The World Is a Mess and Pop Stars Are Turning to Dance Music to Offer Release

Stars like Beyoncé, Drake, and Weeknd are mixing pensive lyrics with uptempo sonics. That formula perfectly speaks to our conflicting times.

Drake and Beyoncé dance music

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Drake and Beyoncé dance music

Last April, Vince Staples divulged a conversation he had with SAINt JHN where he “learned that the listener is coming to you because they want you to give them a break away from normality.” Vince says SAINt JHN also told him: “‘[Music consumers] don’t have time to try to figure out what you’re trying to tell them. You’re just supposed to make them feel better and make them feel good. Put them in a specific space.’”

That advice might be permeating the industry like a game of telephone right now, because several of music’s biggest acts have rolled out uptempo music that’s setting the tone for a summer of dancing away the pain. To name a few: Drake went all the way house on Honestly, Nevermind, Beyonce’s “Break My Soul” is an affirming house track that’s an intriguing harbinger for her Renaissance Act 1 album, and IDK linked up with Kaytranda for Simple., an electronic-influenced EP. Before that, the year kicked off with The Weeknd’s Dawn FM is an ’80s pop redux. These acts culled from a lively scene of unheralded dance music creators, and they’re primed to take the sound to the top of the charts. 

Those in the know have already been in tune with artists like Kaytranada, Azealia Banks, Black Coffee, and many others who have been fusing house, electronic and hip-hop in intriguing ways. But now, multi-platinum artists are joining those playlists, making house music a hot-button discussion among mainstream audiences. Artists are adhering to the social zeitgeist, offering a danceable soundtrack to the world’s reopening while speaking to our collective social ordeal via Drake’s lovelorn lyrics and Beyoncé’s “you won’t break my soul” mantra. We’ve long clamored for artists to speak to the times, and while most of these insulated millionaires are unable to channel a Public Enemy and condemn the powers that be, their current messaging is the best they can do: “I hear your pain, I feel it in some ways, but let’s dance it away for now.” Many of us are eager to accept that, as there are plenty of things for us to be seeking a release from. 

Last Friday, the Supreme Court repealed Roe vs. Wade, giving states the option to ban abortion. That decision came just a day after they loosened gun laws in the midst of a mass shooting epidemic. We’re in a two-year-long COVID-19 pandemic that looks like it’s going to spur a recession, with inflation that former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers theorized could only be quelled by a five-percent jobless rate, which would mean “devastating joblessness for millions.” Tl;dr version: things are rough out here. We all need some kind of escape from the tumult.

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Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul” felt like a much-needed balm for weary fans when it dropped last Tuesday. Lines like “damn, they work me so damn hard” and “release ya trade, release the stress” sound like they could have been ripe for an acoustic blues song, but producers The-Dream and Tricky Stewart reawakened Robin S.’ dance anthem “Show Me Love” and crafted a frenzied composition for a new generation of listeners. It’s not just that the glitzy synths and frenetic percussion is two-step ready, “Break My Soul” follows in the lineage of house classics with a powerful Black woman voice belting relatable lyrics that soothe the pressure points of distressed listeners, while offering them an all-encompassing mantra to cling to. 

Those experiencing heartache may feel a similar bond with Drake’s Honestly, Nevermind, which dropped four days before “Break My Soul,” sparking speculation about him surprise-dropping the album to not seem like a wave-rider. The project immediately broke Apple Music’s first-day streams record, even though it alienated a good amount of fans who were looking forward to rapping Drake or R&B Drake. Instead, we got arguably his most focused project ever, as he crooned about romantic woes on atmospheric house tracks like “Falling Back,” “Calling My Name,” and “Flights Booked.” Drake fans are used to getting his lovelorn moments through dreary, subcutaneous trap soul, but 40, Black Coffee, Gordo, and many more producers crafted a trancey soundscape that marked his most ambitious project yet. 

Perhaps Drake just wanted to try something new, but that urge dovetailed with the reopening of nightclubs and other venues after years of restrictions. There’s been a lot of heartbreak over the past two years. People have lost partners to COVID. Long distance relationships depicted on “Flights Booked” are more difficult than ever with virus fears and financial woes. Those same anxieties have some single people scared to even go out and meet people. Honestly, Nevermind depicts many of these woes, but with a soundscape that lets you work through those feelings on nightclub speakers instead of in earbuds. 

That dichotomy has long been at the heart of popular music. Artists have historically conveyed society’s heartbreak, grief, and stresses over sonics that belie their downtrodden messaging. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s always worked. Drake is pretty glum on Honestly, Nevermind, but the drums tell a different story. Beyoncé is more upbeat on “Break My Soul,” but the song nonetheless touches on some heavy topics. Her “release ya job…release ya stress” lyrics spurred commentary on a mass labor boycott, though the billionaire songstress likely sought to urge listeners to let their hair down for the night. We can dance to Weeknd’s Dawn FM, but also acknowledge that it’s a concept album about death. Perhaps these harrowing themes are just more palatable with danceable sonics. But better yet, maybe our biggest popstars and their collaborators know that pleasure is only defined in relation to pain, and they’ve resolved to reflect that in the music. The dance floor is a nondenominational church with one universal practice: release.

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Both “Break My Soul” and Honestly, Nevermind are true to the roots of house music, which started as catharsis for the LGBTQ community in ’70s Chicago. Legendary DJ Frankie Knuckles was the music director at The Warehouse club, and his skills with the turntables and drum machines helped to create a sound that was first known as Warehouse Music before being shortened to house music. Knuckles was joined by other DJs like Ron Hardy, Steve “Silk” Hurley, Larry Levan, who introduced their flourishes to the subgenre and helped it expand into other cities. The music was the fulcrum of events where the LGTBQD community could congregate in one of the few safe spaces they had. House songs like “Music Is The Answer” and “On and On” had empowering, hopeful messaging because it represented empathy and catharsis for groups of marginalized people who were tyrannized by society. Even if they were weighed down by everything under the sun, they could at least dance the night away together. 

It’s fitting that a music scene with such an emancipating foundation is having a mainstream moment in 2022. The whole world needs that energy. While diagnosing the new era of so-called SoundCloud rap, Apple Music’s Zane Lowe told Complex, “​​When it feels like things are out of control, music will come along that identifies with that. It’s been a very negative, difficult, anxiety-driven time, and that energy’s got to go somewhere. So when you hear this music, it’s giving that energy a place to go. It’s giving it a home. This music’s an outlet for those that are making it, and it’s definitely an outlet for those that listen to it.” And for those that don’t resonate with raging, moshing teenagers, dance music is serving the same purpose. 

It’s worth wondering whether this mainstream house exploration is a moment in time, ala Bruno Mars’ New Jack Swing foray, or a harbinger to a new era of feel-good tracks for the function. Afrobeats and other diasporic sounds are exploding all over the globe. Will artists who usually lead with massive hip-hop-leaning hits be opting toward electronic music for the next couple of years? Time will tell. But for now, we should get ready for a summer of house.

Times have been rough. COVID is very much still a threat. 2020’s resistance is being met with tough-on-crime policies that are worsening our communities and even targeting our favorite artists. It’s tenuous to plan for a future we can’t even conceptualize. And now, women can’t even legally get abortions. There are so many reasons for people to seek a distraction, and 2022’s growing dance music catalog is a much-needed soundtrack. Whether we like the house forays or not, we should at least appreciate the recent creators who are trying to help us let go, if only for the night. 

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