Beyoncé's long-awaited return has confirmed the comeback of house music, a genre that was born in the gay clubs of Chicago in the 1980s and then took off in Europe. Ahead of her return, the pop star indicated she wanted to bring back some lightness in what has been a very gloomy time. “With all the isolation and injustice over the past year, I think we are all ready to escape, travel, love and laugh again,” she told Harper’s Bazaar in 2021. “I feel a renaissance emerging, and I want to be part of nurturing that escape in any way possible.”
And she has provided a first taste of that escapism with Break My Soul, the first single from her upcoming solo album Renaissance, which will be released on July 29. The track can be viewed as a remake of the 1990s house classic, Show Me Love by Robin S. – it uses the same rhythmic base and two of the song’s composers, Allen George and Fred McFarlane, are credited on the single. It could be argued that it even picks up the narrative where Robin S. left it off. While Robin S was looking for a partner worthy of her, Beyoncé sings: “I just fell in love.” Some of the lyrics in Break My Soul also seem to draw inspiration from the Robin S. original.
It is impossible that Beyoncé – who in recent years has taken a strong stand on political and social issues – was not aware of the cultural significance of house music, which was embraced by the Black gay community in clubs on the South Side of Chicago. At these parties, everyone was welcome – unlike the elite disco clubs of Manhattan. In fact, house music was born from the ashes of the Manhattan club scene. It took off in Chicago in venues such as The Warehouse, which is believed to have given the genre its name. The godfathers of house, Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy, were also resident DJs there. Compared to Detroit’s synthetic techno, house music was warmer and more sensual. It sampled soul and funk songs, and featured the dazzling vocals of Black singers such as Crystal Waters (Gypsy Woman), Barbara Tucker (Beautiful People), CeCe Peniston (Finally) and Ultra Naté (Free).
House music has also been influencing contemporary pop music for some time. This can be seen in Drake’s new album, Honestly, Nevermind, which was produced by various big names linked to the genre, including South Africa’s Black Coffee and America’s Gordo, who made a name for himself in Baltimore’s club culture. The legacy of the dance music scene in Baltimore, which was something like a mini Chicago in the 1990s, has also been picked up by singers such as Lizzo, Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B. For example, the 2020 song WAP by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, was a nod to Whores in This House, a 1992 classic that emerged in this downtrodden East Coast city.
But Show Me Love has had the biggest impact on contemporary pop. Before Beyoncé sampled its base – which follows the standard four on the floor rhythm pattern – singers such as Jason Derulo (Don’t Wanna Go Home, in 2011), Kind Ink and Chris Brown (Show Me, in 2013) and Charli XCX (Used to Know Me, which came out just a couple of months ago) also paid tribute to the song. In 2014, Clean Bandit and Sam Feldt each recorded versions of the classic, while Kiesza topped the charts in the UK with Hideaway, which wavered between reverence for the original and blatant plagiarism.
Perhaps that’s why Beyoncé's comeback is notable, but not exceptional. What does it mean that the biggest pop star on the planet, the one who has been the most ambitious and most in-tune, has returned after a long period with an idea that others have already had? What does it mean that Beyoncé, after so many years at the forefront of popular music, has stopped innovating and is instead following – not setting – the trend?
Break My Soul may be more pleasing to the ear than some of her recent experiments, but it indicates a worrying shift. After revolutionizing pop music in the 1980s, Madonna entered the second stage of her career by appropriating pre-existing musical trends, such as voguing, British dance music, Abba’s disco hits and even autotuning. Her ability to constantly reinvent herself was applauded, but over time, it marked a musical decline. Beyoncé's new album has yet to arrive, so it is hasty to reach conclusions. But judging from Break My Soul, a house track that does little to break new ground, this might be the first time that she has followed in Madonna’s footsteps.