Welcome to the Summer of Dancing and Darkness
Beyoncé and Drake are turning to house music to encourage listeners to let loose. But are we ready to submit?
The wisdom of the expression “Dance like nobody’s watching” is going to be put to the test this summer. Both Drake’s Honestly, Nevermind, the 14-song album that the rapper dropped with little warning on Friday, and Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul,” the hugely anticipated single that the singer put out last night, see superstars resetting their sound to the thump thump thump of ’90s house. Their music aims for the same power as a rave, a discotheque, or a drum circle—the ability to get listeners to move in ways that are unchained from reason and reputation. Are we ready to submit?
Predictions of a disco and house craze in mainstream pop have swirled since early 2020, when pulsating, throwback-y albums by Lady Gaga and Dua Lipa careened into the reality that a deadly pandemic had cleared out dancefloors. Two years and many global traumas later, Drake and Beyoncé appear to be betting that the general public is ready to club again. But the initial reception of Drake’s Honestly, Nevermind included some pretty savage mockery. For listener and artist alike, enjoying a four-on-the-floor beat is not as simple as it may seem.
Scrolling through social media in the hours after Drake’s album release, you could see two forms of backlash brewing. Dance music’s inhibition-smashing properties make it ridiculous, even threatening, to some people—and so for certain listeners, Honestly, Nevermind evokes things they consider silly, such as malls, video games, and gay people. Other listeners understand the album’s influences of house, techno, and related subgenres, including South African Amapiano and Baltimore club—and judge Drake’s efforts to be the work of a pretender.
But really the album is a fascinating failure because it fits into no one’s rubric, including Drake’s. His music is all about constriction—the feeling of curling up under a weighted blanket sewn by expectations, haters, and ego. Accordingly, his past albums tended to lurch along wearily, guided by the atmospheric production style of Noah “40” Shebib. Every so often, a crisp, clubby rhythm would enter, then vanish. These exciting passages were like poignant little dreams of happiness. Their rarity reinforced the fact that in Drake’s world, having a good time is hard.
This harried outlook has only darkened on Honestly, Nevermind, despite—or maybe because of—its musical switch-up. For many, the words electronic dance music connote ecstatic outdoor festivals laden with confetti, but Drake and his producers are mostly channeling low-lit basements and afterparties. They pick rhythms that feel both insistent and uneasy, like rainfall or chattering teeth. The album’s best moments are mostly instrumental and very visceral: sleek, hair-raising beat changes; stately piano riffs and guitar solos that slowly decay.
Drake himself is almost a distraction in this mix. Save for two crowd-pleasing tracks (“Sticky” and “Jimmy Cooks”), he’s singing instead of rapping—or really, he’s doing something between those two things. Call it melodic ranting or 4 a.m. murmurs. Past hits such as “Hotline Bling” and “Passionfruit” gave the impression of precision-minded songcraft, but here he often sounds like he’s working from instinct. The lead single, “Falling Back,” features Drake repeating a single refrain 20 times in a row, in a ragged tone that almost feels anti-musical. He blends in more smoothly with the second half of the album, while samples, beats, and other singers provide most of the action.
This vocal approach does not signal new emotional complexity. As always, Drake dwells on betrayal by childishly taunting girlfriends and comrades who have let him down. “Got you Mercedеs Benz / But that don’t make you driven,” goes one line on “A Keeper,” a track on which the clash between lyrical bitterness and musical beauty is especially jarring. Just like with last year’s tedious Certified Lover Boy, you’re left wishing Drake would tell a new story—not to mention help himself out—by examining his own choices rather than whining about other people’s.
Yet listen closely and you do hear something interesting in the lyrics: unrelenting anxiety about being known. The album’s first verse speaks of him “guardin’ myself while I’m all on display”; a song later, he’s asking, “If I come around you, can I be myself?” By the time he’s accusing a partner of being “afraid to be fully open / though you can see all my cards” on “Overdrive,” a narrative has crystallized: This is an album about botched vulnerability. Drake seems on the verge of confession throughout, but all he’s able to say is that the last time he shared his truth with someone, it didn’t go well. So dance music’s promise of loosening people up is doomed from the start here. Drake wants to vogue all his troubles away, but he’s scared to let go—making it unlikely that the listener will be able to, either.
Beyoncé’s new song, by contrast, underlines one joyful command in neon: “Release!” That’s the keyword that the New Orleans bounce legend Big Freedia bellows throughout the frenetic, grin-inducing “Break My Soul.” Yet the song is unmistakably the product of tight control, not release. One of the canniest superstars in the world is straining to get a highly fractured public moving to the same rhythm once again.
That rhythm is familiar in a few ways. Freedia’s queer-drill-sergeant voice similarly echoed in “Formation,” the 2016 single that announced Beyoncé’s Lemonade. The production team of Tricky Stewart, The-Dream, and Beyoncé conjures a tight, snapping groove like the one that the same trio used on the 2008 smash “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” Most notably, “Break My Soul” features a keyboard riff so clean and commanding that it sounds like what one might imagine God’s own ringtone to be. It evokes Robin S.’s “Show Me Love,” the early-’90s hit that defined the sound of house music in the public consciousness.
These musical components work together like pistons in an engine: “Break My Soul” undeniably goes. But what elevates the song from formulaic to fabulous is Beyoncé’s taste for excess. Verses, pre-choruses, post-choruses, and bridges pile up to bring the song to more than four minutes in length—a statement of sorts in the TikTok era. Though the beat is steady, Beyoncé isn’t; she darts from velvety singing to jokey rapping to churchly speechifying. About three minutes in, when the song’s energy already seems at a full pitch, an instrumental swell pushes the affair into a yet-heightened emotional register. From there, the song billows and breathes, cloudlike and glittering.
This sensory bonanza surrounds lyrics about burning out on your job, quitting, and finding a new sense of purpose: an inspirational message well timed for America’s supposed “Great Resignation.” Beyoncé’s rapping about the joys and perils of being “outside” also conjures thoughts of social distancing. Perhaps her forthcoming album, Renaissance, will elaborate on Beyoncé’s opinions about capitalism and the pandemic—but for now, she simply advises listeners to resist draining conditions with inner strength. “We go up and down, lost and found / Searchin’ for love / Looking for something that lives inside me,” she sings with a tenderness that effectively cuts against the music’s stridence.
Calls for resilience have long coursed through house music, befitting its origins in places where Black people, queer people, and working-class people have found refuge. In the past decade, though, dance-pop fell out of favor on the Billboard Hot 100 as a different music rooted in survival on the margins came to rule: hip-hop. Drake’s taciturn memoir of an album and Beyoncé’s socially conscious celebration of a song both sound like they’re trying to access the fantasy and freedom of a rave without seeming naive. Exciting as their music can be, they can’t make us unlearn a key lesson of the past few years: When we connect with others, it’s always a risk.