Beyoncé’s ‘Renaissance’ shook some lives, made culture inert

For Beyoncé—an artist who challenges himself at every turn—the stakes of doing more, doing more, and saying more couldn’t be higher. During her solo career, she rewrote the rules of album releases, stage performances, music videos, black representation, cultural heritage and self-expression. The last frontier of innovation, the only thing left for her to achieve, is to stay away from it all. That’s what she’s trying to do these days – kinda. “I just quit my job,” she announced on “Break My Soul,” a club-hearted family track from her new album “Renaissance.” “I’m looking for new motivation.”

It’s been six years since Beyoncé released the album (and movie) “Lemonade,” in which she revealed her marital conflict and subsequent reconciliation with Jay-Z. The album is an ambitious storytelling feat that makes us reconsider what a modern pop star can accomplish. Years after its release, Beyoncé has worked to expand “Lemonade”‘s cultural footprint, first touring on stages around the world. In 2018, at Coachella, she turned it into a Baroque theatrical production honoring the legacy of black college marching bands. After the show, she filmed a documentary about her preparations for the show, as well as a live album titled “Homecoming.” That year, she and Jay-Z released “Everything Is Love,” a joint album that was more of a “Lemonade” victory lap than a new musical chapter. However, the “Lemonade” era is so monumental that its long tail feels justified. Each iteration seems to inject new fuel into the project.

After such a personal and cultural journey — not to mention six years of socio-political turmoil and a pandemic — Beyoncé, like many, is now looking to soothe her emotions. She chose the dance floor as her new spiritual home for her seventh solo album. “Lemonade” showcased a broad musical palette and narrow, intensely personal themes, while “Renaissance,” which came out at the end of July, was the opposite: a sonic hyperspecific work with an egalitarian spirit. Stylistically, it’s a tribute to black dance music and queer cultural touchstones, inspired by early nineties Chicago house music and New York City’s drag-ball culture. It’s a high-octane record with much fanfare: Beyonce appears to be holding a defibrillator paddle, trying to shock some lives into a culture that has become inert.

Over the past two decades, Beyoncé has gradually found her voice as a performer. Now, on “Renaissance,” she’s more interested in playing one of the world-weary masses: In a song called “Pure/Honey,” she’s another frustrated employee, with a “Quarter” One of the gas tanks, the world is at war”, running out of cash. “Break My Soul,” the album’s lead single, is a populist call to arms, inserting the signature synth melody of Robin S.’s “Show Me Love,” an all-time favorite and widely heard. One of the recovered family tracks. “They made me work really hard/ Nine o’clock and then five o’clock/ They made me nervous, that’s why I can’t sleep at night,” Beyoncé sings. Later in the song, she Brings in her longtime partner Big Freedia, New Orleans’ rebound icon. “Release your anger, release your mind, release your work, release time,” rants Freedia. Beyoncé’s Proletariat The transformation is almost convincing, until she indirectly reminds listeners of her material status in “Pure/Honey.” “Looks like this should cost a billion dollars,” she mumbles.

At one point, the record makes you think it’s about to take a political turn with a track called “America Has a Problem,” but it’s a fun bait-and-switch: the song is a rap on a Southern cocaine dealer. A dirty carol from the early 1990s with a sample of a song called “Cocaine”. “Renaissance” is an album designed to be consumed like a dj set, with few real song breaks. Its carefully crafted transitions reflect the changing mood and materiality of the dance floor, not the constraints of a radio station or playlist. The record ventures between gentle, soulful disco beats and jarring techno samples with an innate intelligence. Beyoncé, like the best DJs, understands that the needs of nightclub lovers can change overnight. Sometimes the dancers have to relax gently; in other cases, they have to wake up suddenly from their calm.

Beyoncé rarely explains herself, but when she announced “Renaissance,” she posted an unusual, illustrative caption on Instagram about its origins. She said she set the record “at a terrible time in the world” – presumably referring to the pandemic lockdown. Making the album allowed her to “feel free and adventurous when no one else is moving . . . a place free of perfectionism and overthinking.” However, “Renaissance” is free from any random or wrong consideration, which is a A feat of research, sampling, resource integration, and talent mining. Queer totems like Drag Ball have had plenty of mainstream moments over the years, including Madonna’s singles “Vogue” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” but Beyoncé is determined to prove she’s more dutiful than the mercurial voyeur. A record designed to feel and move takes a lot of thought, and each song seems to need its own syllabus. Beyoncé is a meticulous curator; this record bridges the gap between the unknown and the superstar collaborators, between the hits of the past and the micro-genre of the present, between popular culture and subculture. (It also has built-in moral controls: Beyoncé has reportedly conducted background checks on dozens of artists involved in the recording to make sure no one has been accused of sexual abuse.) “Move” is a biting, bossy track, Contains vocals from spoken Grace Jones and a breakthrough Nigerian singer named Tems. “Pure/Honey” is a ballroom track that weaves together samples drawn from decades of drag culture history. Jay-Z’s name appears in the lengthy composition of the song “Alien Superstar.”

“Renaissance” isn’t the first time a star like Beyoncé has turned to dance music to escape the claustrophobia of the pop music market. Dance music, especially house, is deeply rooted in black culture but has been castrated by white artists to reinvent it as a generic pool party soundtrack. Exploring the black and Midwestern origins of club music has become a rite of passage for some black artists who have become the vanguard of contemporary pop, and who may wish to rediscover a piece of musical history. Over the years, Kanye West has tapped the genre as a sample-hungry producer, using Chicago’s home repertoire to breathe life into his songs. In 2019, Frank Ocean announced he was working on a new album inspired by house and electronica. (The album has yet to materialize.) Earlier this summer, Drake released a surprise album called “Honestly, Nevermind,” a nightclub escapism that, like “Renaissance,” Drawing on the piercing, uplifting sounds of jersey clubs, as well as a wide variety of relaxing global casual music. It’s a sublime experiment by one of pop’s most innovative talents, but the album often feels powerless and empty. Beyoncé’s new album, thanks in part to its celebration of queer glamour and sexual femininity, feels even more alive. The only song on “Renaissance” that doesn’t sound bloody is “Heated” written by Drake.

There’s something uplifting about a pop icon like Beyoncé, committed to achieving a “Renaissance” level of aesthetic specificity. It’s a bold choice and a rejection of commercial interests in the age of streaming music, which has led to a long-term breakdown of genre barriers. In theory, the shift to streaming should have led to innovation. On the contrary, it helps to suppress different viewpoints and pushes many artists in the direction of easy listening maudlin. Beyoncé and Drake’s experimentation with genre may help turn things back toward specificity. It’s refreshing to imagine a future where Taylor Swift records pure country albums, Rihanna releases dancehall albums, Adele makes gospel records, and Rosalia returns to her flamenco roots.

Over time, Beyoncé has become the most well-rounded performer in America, creating elaborate stage performances and gorgeous video sets for each album. This new era for Beyoncé shows no sign that her ambitions are low: “Renaissance” is the first chapter in a trilogy of albums she plans to release this year. But the album lacks two of her usual weapons. No ballads. There’s also no music video for the songs, perhaps another respect for the dance floor. Maybe Beyoncé meant to make this album more feelings than thoughts. Perhaps the purpose of the “Renaissance” is not in front of a computer screen, but in the human body, in a nightclub. ♦

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