On ‘I’m That Girl’, the opening track from her long-gestating seventh album ‘RENAISSANCE’ – the first act of a planned trilogy – Beyoncé offloads a series of hubristic declarations as an audibly frantic sample of Tommy Wright III’s and late Memphis rapper Princess Loko’s ‘Still Pimpin’, ripples like an engine underneath. A slow rapture of self-love unfurls as Beyoncé’s announces “all these songs sound good”. Is she wrong? No, she isn’t. All sixteen tracks warrant that admission.
‘RENAISSANCE’ arrived without the visual accompaniment we’ve come to expect from the auteur. The Houstonian opted instead for a more conventional rollout, letting the songs simmer in the imagination of her listeners. The effect is already palpable. The space-age glitchtronic odyssey ‘Alien Superstar’ – the album’s jewel in the crown – is already a viral hit on Twitter and TikTok; the soaring chorus scoring hyper-feminised animation and digital memes curated by creative fans.
Since ‘4’, Beyoncé has mainstreamed fringe sounds to the masses. Bypassing trends and hits, she’s oscillated between pop-skewed R&B aspirations and a synthesis of modernist sounds. On ‘RENAISSANCE’, she completely leans into her musical impulses with unmitigated passion and poignancy. Beyoncé has never sounded more uninhibited, more whimsical or “cosier” than she does on ‘RENAISSANCE’. From the hedonism of Studio 54 disco, to the highs of Hacienda clubland and Detroit techno, Beyoncé puts her proverbial stamp on a ravey revivalist trip through era-defining dance. Wild and gleefully self-possessed, ‘CLUB RENAISSANCE’ is an unceasing hour-long DJ mix that rewards stamina; a summon to commune on the dancefloor and unburden the mind and unshackle the body from the flames that threaten to engulf us all.
‘RENAISSANCE’ memorialises Beyoncé’s late Uncle Johnny, who lost his life to AIDS as her career began to flourish in the early 00s. Beyoncé credits her ‘godmother’ with exposing her younger self to the underground subculture of queens, femmes, ballroom splendour and its language of aspirational fantasy. The legacy of these lost souls looms large throughout: Beyoncé pays tribute to the Black trans and genderqueer innovators who birthed these fiefdoms on the dancefloor, prizing them back from gentrified hands. On the languorous sway of ‘Cozy’, Beyoncé zealously lists the colours of Daniel Quasar’s ‘Progress’ pride flag, a powerful nod to marginalised LGBTQ+ people of colour.
‘RENAISSANCE’ doesn’t just pay homage to the spiritual antecedents of the Black queer tradition through idioms, it embraces the culture of “serving” through collaboration that is so integral to its survival: ‘Cozy’ and the penultimate track ‘Pure/Honey’ features production by house music forerunner Honey Dijon, and queen-speech regality from drag archetypes Kevin Aviance and the late Moi Renee, who add veracity and “cunty” realness to Beyoncé’s brand of shit-talking flagrancy.
At times Beyoncé has been criticised for a maintaining a too clean and sterile approach to her work. On ‘RENAISSANCE’, she masters the art of controlled chaos. ‘Heated’ – the older, nastier sister of ‘Bow Down’ – is a guttural siren cry; the final minute loaded with the most outlandish pomp and posturing you’ve ever heard on a Beyoncé track. ‘Church Girl’ threads together the consecrated and profane, recalling the seismic vocal yelps of ‘Get Me Bodied’ backed by a chipmunk vocal loop of ‘Center Thy Will’ by the Clark Sisters, producers No I.D. and The-Dream creating a scratchy bounce base for Beyoncé to wax lyrical about sisterhood and the right to self-determination. She knows she has sauce; she wants you to tap into yours as well.
‘RENAISSANCE’ surveys the lusty and febrile Dionysiac dimensions of after-hours music. This is grown people music. Beyoncé offers the listener a brief respite from the churning soundscape midway through, lowering the tempo for the lush retro segue of ‘Plastic Off The Sofa’ and ‘Virgo’s Groove’. Beyoncé has always excelled in her vocal production work, but here her ornate harmonies are soothing and indelibly smooth, mirroring the ecstatic rise and fall of synchronised motion, of sex, of groovy basslines and eternal monogamous love.
Pain is no longer a prelude to transcendent art. ‘RENAISSANCE’ is instead a prolonged flex; a parade of joy, emotion, coked-up glam and excess. It’s delirious and dicey, denotative without being derivative. Yes, Beyoncé’s the “greatest living entertainer” but what about her foresight, her finely-tuned instincts or her vocal ingenuity. The word ‘genius’ isn’t bestowed upon Beyoncé the way it is for Kanye or Kendrick; if ‘RENAISSANCE’ doesn’t convince you of her merit or her unerring willingness to produce sprawling bodies of work that are editorially precise, prismatic and rhythmically audacious, nothing will.
Words: Shahzaib Hussain