How lucky are we to live in a time where Beyoncé exists? One of the few artists for whom releasing an album can genuinely be described as a cultural event, the announcement of ‘RENAISSANCE’ seemingly came at exactly the right time, with a proper excitement-building lead time instead of the normal surprise drop. Returning us to the kind of radio-friendly single that we haven’t seen her do since 2011’s ‘4’, ‘Break My Soul’ only piqued interest, fans speculating on whether she was heralding a party or rallying for some kind of anti-capitalist revolution. Both seemed plausible; as she so wisely told us herself on ‘Formation’, “you know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation.”
Dance music was what was teased, and it turns out that it was exactly what we got. Written as a cathartic escape during the pandemic, ‘RENAISSANCE’ is an album of high energy, a ballroom event where the category is most firmly Bey. It’s a house record yes, but the house is a sprawling mansion, a historical artefact in which each exhibit is lovingly handled and displayed. Beyoncé has often been talked about as a vocal powerhouse, but on ‘RENAISSANCE’, she multiplies her skills in imaginative ways; the braggy-ballroom hostess on ‘Pure/Honey’, the staccato southern sass of ‘Thique’, the butterfly-light soprano of ‘Alien Superstar.’ On some songs, she showcases several different vocal-characters with seamless transition, showing just how far her expression has expanded since the days of Sasha Fierce’s explicit alter-ego.
It’s also an album that works hard to celebrate LGBTQIA+ culture, using its self-acknowledged privilege to elevate those who haven’t received the same level of respect. In the records liner notes, she pays tribute to Uncle Johnny, her ‘godmother’ who she described at the 2019 GLAAD Awards as “the most fabulous gay man I’ve ever met.” Uncle Johnny appears most explicitly on ‘Heated’ (“Uncle Johnny made my dress!”), but it seems he did much more than that, showing her what it means to remember ballroom and house culture as something that was formed out of LGBTQIA+ necessity, a place to feel true to oneself without fear. If self-titled was an ode to herself and ‘Lemonade’ a tribute to Black women, ‘RENAISSANCE’ focuses on the story of Black queer cultures, it seems her lens is only becoming more exploratory, digging into the kind of intersectional observations that we should all be looking to learn from.
Much as she acknowledges Uncle Johnny, Beyoncé seems to want to pay respect to the genre through the art of sampling, giving ‘RENAISSANCE’ a namesake sense of familiarity amongst all the innovation. ‘Alien Superstar’ does a much more natural job of sampling ‘I’m Too Sexy’ than Taylor Swift or Drake managed, but the even bigger samples are given to true Black innovators; Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’, The Clark Sisters’ ‘Centre of Thy Will’, drag queen Kevin Aviance’s ‘Cunty’. No heteronormative man is allowed to come close to outshining her; there are no Jay-Z guest verses, and even Drake’s hand in ‘Heated’ is pretty low-key. Instead, the Black trans producer Honey Dijon shines on ‘Cosy’ and ‘Alien Superstar’, while the guiding hand of Syd is apparent in ‘Plastic Off The Sofa’s low-key funky charm. When the album eventually gets its accompanying visuals, it’s easy to imagine that she will draw on both ballroom choreography and gender inclusivity, fleshing out the imagery and ideas that have inspired her.
Lastly, it’s just nice to hear Beyoncé having such sustained fun. After two records of soul-searching and emotional upheaval, it is quite profound to hear her plumb her talents for play. There are some bold one-liners (“Cause them Karens just turned into terrorists”), but it’s mostly a record of feeling more than deep lyrical dissection. With its “she survived everything she been through” lyricism, ‘Cozy’ feels like Little Mix’s ‘Wasabi’ on steroids, a fuck you to the haters that strive for solidarity. Featuring two Black trans women — Honey Dijon and actor Ts Madison — some fans have suggested that it is a dedication to self-determination, sticking up for the right to feel “comfortable in [their] skin”: “Might I suggest you don’t fuck with my sis?”. Elsewhere, she amps up the impish, celebrating the emancipatory joys of feeling oneself and having others feel it too. Frankly, I’m not sure Beyoncé has ever been randier on record — ‘Pure/Honey’ hints at what might happen if you “give this ass a squeeze”, while ‘Church Girl’ is a crowning jewel, a trip on the twerkulator that still manages to feel somehow spiritual. Its invitation to “pop it like a thotty” is sexy and summery but also a little bit silly, the best kind of song to blast while you psych yourself up for a massive night out.
However, all this effusive praise is not to say that ‘RENAISSANCE’ is above criticism. Notably, RnB star Kelis has raised the issue of sampling without her permission on ‘Energy’, which interpolates her hit song ‘Milkshake’. While Kelis is the song’s performer, she is not formally listed as one of the song’s producers, composers or lyricists, and so these credits are instead given to Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes, whom Kelis has previously said “lied and tricked” her out of rights to her own material. This issue of female erasure is more complicated than Beyoncé, but it’s difficult to disagree with Kelis that a woman-to-woman heads-up couldn’t have been given.
The song ‘Heated’ has also caused dismay with its use of an ableist slur, a term that has become alarmingly commonplace in American modern rap songs. The same word that Lizzo had to be recently called out for (and subsequently amended), it is a term that seems to hold less negative connotation in the US, but is still frustrating and hurtful when it comes from an artist who trades under the image of empowerment, and who likely has the infrastructure and awareness to know better. Though Beyoncé wrote of wanting ‘RENAISSANCE’ to be “safe place, a place without judgment… a place to be free of perfectionism and overthinking,” these two missteps butt heads with her album’s main concept: lifting people up all over the world, giving them their flowers, and welcoming them in with appropriately positive recognition. The slur will reportedly be removed, but it could easily have been avoided in the first place.
As she moves into acts two and three – yes, there is more music on the way – hopefully this is something Yoncé can reflect on, make even stronger. The position she is in right now is not to be underestimated; truly one of the greatest of her time, her music serves as a cultural document, work to be unpicked and delighted over, to spark conversation. At 40 years of age — the stage of a career where a sexist industry tends to write women off — she has never been more vibrant, more determined, and seemingly, more musically prolific. Whatever the next two acts hold, they certainly won’t be boring; by all accounts, Beyoncé’s dance party is only just getting started.