Photo Credit: Mason Poole for Parkwood Entertainment
The story of house music is one of liberation; of marginalized communities carving out a space where they could unapologetically be themselves. As a genre, its roots are radical – its formation can be credited to Black and Queer individuals who refused to conform to a society that insisted they became quieter and smaller. Yet as the genre has increasingly moved towards the mainstream, it’s hard not to feel as though it has been unduly appropriated; stripped of its radicalism to become soulless and corporate. If Drake’s most recent album Honestly, Nevermind represented the absolute nadir of this phenomenon, then Beyoncé’s seventh studio album Renaissance stands as its antithesis; offering a return to the genre’s revolutionary spirit while foraging a bold, new path for its future. “We don’t need the world’s acceptance” she declares on standout “Plastic Off The Sofa”, as both reassurance to a friend and a reminder of the principles grounding Renaissance.
Renaissance is inherently political, both in a micro and macro sense; equally as radical as the album’s most overtly political statements are those moments in which Beyoncé chooses to embrace Queer culture and her own identity as a Black woman unburdened by the increasingly-intolerant world outside – a world where being a pop superstar, a First Lady or even a member of the Royal Family cannot shield Black women from prejudice. But, this being Beyoncé’s most political album to date presents unique challenges to the pop superstar given both the point in her career at which it is being released and the current reality of the masses. Beyoncé has reliably been found on the right side of the major issues of recent years, yet at the same time, her eye-watering wealth (her net worth is estimated at $500 million) perpetually threatens to draw distance between her and the listener. Let’s be honest, who really wants to hear one of the richest artists in the world tell us to “release our jobs”, knowing how much easier that is for them than for us?
Except Beyoncé doesn’t sing that line, the sampled Big Freedia does. Beyoncé’s heavy, yet purposeful, employment of samples across Renaissance is nothing short of masterful. By incorporating a rich array of Black and Queer voices into her seventh solo album, Knowles makes her commitment to inclusivity seem meaningful and deep-rooted rather than merely symbolic. No longer tethered to any need, or desire, to conform to mainstream standards, Beyoncé puts her big heart on full display and fully delivers on her expansive musical ambitions. She begins “Pure/Honey” with a looping sample of Kevin Aviance saying the C-word, pens a tribute to an uncle who died because of AIDS and incorporates the Afrobeats genre that is still nascent in the Western world. It’s all hugely compelling, a testament to what the musical landscape could look like as opposed to what it already does look like.
Renaissance is primarily a house album, but more often than not it defies easy categorization; hints of Jazz, Soul, and even hyper-pop are scattered across its hour-plus runtime and songs often begin as one thing and evolve into something completely different. “I’m That Girl” begins with an abrasive, looping sample of Tommy Wright III’s “Still Pimpin” before shifting into transcendent R&B. The following “Cozy”, meanwhile, alternates between similarly sublime R&B and propulsive rapping. Renaissance solidifies Beyoncé’s status as the most dynamic – and frankly most interesting – pop star currently working. The former Destiny’s Child star exists on an echelon that she occupies solely. The creative freedom endowed by this is utilized fully through Renaissance’s hugely diverse sonic palette, and Beyoncé takes the sort of risks that it’s hard to imagine any other mainstream star attempting – let alone pulling off.
On “Alien Superstar”, she breathily brags, “Stilettos kicking vintage crystal off the bar // Category: bad b*tch, I’m the bar”. It instantly recalls the oft-parodied music of Real Housewives and other socialites, yet inexplicably works – perhaps because Beyoncé is self-aware of the moment’s unseriousness, or perhaps because it’s shortly followed by fantastic musicality. Even when Renaissance more obviously recalls her older music, like on “Cuff It”, Beyoncé manages to take the music to new heights – in this case by getting Nile Rodgers to co-write and adding a full band who elevates the song without taking away focus from Knowles’ fantastic voice.
Beyoncé’s pen game, meanwhile, is sharper and more effective than ever. She manages to incorporate modern-day slang (“drop it like a thottie”, for instance) while staving off the awkwardness one would expect from a forty-year-old employing such language. On the song “Heated”, a tribute to her uncle Johnny who died from an AIDS-related illness in the early ’90s, she employs gay slang to create a fitting and surprisingly touching tribute to her deceased relative (“Uncle Johnny made my dress // That cheap Spandex, she looks a mess”). Elsewhere, she offers the album’s funniest and most quotable – but also most divisive – line (“I just entered the country with derringers // ‘Cause them Karens just turned into terrorists”).
As with any album this long and this dedicated to risk-taking, Renaissance necessarily has moments that miss the mark or fade into the background. In contrast to “Move”, “Energy’s” incorporation of Afrobeats feels forced and clunky – the only time where Beyoncé’s inclusivity mission runs askew, rather than in tandem, to the quality of the music itself. The otherwise excellent “Heated” features unfortunate employment of the “sp*z” slur (which Beyoncé has since promised to remove), while “Thique” marks the first moment at which the album begins to feel like it is re-treading ground that was covered more effectively in the album’s first half. The six-minute “Virgo’s Groove” marks Renaissance’s most ambitious moment, and while it does scale some truly terrific highs, the Daft Punk-lite electronics can also have the effect of subsuming Beyoncé’s voice.
But there’s something thrilling even about Renaissance’s least compelling moments. Even the least remarkable music here showcases an artist tirelessly dedicated to pushing boundaries set by herself, society, and the music industry itself. The fantastical musicality of the album’s best moments, alone, ensure that Renaissance is a roaring success, but its success in returning House music to its revolutionary roots is what really makes it such a landmark release. On “Break My Soul”, Beyoncé declares that she is “looking for something that lives inside me…a new salvation” and on Renaissance she finds it; liberating not just for herself but the marginalized communities that society has long tried and failed to contain.