Beyoncé Catwalks Through a Celebratory Summer With ‘Renaissance’
Beyoncé has long subverted standards, marching comfortably to the beat of her own drum. Indeed, the spectacular drumlines at her historic 2018 Coachella performance, commemorated in the Netflix film, “Homecoming: A Film By Beyoncé,” cemented Beyoncé’s legacy as a cultural icon. Her elaborate promotional antics date further back to Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled release, presented as a “visual album,” replete with nonlinear short films. The concept album and song cycle of 2016’s critical and commercial apex, “Lemonade,” followed, and Beyoncé has since reigned supreme. This time around, she opted for a conventional album release, announcing “Renaissance,” the first album of a trilogy, weeks in advance, eventually revealing a tracklist, and even taking to TikTok. As it turns out, the album was leaked two days before scheduled. This is hardly of consequence, as the boxed sets and limited edition physical releases were largely ordered in advance, and subscribers to streaming services will continue to operate as usual. At any rate, “Renaissance” arrives to rampant fanfare, in the form of a dance-centric summer soundtrack. Conceived primarily during the lockdown period of the pandemic, and informed by the collective restlessness affecting the globe during that constriction, “Renaissance” finds Beyoncé forging a new sound with much of its roots in house and disco stylings that trace back to queer dance clubs of the ‘70s and ‘80s. She recaptures the free spirit of the luxuriant disco era and throws in flashes of synth-pop, Afrobeat and bounce, along with trap and electronic sounds that define the present moment. Having risen comfortably to the top of her industry, this time around Beyoncé lets the rhythms lead the way, so that when she does erupt into full diva theatrics, her gestures carry more weight.
When Beyoncé allowed the grit of hip-hop sensibilities and her Southern heritage to seep more freely into her music, and to shape its form, a ready-made pop persona began to palpably tear away from an indiscrete commercial mold. Now, having long won the world over, Bey makes a point to begin her new album in the most unabashedly hood manner conceivable, with a sample of Memphis rapper Tommy Wright III’s 1995 track, “Still Pimpin.” The voice on display is that of the featured female artist, Princess Loko, insisting, “Please, motherfuckers ain’t stoppin’ me.” The sample is not modestly worked into a production, but left to repeat relentlessly, as a jarring, raw and ratched exposure. It’s a gesture demonstrating that Beyoncé isn’t worried about alienating pop audiences. After all, it’s now she who defines pop. With that understanding established at the onset, she begins singing over the racket, working up promptly to the titular refrain, “I’m that girl.”
The dance-oriented focus of the album takes shape upon “Cozy,” as does the self-assurance that dominates its lyrics. Over a classic deep house beat, Bey speaks seductively, building to a chorus of “Comfortable in my skin / Cozy with who I am.” She recruits transgender reality TV personality Ts Madison for a segment that begins with the declaration, “I’m Black.” The album continues like a DJ set, with a seamless transition into “Alien Superstar,” a track that befits its title, playing out like a ceremonial dance floor coronation of Queen Bey. She dons a deep voice and proceeds to amass superlatives in real time, assuming a spectacular diva form, with falsetto histrionics that nod to queer ballroom culture and lyrics about “stilеtto kicking vintage crystal off the bar.” “Renaissance” is dedicated, in part, to Beyoncé’s gay Uncle Jonny, who designed dresses for her mother, introduced her to new musical horizons, and eventually died from HIV-related complications. Scattered throughout the album are bits of theatrical dance floor exuberance that pay homage, specifically, to Black LGBTQ pioneers at the helms of popular music.
“Cuff It” takes a frivolous, funky turn, with Beyoncé declaring, “We gon’ fuck up the night” over festive brass blasts, and showing off some of the vocal prowess modestly kept at bay until now. Rapper Beam enters the mix upon a seamless transition into “Energy,” driving the music again towards an immersive dance experience that builds elegantly to the peak that is lead single, “Break My Soul.” New Orleans bounce sensation Big Freedia handles hype man duties, much like she did on Diplo’s “Express Yourself,” atop a beat that samples Robin S’s 1990 classic, “Show Me Love.” These ingredients alone virtually guarantee a banger, and Beyoncé sets out over the high octane, nostalgia-tinged beat, singing, “Now, I just fell in love / And I just quit my job / I’m gonna find new drive.” One has to get swept up in the positive sentiment upon the infectious hook of “You won’t break my soul.”
