Beyoncé's 'Renaissance' tour remixes her archive for an intergalactic future
After almost a year of releasing no accompanying videos or performing any of its songs live, last night in Stockholm, Beyoncé finally unveiled what she meant by Renaissance. Not simply a masterpiece of production, vocal and dance futurism, the album was finally unveiled as a multi-dimensional planet in which fans are to be immersed and fully transformed as she has been. In a concert that spans almost three hours — featuring robots, tanks, flying horses and maximalist filmmaking — Beyoncé remixed and embedded the entire 16-track Renaissance album into her full musical archive, crafting a 37-song setlist that brilliantly merges the earthly R&B from where she came and the intergalactic future in which she and her music have already been living.
Stockholm wasn't quite prepared for the pop culture spectacle that descended on the city last night, with fans, industry insiders and critics flying in from all over the world to witness the opening night performance. Public transportation to the city's 60,000 capacity soccer stadium was snarled and the lines to enter the arena equally exhausting. But the anticipation was palpable as the lights finally dimmed to restart an ambient recording of thundering clouds after what may have been a technical glitch.
On the massive film screen that spans the entire stage, clouds began to float across blue skies as Beyoncé, dressed in an Alexander McQueen suit, rose from below at the show's start. Anyone expecting a night at the club got their first surprise here. Instead of the slithering sounds and hard edges of Renaissance's house-infused opening, it was vintage, R&B Beyoncé: the title song from her debut 2003 album Dangerously in Love. Opening with the warmly intoned lyrics, "I love you," she welcomed the audience with a huge smile and a series of exquisite ballads, including her cover of Etta James' "I'd Rather Go Blind" and the lush longing of "1+1" from her 2011 album 4.
Then she departed the stage, and the technical wizardry and cinematic imagery made it immediately evident that the preceding setlist of analog, undiluted performances was proof that a nostalgic past is prelude. Right before the lush electronic soundscapes of the new album's opening and the words "these motherf****** ain't stopping me," the title Renaissance appeared in glittering silver across the entire span of the screen followed by an IMAX-scale montage of intergalactic travel, hyperspeed portals and a filmed Beyoncé in robotic shields marching toward the audience. "Come with me through my portal to the House of Chrome," she said, "where I'm reborn." The visual landscapes of space and chrome referenced a combination of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Tron, The Matrix, Ex Machina and even Michael and Janet Jackson's video for "Scream."
There was, of course, also: fierce dancing, ballroom showdowns and the vocal brilliance featured in the album's sexually uninhibited ode to Black queer culture grounded in '70s and '80s dance genres like house and disco. But the Beyoncé on stage and screen here presented herself as an artist flying across time and space. When it seemed Renaissance would be played in full without skips — the album is so impeccably sequenced — the setlist swerves and surprises, with samples of Britney Spears' "Toxic," Madonna's "Vogue" and of course Beyoncé's own extraordinary catalog remixed to euphoric reactions. The bass drops of "Yoncé," from the self-titled fifth album, transition into the orchestral drum lines of "Family Feud" with Jay-Z before elevating the audience into "Church Girl" from Renaissance. Just as her on-stage character here has moved through a portal to be rebooted as a chrome Athena riding rockets across time, Beyoncé the musician was uploading, updating and renewing her artistic past in real-time before the audience. Each of her albums becomes part of the Renaissance, and songs from each are threaded, integrated and brought into the future with her.
There are also odes to previous visual signatures. Where the album interpolates, samples and credits countless pioneers of dance and queer culture, the reference library for the Renaissance tour is herself. The wide-brimmed Southern hats of "Formation" become chrome discs from outer space in this era, and the sultry choreography from "Partition" is performed on what is quite literally a silver tank that drives onto the stage ramp extending into the stadium's "Club Renaissance" section of the audience. The spirit of the show is regeneration and revival, a display of extraordinary confidence. Functioning robotic arms also constantly dressing, re-assembling and rebooting Beyoncé between the show's chapter breaks to underscore the constant sense of movement and hyperspeed updates.
The fashion industry's inevitable metabolism, dissection and celebration of what she and her team have achieved here is bound to be one of the tour's greatest triumphs. Fashion is intricately woven into the show's narrative, as is Beyoncé's physicality and undeniable sensuality. As the show shifts from deep house into the album's lush, R&B center — "Plastic Off the Sofa," "Virgo's Groove" — Beyoncé emerges in a literal shell on a bed of silver cushions, wearing a gold bodysuit by the luxury brand Loewe, covered in images of black arms and hands. She, too, is wearing long black gloves with red nails that extend the images across her body, and different versions of that same gold suit are worn by her dancers. As the mood shifts from the intergalactic to the bedroom, the language of assembly, embrace and touch continues in more human, Earthly forms.
When I first heard the album, I wondered how such a layered album of soundscapes would sound as a live experience. As is to be expected, seamless and possible delivered by Beyoncé in live, human form. In the vocal pyrotechnics of the most challenging sections of songs like "Heated" and "Virgo's Groove," Beyoncé embodies the superpowered musical machine the tour imagery presents, capable of tangible feats of excellence. With the show's breathless momentum and expansive ambitions, at one point even Beyoncé joked to say, "so many songs, but I'm giving you them all." And it certainly felt like she did.
It wasn't long after the performance that all the images, videos and commentariat from the show flooded social media. After the drought, a feast has arrived. Even the internet demands since last July to "release the visuals" are hilariously referenced in the ballroom narration of the show. But if I could make one recommendation to anyone fortunate enough to be attending one of the upcoming dates in Europe and North America, there is value in retaining a visual blackout. Nothing on phone screens can compare to the immersive three-dimensions of design, music, fashion and storytelling Beyoncé has crafted. The Renaissance only occurs in her now globally traveling court — a cyborg palace of metallics and lavish textiles of sound that must be experienced in person. The show is a triumph of live performance and designed for ticketed admission.
Throughout the show, I was curious about one aspect of the album in particular — "Reneigh," as fans have named Beyoncé's glittering, disco ball-mirrored steed from the album's cover. How and when would the horse finally make its appearance? As the show reached its conclusion, Beyoncé came back center stage astride Reneigh. As her guards and technicians braced them each to a harness waiting above, the platform gradually rose into the crowd and Beyoncé rode Reneigh above the crowd as she sang "Summer Renaissance." It took me walking around Stockholm earlier in the day — amid all its medieval equine statuary of dead European kings — to finally unlock the meaning of Reneigh and the album's title. The future belongs to an American monarch and the gates to her undeniable renaissance have finally opened.
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