This praise is richly deserved. As Pitchfork’s Alphonse Pierre notes in his review, the song is ridiculously infectious, and it showcases Beyoncé’s talent for putting out music that forces you to get up and dance.
But what is most striking about the track is how it works as a sort of cultural talisman. Indeed, to label it a “cover” is, in some ways, so inapt that it almost feels misleading. Instead of merely rehashing a cherished black tune, one with deep roots in the communal past, Beyoncé’s interpretation moves black culture into the future, offering a sonic tableau of tomorrow that is predicated on the yesterdays we have shared. In short, Beyoncé — as always, but especially on this song — preserves and pioneers.
Understanding the resonance of Beyoncé’s version of “Before I Let Go” requires looking at why the original is so significant. Released in 1981 by the soul band Frankie Beverly & Maze, the song quickly became a black cultural touchstone. Its lyrics agonize over a relationship that is on the verge of ending: “We were so close, our love was strong/ I can’t understand it, where did we go wrong?” Beverly sings. “I won’t be hasty, girl, I’ve got to know/ I want to make sure I’m right before I let go.”
Despite the weightiness of its words, the song is a bop: the bravado of the guitar, the strut of the synth, bolstered by Beverly’s ethereal crooning. It’s this joy, this lighter-than-air ecstasy, that has made the song a staple.
For almost 40 years, “Before I Let Go” has featured prominently at black social gatherings like the family cookout. The song’s allure is hard to put into words and is perhaps best observed. It has the fascinating effect of drawing everyone, young and old alike, to the floor, pulled into doing the Electric Slide by the sheer groove of the song. The resulting mass of people can only be described as an embodiment of unified black bliss.
In covering this black anthem, Beyoncé taps into a history that is bigger than the song itself, evoking the sense of euphoric nostalgia that comes with that tradition. “There’s so much history in this one song,” I texted a friend as I listened to her version for the first time, tearing up. “I remember listening to the original song with my dad when I was a kid,” I wrote to another. I’m not alone: After the live album’s release, a quick scan of social media revealed this track, in particular, was striking a powerful, visceral chord among many black listeners.
True to form, Beyoncé’s spin on the song transcends mere duplication. For one thing, her version has been repurposed with the rhythms of a pep rally (bringing it in line with the broader theme of her Coachella set). After we hear the cheers of the crowd, the horns, hand claps and high-hats kick in — it feels like halftime on game day at one of the historically black colleges and universities that took center stage in the pop star’s musical odyssey last year. For the next two minutes or so, Beyoncé sings a faithful rendition of “Before I Let Go,” making a meal of the lengthy note on the song’s chorus, before switching gears and gliding into what some critics have pointed out is an interpolation of the popular 1986 song “Candy,” by the funk group Cameo, another cookout classic and a contender for Electric Slide favorite.
It’s here that Beyoncé pivots from lyrics about the past and nods to a future of black achievement she is creating. “I pull up to Coachella / Boots with the ghost feathers,” she sings. “D’ussé and champagne / I did the damn thing.”
It’s a boast, but it’s true. With her acclaimed performance at Coachella in 2018, Beyoncé became the first black woman to headline the festival. In this light, she almost inverts the song’s initial sentiment of departure — rather than leaving, she’s arriving. If it wasn’t clear before Coachella, it’s unmistakable now that, in the music world, Beyoncé is the bar to surpass.
But Beyoncé isn’t interested in excelling on her own. “Queen” is the title fans apply to her, but as she continues to set the terms of the industry, she has an eye toward simultaneously lifting as much of her history and as many of her people as possible. “I brought the squad with me,” she says, coolly, on “Before I Let Go,” referring both to her family and friends who shared the Coachella stage with her and to black audiences more generally.
In her documentary, Beyoncé recalls of the festival, “When I decided to do Coachella, instead of me pulling out my flower crown, it was more important that I brought our culture.” In short, when she’s referring to and celebrating things like her squad, she’s thinking in terms of establishing a collective — a black collective of empowerment.
Popular songs always inspire second lives: covers that bring the sentiments of the original to new generations of listeners. As Slate’s music critic Carl Wilson wrote last year, “Covers can stitch distant sound worlds together across genres or serve as acts of criticism, revealing aspects of the originals that their makers might never have suspected.”
In that sense, it should surprise no one that a song as beloved as “Before I Let Go” has the sort of afterlife it does. What makes Beyoncé’s cover stand out is how firmly, and authentically, the pop star embraces the past — documenting and defending a culture that constantly wrestles with the twin pressures of appropriation and erasure — while also expanding that history. Ascending right along with her is an arena of blackness, emerging from years of mainstream dismissal.