Beyoncé: Renaissance review | Tara Joshi's album of the week
It has been six years since the last proper Beyoncé solo release. After 2016’s astonishing visual album, Lemonade, the pop behemoth put out a solid but canonically forgettable collaborative full-length with husband Jay-Z (as the Carters), plus 2019’s The Gift, her vibrant soundtrack for Disney’s remake of The Lion King. The protracted wait for her seventh album gives its title, Renaissance, a multiplicity of meanings, nodding to Beyoncé’s return and also society’s post-pandemic rejuvenation. As she told Harper’s Bazaar in 2021: “With all the isolation and injustice over the past year, I think we are all ready to escape, travel, love and laugh again. I feel a renaissance emerging, and I want to be part of nurturing that escape in any way possible.”
Beyoncé was never going to make a corny “live, laugh, love” record, and her rebirth finds her in the role of siren luring us to the dancefloor. Lead single Break My Soul was a boisterous and euphoric slice of 90s diva house, albeit not exactly groundbreaking. Still, her first US Top 10 single in six years also marked her return to US radio airplay, so clearly it did something right. But Renaissance, for the most part, ventures beyond pastiche into far more eclectic, adventurous territory – a fine soundtrack for a feral summer of chaos and joy. Fast-paced bounce melds with glossy Diana Ross-inspired disco, tinges of soul, sweltering Afrobeats and gqom; swirling trap, swaggering house, Jersey Club, New Jack Swing and even gritty, thumping maximalism (courtesy of PC Music’s AG Cook) on All Up in Your Mind – often within the space of one song. The songs flow as a continuous mix, with beat-switches reigning supreme: Energy starts in the same funky bass arena as the preceding Cuff It before spinning into nocturnal global house hedonism with Jamaican-American rapper Beam; Church Girl goes from gilded gospel to thot rap; Pure/Honey’s brash self-confidence suddenly yields to breezy pop vocal harmonies.
Sometimes these daring clashes are head-scratching: Alien Superstar interpolates Right Said Fred’s I’m Too Sexy and just about gets away with it precisely because it doesn’t hang around too long: gliding strings and breathy singing beget rapping over thumping bass; then cosmic glitching, twanging guitars and expansive harmonies about supernatural love. At others, they don’t quite live up to the sum of their parts. It was intoxicating when Beyoncé riffed on Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby on 2004’s Naughty Girl; here, it feels decadent to hear her crooning the chorus to I Feel Love on Summer Renaissance – as irresistible as that magic Giorgio Moroder riff remains – though perhaps decadence is the point.
That uninhibited, playful approach to genre is mirrored in Beyoncé urging listeners to wholeheartedly embrace pleasure: there are “church girls acting loose”; the lush, raunchy glitter of Virgo’s Groove decorated with Beyoncé ordering her man to “taste me / that fleshy part / I scream so loud”; the carnal breathiness of Thique (“he thought he was loving me good / I told him go harder”). Cuff It subverts a classically sugary Nile Rodgers bass line with her wayward, self-deprecating desire to “fuck something up”. Personal satisfaction is paramount: “We don’t need the world’s acceptance, they’re too hard on me / They’re too hard on you, boy,” she sings on the glowing neo-soul of Plastic Off the Sofa, seemingly in reference to never-ending public speculation about her marriage to Jay-Z. As with Drake’s club-centric Honestly, Nevermind (he’s here too, albeit imperceptibly, on Heated), Beyoncé has swapped the concrete storytelling of her 2013 self-titled album and Lemonade for pure vibes: vague aphorisms about self-actualisation, sex and love underpinning the loose philosophy of her own hot girl summer. She sells it (certainly better than Drake) thanks to her convincing vocal power: beautifully melismatic on Virgo’s Groove, commanding on Move, channelling her Houston roots in quick-fire bars on the ferocious, exhilarating breakdown on Heated.
The increasingly politicised nature of Beyoncé’s work over the past decade has established certain expectations for this album. Break My Soul’s lyrics encouraging listeners to “release ya job” resonated with the sentiment of the great resignation; when she shared Renaissance’s tracklist prior to release, many assumed that America Has a Problem would offer a fairly literal exposition of its title. But it turns out to be named after the Atlanta rap track it samples, subverting Kilo Ali’s lyrics about cocaine to use drugs as a (not terribly imaginative) allegory for love. As with Kendrick Lamar’s Mr Morale and the Big Steppers, there’s a sense of Beyoncé refusing the mantle that culture has placed on her as a perfectionist and spokesperson. Where initially many people were baffled by the anticapitalist sentiment of Break My Soul given Beyoncé’s evidently very commercial enterprise, her claim that she “just quit my job” finds context here.
Although there are sharp lines such as “them Karens just turned into terrorists” and musings on how Beyoncé embodies “this un-American life”, for the most part Renaissance finds its politics in Black joy. In another echo of its title, it also affirms the Black roots of club culture, referencing New Orleans bounce pioneers and featuring production from creators such as the Black, transgender DJ and producer Honey Dijon. There are frequent nods to ballroom, the resourceful underground communities that gave queer people chosen families and a refuge for celebration. She samples 90s drag artist Moi Renee, categorises herself as a “bad bitch” on Alien Superstar, and steps into an affectedly poised, staccato delivery on Pure/Honey. It’s knowingly done – her instruction “get your money money, cunty hunty” just about skirts caricature for humour. There are perhaps questions to ask about a wealthy, cis, straight woman embodying this culture, although it’s a homage to her mother’s brother – her “godmother and the first person to expose me to a lot of the music and culture that serve as inspiration for this album”, she said – who died of an Aids-related illness: “Uncle Johnny made my dress / ‘That cheap Spandex / She look a mess’,” she sings on Heated, reclaiming a criticism as a point of pride.
Touted as Act I of a confirmed trilogy, Renaissance falls short of being Beyoncé’s best full-length, but it still fulfils her liberationist aims. It’s a celebration of living abundantly and outside the realms of others’ expectations, and acts as a reminder of how rare it is to witness this hyper-disciplined artist simply having fun on her own terms. Her sense of freedom throughout is palpable, and an infectious spur to action.