“Church Girl” is a bona fide twerk track, with Bey rattling off dance floor instructions, like “Twirl that ass like you came up out the South.” The title hardly works its way into the song, save for a line about “Church girls acting loose, bad girls acting snotty,” but it nods to the tradition of Sister Rosetta Thorpe and Ray Charles who wreaked havoc when they appropriated the passion of gospel musical stylings to secular music. “Plastic Off the Sofa” is an intimate lover’s entreaty, with Bey singing, “Oh, we don’t need the world’s acceptance” over a light backdrop of hand drums and funky bass. Ironically, it’s when she takes a break from declaring her power and prowess that she most demonstrates it. Much of the album consists of coy spoken word segments that open into fleeting sung snippets. When Beyoncé’s vocals take the spotlight, as they do here, it feels earned. Her layered vocals trace a quivering path through melismatic interjections, with vocal acrobatics that, at moments, recall the stylings of Dirty Projectors, whose “Stillness In the Move” was covered by Solange. “Virgo’s Groove” builds upon the emergent groove, taking on a decidedly ‘80s sensibility with its cool funk. By the end, Bey is indulging unabashedly in R&B histrionics, showcasing her full range and flair.
“Move” returns to minimal dance stylings, and throws in some of the Afrobeat percussion that Beyoncé heavily embraced on her 2019 album for “The Lion King.” She recruits Nigerian sensation Tems, as well as the legendary Grace Jones, and exclaims, “Move out the way,” scurrying along to more hype man exaltations. Come “Heated,” she fully commits to character and, aided by some voice distortion, veers off in an animated rapping rampage. Holding back nothing, she calls out haters, “Monday, I’m overrated, Tuesday, on my dick / Flip-flop, flippy, flip-floppin’-ass bitch.” In the end, she boasts, “Uncle Jonny made my dress / That cheap Spandex, she looks a mess.”
“Church Girl” turns out to have been a mere tease, come the stretch that begins with “Thique.” When we remember that Destiny’s Child released a single titled “Bootylicious” in 2001, this track rings like a fateful progression. An alternate standard of beauty, spelled as if to playfully imitate high end branding, makes for a fitting title to a song that marks the closest we come on the new album to the sexuality of “Partition.” Beyoncé’s voice is somewhat uncomfortably close and bare, and the track derives its elemental force from the tension in her sparse, at times slightly off-key, whispery vocal and the trap syncopation. Then, come “All Up In Your Mind,” the music intensifies, courtesy of producer A.G. Cook of avant electronic collective PC Music. Cook creates a hard-hitting swamp, full of sputtering rhythms, and squirming, throbbing bass, over which Bey stops and starts in sinuous, serpentine lines, making for a primal sonic apex.
Beyoncé has turned out a fair share of socially conscious fare, particularly the Kendrick Lamar-featured “Freedom,” which shone a light on the injustices suffered by Black Americans through the ages. “Renaissance” is a consistently upbeat summer affair, in which any overt protest music would seem forced. Yet, Beyoncé makes sure that her music exudes a distinctly Black sensibility and simultaneously conveys a certain defiance in her posturing, which creatively informs the music, without becoming the focus. Consider, for example, “America Has a Problem,” which samples Kilo Ali’s “America Has a Problem (Cocaine).” The title frames an otherwise relatively unthreatening exercise with a political slant. The lyrics only approach something akin to taunting, with Beyoncé merely, playfully professing her feminine charm throughout the track. America’s problem, it appears, is the extent to which a historically marginalized demographic is wielding power.
“Pure/Honey” is a sizzling club track, with more seductive speaking from Beyoncé. A chorus that ends with “All the pretty girls to the floor,” alters its wording in its second round to “pretty boys,” in another nod to the gay community. The track develops like a vivid variety show of revolving attractions, peaking in a mobilizing, woodblock-driven chorus. The grand finale, “Summer Renaissance,” interpolates Donna Summer’s 1977 disco anthem, “I Feel Love,” and in its appropriation achieves the most thorough realization of a spirit that the album has exuded from its first track. An impressive melismatic opening display gives way to hushed lapses and swooning histrionics, over a pulse of spastic splashes and an insistent bassline. By the end, Beyoncé is leading choirs, striking catwalk poses, and calling for “applause” as we pan out from the summer of 2022, beaming with the rekindled spirit of ‘77.
“Renaissance” derives much of its force from its music being stripped down largely to vocals and percussion. It’s an album of dance floor abandon and celebratory zeal. Its lyrics, as well as the overall aura amid which they are delivered, center around a self-confidence and sexuality that are defiant and provocative. From the warning of the opening sample to the anthemic empowerment of “Cozy,” onward to the body positivity hidden in “Thique” and the feisty confrontation of “America’s Got a Problem,” Beyoncé delivers a body of work that projects a distinctly Black, and distinctly female, voice. Moreover, the influence of the LGBTQ community, in the name of Bey’s Uncle Jonny, manifests not only in the colorful inclusion of figures like Big Freedia and Ts Madison, but in the spirited excesses and verve that define the music. In the end, Beyoncé rechannels disco spirit and decades of house music into a fresh summer sound for 2022, with a social consciousness, relevant to the present moment, implicit in its sensibilities.
“Renaissance” releases July 29 on Apple Music.