It was a crowd that had come to dance, dressed for a rodeo in the distant future: sparkling cowboy hats, silvery fringe, outré sunglasses and any other sartorial detail that represented “Renaissance,” Beyoncé’s dazzling seventh album and the occasion for her first solo tour in seven years. But as the imperial pop superstar took the stage at the Rogers Center in Toronto on Saturday night for the first North American show of her Renaissance World Tour, she reminded the club-ready audience just who was in charge. Because if they were prepared to move, she was going to make them wait a little longer.
Setting the table for a two-and-a-half hour performance that was visually spectacular, vocally ambitious and sometimes tonally confused, Beyoncé, 41 — clad in a glimmering chain-mail mini dress — began the show with a nearly 30-minute stretch of ballads and deep cuts that harked back to her past: an acrobatically sung solo rendition of the 2001 Destiny’s Child track “Dangerously in Love,” a bit of “Flaws and All” from the deluxe edition of her 2007 album “B’Day,” and the sparse, soulful “1+1” from 2011, which she belted atop a mirrored piano.
It was a both a display of her vocal agility and a curiously traditional way to start a show centered around an album as conceptually bold and forward-thinking as “Renaissance” — a sprawling, knowingly referential romp through the history of dance music, with an emphasis on the contributions of Black and queer innovators. Here, instead, was a stopover in Beyoncé’s Middle Ages.
As a live entertainer, though, she has earned a fresh start. The Renaissance World Tour shows are some of Beyoncé’s first appearances since her dazzling, commanding performance headlining the 2018 Coachella festival (later released as the concert film and live album “Homecoming”), which served as a kind of mic-drop capstone to her career thus far. It would be futile to repeat that, and difficult to top it. The loose, fluid “Renaissance,” still said to be the first part of a trilogy, represents a new chapter in Beyoncé’s recorded oeuvre. And once the show finally found its center and, however belatedly, welcomed the crowd to the Renaissance, it heralded her maturity as a performer, too.
The show’s look — as projected in diamond-sharp definition onto a panoramic screen — conjured Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” by way of the 1990 drag ball documentary “Paris Is Burning.” After a lengthy video introduction, Beyoncé emerged from a chrome cocoon and vamped through a thrilling stretch of the first suite of “Renaissance” songs; during “Cozy,” most strikingly, a pair of hydraulic robotic arms centered her body in industrial picture frames, like a post-human Mona Lisa.
In May, when Beyoncé began the European leg of the Renaissance World Tour, rumors swirled that she may have been recovering from a foot injury, since her choreography was a bit more static and less stomp-heavy than usual. The Toronto show did nothing to dispel that chatter, but it also showed that it doesn’t matter much. Perhaps because of some constraints, Beyoncé has embraced new means of bodily expression. She brought the flavor of ball movements into the show and served face all night, curling her lip like a hungry predator, widening her eyes in mock surprise, scrunching her features in exaggerated disgust.
Few seats in the stadium provided a legible view of Beyoncé’s face, of course, though the screen took care of that. She played expertly to the cameras that followed her every choreographed move, aware of how she’d appear to the majority of the audience and — perhaps just as crucially — in FOMO-inducing social media videos. The stage itself was breathtaking, featuring an arced cutout section of the screen that made for playful visuals, but its full grandeur was not visible from many of the side seats, making the band and sometimes the dancers difficult to see.
The screen, though, was the point. Beyoncé’s two solo releases before “Renaissance” — her 2013 self-titled album and “Lemonade,” from 2016 — were billed as “visual albums,” featuring a fully realized music video for each track. Again toying with her fans’ anticipation, she has still not released any videos from “Renaissance,” giving the previously unseen graphics that filled her expansive backdrop an added impact, and making them feel more weighty than a convenient way to pass time between costume changes.
Many of the tour’s outfits struck a balance between Beyoncé’s signature styles — megawatt sparkles, high-cut bodysuits — and the futuristic bent of “Renaissance.” She played haute couture bee in custom Mugler by Casey Cadwallader and glimmered in a Gucci corset draped with crystals. But the night’s most memorable look — so instantly iconic that a few fans had already tried to replicate it, from photos of the European shows — was a flesh-tone catsuit by the Spanish label Loewe, embellished with a few suggestively placed, red-fingernailed hands.
Throughout the set, Beyoncé wove interpolations of her predecessors’ songs throughout her own, as if to place her music in a larger continuum. The grandiose “I Care” segued into a bit of “River Deep, Mountain High,” in honor of Tina Turner, who died in May. The cheery throwback “Love on Top” contained elements of the Jackson 5’s “Want You Back.” Most effective was the “Queens Remix” she performed of “Break My Soul,” which mashes up the “Renaissance” leadoff single with Madonna’s “Vogue,” paying homage to the mainstream pop star who brought queer ball culture to the masses before her. (The merch on sale at a Renaissance Tour pop-up shop in the days before the show included a hand-held fan emblazoned with the song title “Heated” for $40. It sold out.)
The show contained moments that sometimes felt conceptually cluttered and at odds with the “Renaissance” album’s sharp vision, like dorm-room-poster quotes from Albert Einstein and Jim Morrison that filled the screen during video montages. The middle stretch, arriving with a lively “Formation,” featured Beyoncé and her dancers clad in camo print, riding and occasionally writhing atop a prop military vehicle. There was a wordless, gestural power in the moment she and her entourage held their fists in the air, referencing a salute that had rankled some easily rankle-able viewers of the 2016 Super Bowl Halftime Show. But if Beyoncé was calling for any more specific forms of protest or political awareness — especially in a moment when drag culture and queer expression are being threatened at home and throughout the world — those went unarticulated.
Beyoncé’s endurance as a world-class performer remained the show’s raison d’être; she is the rare major pop star who prizes live vocal prowess. By the end of the long night — and especially during the striking closing number, the disco reverie “Summer Renaissance,” when she floated above the crowd like a deity on a glittering horse — she extended the microphone to lend out some of the high notes to her eager and adoring fans. “Until next time,” she said, keeping the stage banter relatively minimal and pat. “Drive home safe!”
Even when Beyoncé embraces styles and cultures known for their improvisational looseness, she still seems to be striving toward perfection — a pageant smile always threatens to break through the stank face. Commanding a stadium-sized audience, she was an introvert wearing an extrovert’s armor. That tension is part of both her boundless charm and her occasional limitations as a performer. And it makes moments of genuine spontaneity all the more prized.
Naturally, #RenaissanceWorldTour was trending on Twitter long after the show, but one of the clips that went viral was unplanned. During a rousing performance of her early hit “Diva,” Beyoncé accidentally dropped her sunglasses. She fumbled them for a second, mouthed an expletive as they fell to the ground, and gave a sincere, shrugging grin before snapping back into the choreography’s formation. For a fleeting moment, she seemed human after all.
POST AUTHOR: Lindsay Zoladz