary, it’s clear that Beyoncé and her musicians met the call. From the stirring, opening brass section of “Welcome” to even the collage-like interludes that weave portions of her own discography with nods to everyone from Nina Simone to Soulja Boy, Homecoming: The Live Album is the type of victory lap worthy of a queen.
The setlist works so well because, at the time, Beyoncé was untethered to any current projects. Lemonade was a couple years behind her and Everything Is Love, her collaborative album with husband Jay-Z, had not yet been revealed to the public. For a pop star as productive and intentional as she is, a concert that isn’t tied to an era is rare. So, the songs from Homecoming feel like a greatest hits collection with a twist: they’re carefully combined, remixed and chopped up to fit the college homecoming theme and musical accompaniment of a full marching band.
Few low-tempo moments are allowed here: the delicate R&B of hits like “Sorry” and “Me, Myself & I,” from two opposite ends of her career, are amped up into lively, horn-heavy blasts of energy while already club-friendly cuts like “Diva” and “Flawless” are turned into pure adrenaline rushes. Even her reverent delivery of black national anthem “Live Every Voice and Sing” — the one “ballad” in the mix — feels like it’s sparking fire as it pours through the speakers.
Much of the magic that makes the experience of merely listening to Homecoming so vivid is in Beyoncé’s voice. Doing some of her most ambitious live choreography for two hours in the desert, the then-36-year-old delivers the best vocal performance of her career. Whether she’s rapping her verse from “Top Off,” belting “I Care” in tandem with the guitar solo or crafting an angelic harmony with her Destiny’s Child groupmates for a medley of their hits, her voice only seems to grow stronger as the show progresses, a feat unto itself.
Of course, the most important aspect of a live album is the fans: screaming, singing along and serving as a consistent interlude between songs. The communal effort of the hundreds of people on stage with Beyoncé only makes the distant wails of her fans sound like they were in on the months of rehearsals too: they ebb and flow appropriately with each changing number, acting as her best backing choir and the necessary tool to help the party on stage make absolute sense.
Since nothing with Beyoncé is ever simple, Homecoming: The Live Album has something a little extra: two bonus tracks seamlessly slip in at the end. The first, casually preceded by the final howls of the audience, is “Before I Let Go,” a cover of the 1981 Maze and Frankie Beverly classic. The song has been a cookout and kickback staple for nearly four decades and a perfect nod for the singer to make in the context of her own cookout-ready LP. It is followed by “I Been On,” which already existed as half of the demo of her 2013 song “Flawless” (though it had not been officially released on streaming services). The Timbaland-assisted flex had her voice distorted to nearly unrecognizable deepness as she reminded people she wasn’t just Jay-Z’s wife. Six years later, that song feels more dated than her Maze cover; people who need to be reminded that she’s a legend in her own right are in the smallest minority now.