Beyoncé: Break My Soul review – house anthem doesn’t break the mould
First single from forthcoming album Renaissance preaches freedom but gets stuck in some familiar musical tropes
The last major musical statements the world heard from Beyoncé were Black Parade, an electronic growl of anger at police brutality and racism that slowly built into a euphoric celebration of African American and African culture, and Be Alive, her Oscar-nominated contribution to the soundtrack of King Richard: a ballad set to a relentless, pounding rhythm that hammered home its message of Black empowerment. They were, spiritually at least, of a piece with the albums that preceded them in 2019, the Beyoncé-produced alternative soundtrack for The Lion King, which dragged the sound of Afrobeats into a mainstream spotlight, and the live recording of her extraordinary Coachella performance Homecoming: evidence of an artist committed to taking musical risks, of constantly pushing forward and trying something different.
It makes the release of the first single from her forthcoming album Renaissance all the more surprising. Rather than presenting her audience with something strikingly different, Break My Soul sounds weirdly familiar. It’s a mid-tempo house track based around a keyboard bass sound that – without wishing to be overly technical – very closely resembles setting number 17 on the Korg M1 synthesiser. Even if you’ve never heard of a Korg M1 synthesiser, you’ve heard that sound: it’s the basis of the 1993 Stonebridge remix of Robin S’s Show Me Love and MK’s 1992 remix – or “Dub of Doom” of the Nightcrawlers’ Push the Feeling On, two of the most influential house tracks in recent pop history.
In Britain at least, we’ve heard a lot of pop singles that sound like one or both of them in the last decade. The vogue for reviving Robin S’s Show Me Love reached a peak around the middle of the 2010s, the era of Kiesza’s chart-topping Hideaway, Disclosure’s White Noise and covers of the track by Clean Bandit and Sam Feldt. Push the Feeling On was revived around the same time – you could hear its influence on Tinie Tempah and Jess Glynne’s Not Letting Go – and has proved even longer-lived. In 2020, it was sampled on both AJ Tracey’s Dinner Guest and Mist and Fredo’s House Party, and last year formed the basis of Riton x Nightcrawlers’ Friday, a Europe-wide hit.
It’s worth pointing out that neither the original 90s tracks, nor their latter day successors, had anything like the kind of impact in the US that they had elsewhere. And Break My Soul is an extremely classy example of its type. It’s decorated with a bouncy piano line, raw-voiced interjections sampled from rapper Big Freedia and a hook that irrevocably works its way into your brain and features an impressively unexpected key change 3:14 in. It offers an ever-shifting chorus of harmony vocals and a typically fantastic lead performance: amid the lyrics about quitting your job, letting your hair down and finding new drive lurks the line “Bey is back and I’m sleeping real good at nights”, which seems destined to join “Becky with the good hair” and “I woke up like this” in the pantheon of endlessly quoted, swaggering Beyoncé lyrics.
It’s obviously going to be a huge hit, but it also isn’t a Single Ladies or Run the World or Crazy in Love, the kind of Beyoncé single that stops you in your tracks: it feels like it’s following a musical trend rather than setting one. That said, you only need to look at the kaleidoscopic contents of her last solo studio album Lemonade to realise that Break My Soul probably isn’t representative of Renaissance as a whole: her albums tend to teem with ideas, of which Break My Soul’s 90s house revivalism is doubtless only one.
- Pop and rock
- Electronic music
- Dance music