Landmark expression of Black joy
When Beyonce told fans about her seventh solo studio album, “Renaissance,” she said she hoped the music would lead them to “release the wiggle,” a lovable phrase borrowed from the New Orleans bounce-music trailblazer Big Freedia.
What Beyonce meant is that she wants these songs to help folks find the encouragement to be their truest selves; the jubilant drive of the album’s 1990s-house-inspired lead single, “Break My Soul” (which also incorporates Big Freedia’s command), foretold a powerful effort built on dance-music styles created by Black and queer people over the past several decades. But not even the most devoted member of the Beyhive could’ve predicted how thoroughly the 40-yearold superstar would follow through on her promise with the wild and ravishing “Renaissance.”
The recently released 16-track LP, described by Beyonce as the first installment in a planned trilogy, isn’t her first foray into club culture. Nor is she the only pop artist taking up these sounds now, more than two years into a pandemic that’s left many yearning for the communal experience of the dance floor; Drake, who has a writing credit on “Renaissance,” just dropped his own house immersion, “Honestly, Nevermind,” while Doja Cat and Dua Lipa have scored monster radio smashes lately with thumping club jams.
Yet in terms of the new album’s scholarship — its dense weave of samples, cameos, references and interpolations, all deployed as a way to
connect broader social and political narratives to the details of her fiercely guarded private life — “Renaissance” is miles ahead of the competition.
“No one else in this world can think like me,” she purrs over a jackhammering machine groove in “Alien Superstar,” and go ahead and ask yourself who else would make that claim, let alone sell it as Beyonce does, in a song that later imagines her in “stilettos kicking vintage crystal off the bar.”
The music pulls from disco, funk, techno, hiphop, house, dancehall, Afrobeats, ballroom and more; Beyonce’s collaborators include The-Dream, Honey Dijon, Skrillex, Syd, Hit-Boy, Mike Dean and A.G. Cook, among others.
In the blistering “Move,” Beyonce enlists Grace Jones and the Nigerian singer Tems to deliver a queenly warning to anyone foolish enough to get in their way: “Don’t make it turn into trouble/ ’Cause we coming straight out the jungle.” “Cuff It,” an ebullient disco fantasia, has Chic’s Nile Rodgers on guitar, Raphael Saadiq on bass and Sheila E. on percussion — a living lesson in funk history.
Sometimes the voices come literally from the past, as in “Pure/Honey,” which samples the drag performers Moi Renee and Kevin Aviance for a flex about looking as good as a billion dollars, and “Church Girl,” which speeds up an old Clark Sisters gospel tune; sometimes it’s riffs and licks Beyonce is recycling, as in the album’s shimmering closer, “Summer Renaissance,” which quotes
Donna Summer’s epochal “I Feel Love” from 1977. It’s like a carefully curated library, this whole thing, with an astonishing depth of knowledge regarding rhythm and harmony that puts Beyonce as an arranger and bandleader on a level with Prince and Stevie Wonder.
For all its craft, “Renaissance” is intensely, almost overwhelmingly, emotional as Beyonce savors the desire and satisfaction in her own life while contemplating the availability of those sensations to people on the margins. One of her few explicitly political statements comes in “Energy,” where she mentions “voting out 45” and rhymes “entered the country with Derringers” with “them Karens just turned into terrorists.” Yet the depictions of Black joy in songs like “Plastic Off the Sofa” and “Virgo’s Groove” have a kind of steadfast tenderness that acknowledges their hardwon nature.
A knowingly expansive canvas, “Renaissance” showcases Beyonce’s flexibility across its hour run time. But it also has moments where she goes from here to there in the space of a few seconds, as in “Plastic Off the Sofa,” in which she’s cooing pristinely about how safe her lover makes her feel in a world that runs on conflict.
“I love the little things that make you you,” she tells him over another juicy bass line on an album chock-full of them, “I think you’re so cool.” Then she turns to us with a little laugh and breaks the spell with a priceless aside: “Even though I’m cooler than you.” It’s one more instance of Beyonce taking it all in — and making space for herself to thrive.