Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Beyoncé Renaissance

Parkwood/Columbia
2022
Parkwood/Columbia
2022

I can hear the faint hum of a swarm of bees a mile off. I can sense it. A small bead of sweat has splashed onto my keyboard as I write this. Usually I’m unshakeable, but not today. For many, Beyoncé is untouchable, and you can’t come for the Queen for fear of her hive coming after you. I have no intention of doing such a thing. Still, when Renaissance was initially announced, I was excited, but I didn’t treat it like the Earth-stopping event that some others did.

The single “Break My Soul” was a clear indicator that Beyoncé was ushering in a new dance era. Many suspected that Renaissance would be a house album, in a similar universe to recent Drake album Honestly, Nevermind or the hip-house stylings of Azealia Banks. While there are certainly house influences on the album, Renaissance takes us on a journey through US clubbing history, spanning a variety of dance genres, including New Orleans bounce, ’70s disco-funk, and Jersey club. It’s arguably a much more considered piece of work than its comparison points, evidenced by Beyoncé revealing that the album is part of a trilogy recorded over three years during the pandemic. In the same statement, she says that the process allowed her “to be free and adventurous in a time where little else was moving,” and this is the reason why the album succeeds.

Much has already been said about “Break My Soul,” but it’s worth noting where it stands within the album. When released as a single, I was underwhelmed, and I admittedly balked at the anti-capitalist sentiment coming from a multi-millionaire who had crossed a picket line only a few months prior. And while it’s not necessarily a standout on the album itself, the song is bolstered by the sequencing, which is arguably without fault. The transitions between tracks are seamless, fully transporting the listener to Club Renaissance. As standalone tracks, you simply do not get that same immersive experience. Beyoncé said CDJs be damned.

Renaissance is not an album for a casual background listen, nor should it be listened to on shuffle. It’s a departure that’s admittedly cacophonous at times. But realistically, as much as I adore her older repertoire, do we really need “Deja Vu” part deux? The pandemic made a lot of us do some unexpected stuff — people incapable of boiling an egg baked banana bread on a daily basis, your most prudish friend started practicing Shibari, and Beyoncé wrote a track that included the lyrics “cunty, hunty.” She knows that we were locked up inside, climbing the walls, trapped in our own thoughts, desperate to partake in the one activity that would grant us true salvation — shaking ass. With Renaissance, she has granted us that wish. This is by no means the first time that she has switched things up, but it’s Beyoncé at her most playful.

Though she has never been shy and retiring, this is Beyoncé at her most unashamedly self-assured, and it encourages her fans to be the same. On “Cozy,” she repeats, “Comfortable in my skin/ Cozy with who I am.” Sure, it’s destined to be devoured by teenagers on TikTok, but is that such a bad thing? Shouldn’t we all strive to be as confident as Beyoncé? Describing the world of Renaissance as “a safe space…without judgment,” the direct references to queer nightlife and ball culture in particular are apparent. From “Category: bad bitch” in “Alien Superstar” to “Ten, ten, ten across the board” in “Heated” and sampling iconic New York queens Kevin Aviance and the late Moi Renee on “Pure/Honey,” the album is an auditory love letter to an underground culture that has long deserved its flowers.

This isn’t to say that this is the general public’s first introduction to the ballroom scene, with the likes of Pose, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Paris Is Burning being ubiquitous parts of popular culture for many. But it’s worth remembering two things. Beyoncé is an artist with cross-generational and demographic appeal. Toddlers and the elderly alike, from all corners of the world, get down to “Single Ladies.” Furthermore, the LGBTQ+ Black and Latinx origins of ball culture aren’t so apparent to everyone. Slang such as “slay,” “it’s giving,” and “serving” are now considered by many to just be internet speak, often used out of context. In “Heated,” the refrain “Uncle Johnny made my dress” is a reference to Beyoncé’s late maternal uncle, who passed from AIDS-related complications and introduced her to much of this culture; it’s as clever as it is poignant. Always self referential, it’s a reminder that whilst this album is for the people, it’s also a personal journey. While much less overtly political than some of her previous work in recent years, Renaissance has allusions to politics. In lines such as “Votin’ out 45, don’t get outta line” and the less biting but still topical “them Karens just turned into terrorists” in “Energy,” the album is inherently political. It’s not only because of the overt references to queer culture and inclusion of prominent LGBTQ+ talent such as Honey Dijon, Kevin Jz Prodigy, and TS Madison, but also because in a world that expects so much of Black women, she is encouraging us to love ourselves openly, proudly, and “paint the world pussy pink.”

Unlike many of us who spent our time in quarantine diving headfirst into Twitter discourse, Beyoncé made use of hers, delving into dance music history. Samples as wide ranging as Donna Summer’s iconic dancefloor mainstay “I Feel Love” on “Summer Renaissance” and Teena Marie’s lush “Ooh La La La” on “Cuff It” and “Energy” sit alongside DJ Jimi’s downright filthy “Where They At,” perfectly interpolated on the suitably smutty “Church Girl.” That track is aided further by Dorinda Clark-Cole’s soprano vocal run, woven throughout. There’s even an interpolation of the musically and politically questionable Right Said Fred’s 1992 smash hit “I’m Too Sexy” on “Alien Superstar,” though I’m personally left a bit cold by this one, perhaps due to the pervasive and frankly annoying nature of the source material. Beyoncé brings in a host of musical contributors from across the spectrum, from Tems and Grace Jones on afrohouse track “Move,” AG Cook and BloodPop spearheading production on the subtly glitchy “All Up In Your Mind,” and industry titans Raphael Saadiq and Nile Rodgers on Soho House rooftop pool bop “Cuff It.” In all of the excitement surrounding the samples and Easter eggs, Beyoncé reminds us that she is, first and foremost, a vocalist, her range shining the most on the comparably subdued “Plastic Off The Sofa” and “Virgo’s Groove.”

Due diligence seemed to be the name of the game when putting the album together, with all collaborators reportedly going through a “#MeToo check” prior to being brought on board, though some have argued that it wasn’t completely foolproof. Moreover, Kelis, interpolated on “Energy,” has publicly called out Beyoncé and the Neptunes for not informing her that her song “Get Along With You” would be used. While this in itself is indicative of a much murkier side of the music industry as it pertains to moral rights and deserves its own deep dive, it would be remiss to not acknowledge it within the context of a work that is centered around the themes of freedom and autonomy.

Hedonistic, erotic, experimental and ultimately just great fun, Renaissance isn’t without its faults, but that’s what makes it so good. It is purely a celebration and call to arms for joy in a time that has been noticeably devoid of it. Beyoncé has long been an otherworldly being, seemingly operating in a separate ecosystem to us mere mortals. But here, she has completely let loose, becoming less polished, more curious and boundless. After all, if you go clubbing and don’t get just a little bit messy, you’re not doing it right.

Renaissance is out now via Columbia/Parkwood.

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