Like the fall of an empire, or a great earthquake, a Beyoncé album release has become a historic event with far-reaching reverberations. “Changed the game with that digital drop,” she bragged on her song with Nicki Minaj, “Feeling Myself”, “know where you was when that digital popped”, referencing the shock release of her self-titled 2013 visual album. Whether fanatic or dissident, one cannot help but yield to the gravitational pull of Brand B, or at least recognise her music’s ubiquity. So it’s apt that she would, with trademark conviction, call her seventh studio album a cultural revolution: Renaissance.
Listeners’ first glimpse of this new world was the lead single “Break My Soul”. The song, a departure from most of Beyoncé’s back catalogue, introduced listeners to her new-old sound through a tramping Korg M1 synthesiser, one of the most recognisable noises in house music. Beyoncé proudly asserts that she just quit her job because they “work me so damn hard”; much was made of her apparent “anti-capitalist” sentiment on the track’s release, but no one should need reminding that a millionaire artist’s newfound distrust of the bourgeois is probably an affectation.
It turns out that the steady, conventional groove of “Break My Soul” was a soft launch for Beyoncé’s new sound – the crowd-friendly shop front for Renaissance’s sexier, sultrier deep cuts. More sonically daring than ever before, this electric, kaleidoscopic record is a passionate embrace of queer culture, encompassing glitzy Seventies disco, New Orleans bounce, the theatricality of ballroom and even a nod to the London art-pop collective PC Music. “Pure/Honey” is grimy, unadulterated hedonism turned bubblegum joy; the menacing bass of “America Has a Problem” will have you clamouring for the nearest dancefloor. In the end, you’ll emerge from the club sweaty and bruised but full of love, light and ecstasy.
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Renaissance is an indulgent album, and all the better for it. Everything is Love, the 2018 collaborative record from Beyoncé and her husband Jay-Z, suffered from its empty, generic displays of exorbitant wealth on songs like “Apeshit” and “Boss” that, unlike Beyoncé’s swaggering best work, seemed to flex for flex’s sake. Four years later Beyoncé is back to elevating flexing to an art form. Over a fiery drum machine on “Heated”, she boasts that she’s “dripped in pearls like Coco Chanel” and “has a lot of Tiffany” jewellery. But on a song so heavily inspired by ballroom culture (“Tip, tip, tip on hard wood floors/Ten, ten, ten across the board”), where such materialism might be a form of optimism or a way to dream yourself out of poverty, these flourishes take on a more subversive air. The track revels in the glory of luxury goods, but also pokes fun at their importance, with sarcastic cries of “Stolen Chanel? Lock me up in jail.”
Perhaps the most significant shift on this album is its irreverent manipulation of the singer’s most prized asset: her voice. This is, by some way, the most vocal playfulness there has been on a Beyoncé record. Hints of a vocoder warble appear on the opening of “Virgo’s Groove”; PC Music’s AG Cook is let loose on “All Up In Your Mind”, chopping and chewing Beyoncé’s vocals across shuddering, synthetic beats. Even without artificial help, it’s the most camp she has been: in a faux-European accent she over-pronounces every syllable of “Versace, Bottega, Prada, Balenciaga” at the close of “Summer Renaissance”. Though her sound remains highly produced and expertly executed, it’s refreshing to see this most note-perfect star welcome a little chaos.
While this is an album that expends most of its energies on pure pleasure, some of its most worthwhile moments are its quietly political ones. Take the smooth disco of “Plastic off the Sofa” – the title a reference to the plastic covers that cover furniture in many black, brown and immigrant family homes, in the US and across the world. Beyoncé reassures her lover (“we don’t need the world’s acceptance”) and makes concessions for his past (“I know you had it rough growing up but that’s OK”). She encourages him to be vulnerable, to take the metaphorical plastic off the sofa. In using this symbol of black experience, Beyoncé creates a moving treatise on racial liberation, masquerading as a simple love song.
“Church Girl” is an ode to a wild, party girl who “drops it like a thottie” but still goes to church in the morning and “don’t hurt nobody”. This is not a cheap attempt to sexualise religion. Beyoncé’s “loose” church girl is quietly critical of the constraints of organised religion: the repeated line “nobody can judge me but me/I was born free” gently contradicts the idea of original sin. If Renaissance is an album inspired by and dedicated to the LGBT community, it follows that its one “church song” would be a critique, however veiled.
After the release of “Formation”, the lead single of Beyoncé’s landmark sixth album, Lemonade, the US sketch show Saturday Night Live produced a skit called “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black”, parodying the incredulous reaction of some white fans to her support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Today, if you listen very carefully, you can hear the sound of an overworked comedy writer, in a grubby little office corner, feverishly tapping out their first draft of “The Day Beyoncé Turned Gay”. It’s true that this record’s release would have broke more ground say, ten or fifteen years ago. Embracing queerness in 2022 is nowhere near as radical as it used to be. However, with constant attacks on queer and trans lives, shows of support are still necessary. In Renaissance, an exultant return to sticky club dancefloors, Beyoncé has advanced the kind of solidarity and community only true pop icons can foster.