Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” Shocks Some Life Into a Culture Gone Inert

The stakes could not be higher for Beyoncé—an artist who has challenged herself at every turn—to do more, to be more, to say more. She has, throughout her solo career, rewritten the rules of album releases, of stage performance, of music videos, of Black representation, of cultural legacy, and of self-expression. The final frontier of innovation, the only thing left for her to achieve, is to walk away from it all. And that’s what she’s trying to do these days—sort of. “I just quit my job,” she announces on “Break My Soul,” a clubby and joyous house track, on her new album, “Renaissance.” “I’m looking for new motivation.”

It’s been six years since Beyoncé released “Lemonade,” an album (and film) on which she laid bare her marital strife, and subsequent reconciliation, with Jay-Z. The album was a feat of storytelling so ambitious that it made us reconsider what a modern pop star could accomplish. For years after its release, Beyoncé worked to expand the cultural footprint of “Lemonade,” first touring it in arenas around the world. In 2018, at Coachella, she blew it out into a baroque theatrical production honoring the legacy of Black collegiate marching bands. She followed that performance with a documentary about her preparation for the show, along with an accompanying live album called “Homecoming.” That year, she and Jay-Z released “Everything Is Love,” a joint album that was more a “Lemonade” victory lap than a new musical chapter. And yet the “Lemonade” era was so monumental that its long tail felt justified. Each iteration seemed to pump new fuel into the project.

After such a personal and cultural tour de force—not to mention six years of sociopolitical turmoil and a pandemic—Beyoncé, like so many, is now looking to lighten the mood. She’s chosen the dance floor as her new spiritual home for her seventh solo album. Where “Lemonade” showcased a broad musical palette and a narrow, intensely personal subject matter, “Renaissance,” which came out at the end of July, is the inverse: a work of sonic hyper-specificity with an egalitarian spirit. Stylistically, it’s a tribute to Black dance music and to queer cultural touchstones, with inspirations drawn from early-nineties Chicago house music and the drag-ball culture of New York City. It’s a swaggering, high-octane record: Beyoncé seems to be holding defibrillator paddles, attempting to shock some life into a culture gone inert.

In the past two decades, Beyoncé has gradually found her voice as a performer. Now, on “Renaissance,” she’s more interested in playing the role of a member of the world-weary masses: on a song called “Pure/Honey,” she’s another frustrated employee, with a “quarter tank of gas, world’s at war, low on cash.” “Break My Soul,” the album’s lead single, is a populist call to arms that interpolates the iconic synth melody of Robin S.’s “Show Me Love,” one of the most beloved—and widely recycled—house tracks in history. “They work me so damn hard / Work by nine, then off past five / And they work my nerves, that’s why I cannot sleep at night,” Beyoncé sings. Later in the song, she brings in her longtime collaborator Big Freedia, the New Orleans bounce icon. “Release your anger, release your mind, release your job, release the time,” Freedia bellows. Beyonce’s proletarian swerve is almost convincing until she indirectly reminds listeners, on “Pure/Honey,” of her material status. “It should cost a billion to look like this,” she purrs.

At one point, the record deceives you into thinking that it’s about to take a political turn with a track called “America Has a Problem,” but it’s a playful bait and switch: the song is a deliciously grimy ode to Southern cocaine-dealer rap of the early nineties, complete with a sample of a song called “Cocaine.” “Renaissance” is an album designed to be consumed like a d.j. set, with few real song breaks. Its meticulously crafted transitions reflect the shifting moods and the physicality of the dance floor, not the constraints of a radio station or a playlist. The record ventures with an innate intelligence between mild, soulful disco grooves and discordant techno samples. Beyoncé, like the best d.j.s, understands that clubgoers’ needs shift over the course of a night. At times, dancers must be gently eased along; at others, they must be abruptly jolted out of a lull.

Beyoncé seldom explains herself, but when she announced “Renaissance” she posted an unusually expository Instagram caption about its origins. She created the record, she said, “during a scary time for the world”—presumably a reference to the pandemic lockdown. Making the album had allowed her to “feel free and adventurous in a time when little else was moving . . . a place to be free of perfectionism and overthinking.” And yet there is nothing casual or ill considered on “Renaissance,” which is a grand feat of research, sampling, resource marshalling, and talent mining. Queer totems like drag balls have had plenty of mainstream moments over the years, including Madonna’s single “Vogue” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” but Beyoncé is intent on proving that she is more dutiful student than fickle voyeur. A whole lot of thinking went into a record designed for feeling and moving, and each song seems to warrant its own syllabus. Beyoncé is a meticulous curator; the record creates bridges between unknowns and superstar collaborators, between mega-hits of the past and micro-genres of the present, between mass culture and subculture. (It also has built-in ethical controls: Beyoncé reportedly ran background checks on the dozens of artists involved in the record to insure that none had been accused of sexual abuse.) “Move,” a spiky, bossy track, incorporates spoken-word vocals from Grace Jones and from a breakout Nigerian singer named Tems. “Pure/Honey,” a ballroom house track, braids together samples sourced across decades of drag-culture history. Jay-Z’s name is nestled in the lengthy writing credits of the song “Alien Superstar.”

“Renaissance” is not the first time that a star of Beyoncé’s stature has turned to dance music to escape the claustrophobia of the pop marketplace. Dance music, house in particular, has deep roots in Black culture, but has been perennially neutered by white artists refashioning it into generic pool-party soundtracks. Exploring the Black and Midwestern origins of club music has become a rite of passage for some Black artists at the vanguard of contemporary pop, who are perhaps looking to reclaim a piece of musical history. For years, Kanye West mined the genre as a sample-hungry producer, using Chicago house tracks to breathe life into his songs. In 2019, Frank Ocean announced that he was working on a new album inspired by house and techno music. (The album has yet to materialize.) Earlier this summer, Drake released a surprise album called “Honestly, Nevermind,” a work of night-club escapism that, like “Renaissance,” draws on the strident, exhilarating sounds of Jersey club, and on assorted strains of chilled-out global lounge music. It was a noble experiment from one of pop’s most innovative talents, but the album often felt limp and vacant. Beyoncé’s new album, thanks in part to its sense of celebratory queer flamboyance and libidinal femininity, feels more alive. The only song on “Renaissance” that sounds oddly bloodless is “Heated,” which was written by Drake.

There is something bracing about a pop figurehead like Beyoncé committing to “Renaissance” ’s level of aesthetic specificity. It’s a bold choice and a rejection of commercial interests in the streaming-music era, which has ushered in a protracted dissolution of genre barriers. In theory, the shift to streaming should have enabled innovation; instead, it has helped squash distinct points of view, and nudged many artists in the maudlin direction of easy listening. Beyoncé’s and Drake’s experiments in genre might help shift things back toward specificity. It is refreshing to imagine a future in which Taylor Swift records a pure country album, Rihanna releases a dancehall album, Adele makes a gospel record, and Rosalia returns to her flamenco roots.

Over time, Beyoncé has become America’s most complete performer, creating elaborate stage shows and ornate video collections to accompany each album. Nothing about this new era of Beyoncé signals that she’s low on ambition: “Renaissance” is the first chapter in a trilogy of albums she’s planning to release this year. But the album is missing two of her customary weapons. There are no ballads. There are also no music videos for the songs, which is perhaps another gesture of deference to the dance floor. Maybe Beyoncé means for this album to produce more feelings than thoughts. Maybe “Renaissance” is intended to be enjoyed not in front of a computer screen but among human bodies, in a night club. ♦

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