On ‘Renaissance’ Beyoncé is at her curatorial best
On her latest No. 1 album, Beyoncé takes fans through her museum of sound
To call Beyoncé’s latest album, Renaissance, just a “dance record” would be akin to calling Celine Dion a fairly popular singer. Across 16 tracks, Beyoncé not only pays homage to a soundscape borne from Chicago’s and Detroit’s queer communities (and her Uncle Jonny who introduced her to that world), she also incorporates references from a bevy of Black musical subgenres and subcultures, showcasing one of her most underrated musical skills: archiving and curation.
Take the opening track, “I’m That Girl,” for example. Beyoncé opens the song with the same type of stacked harmonies she perfected during her Destiny’s Child era, employing the airy vocal register she first used in 2013’s “Mine.” Toward the end of the song, a looped lyric from Princess Loko (“B— please, motherf—ers ain’t stopping me“) is set atop a sample of Tommy Wright III’s “Still Pimpin.” Wright’s slow bassline is then layered with a mild house beat that follows a dembow riddim used in reggaeton music, courtesy of Dominican producer Kelman Duran. “You know, all these songs sound good, ’cause I’m on that, ho,” Beyoncé boasts during the opener, later singing about knocking Basquiats off the wall.
A lot has changed since Beyonce’s last project, The Lion King: The Gift dropped in the summer of 2019. House music has been in a resurgence of its own recently. The popularity of DJs such as Kaytranada, the proliferation of Philadelphia and New Jersey club artists on TikTok, and the rise of South African amapiano’s popularity in the United States were a harbinger for the current explosion. We’ve been in a pandemic for over two years, anxious for the day that COVID-19 will finally be over and allow us to experience music the way artists intended. Renaissance speaks to those who are striving for that moment. It captures our desires, transforming them into an album that’s a heady and densely layered mix of house music and club beats intermingled with au courant trends and homages to Black queer creativity. The album is also a reminder of the power and release that can be found among like-minded people in the brief escape of a booming sound system and a dance floor.
Constructing a stylistic symphony
Beyoncé referencing Jean-Michel Basquiat on Renaissance is apt. While the Carters often employ the deceased artist’s name as a means of flaunting their wealth, his approach to art is very much in line with Beyoncé’s creative vision on this album. Basquiat’s work encompases the varied realities of Black cultural life, frequently drawing from influences to animate his art while also using his previous work to fashion something entirely novel.
On Renaissance Beyoncé does something similar, constructing a type of stylistic symphony that can be seen on several tracks. “Cuff It,” which seems like the conclusion of a sonic evolution that Beyoncé has been experimenting with since 2011’s “Schoolin’ Life,” is rounded out by Nile Rodgers injecting his classic disco-era guitar and bass rhythms.
On “Church Girl,” Beyoncé dips back into her previous incorporation of New Orleans bounce music, only this time including elements of the infectious (and extremely popular) Triggerman bounce beat from 1986’s “Drag Rap,” remixing DJ Jimi lyrics with gospel icon Twinkie Clark’s opening of “Center of Thy Will.”
As she’s done on other projects, Beyoncé also incorporates influences from across the African diaspora. “Move” invokes South African gqom influences by forgoing the standard “four-on-the-floor” count of disco and house music and layering on dynamic percussion with Grace Jones’ defiant invocations — an astonishing feat for Beyoncé, who was once dismissed by the avant-garde artist as merely imitating her previous innovations.
Time traveling through musical references
To create a single thematic experience out of any one of these subgenres would be ambitious. Undaunted, Beyoncé melded past and present club sounds like a melodic Möbius strip, powered by the range and dynamism in her vocals.
The saccharine lilt of “Plastic Off the Sofa” and “Virgo Groove” are Beyoncé at her disco-era, roller rink, sex-siren best — with the assistance of queer producer and songwriter Syd. Those songs are the perfect complement to the album’s closing track, “Summer Renaissance.” In it, Beyoncé delivers a vocal interpolation of Donna Summer’s sensuous, “It’s so good, it’s so good, it’s so good, it’s so good, it’s sooo good,” from “I Feel Love.”
“Pure/Honey” is an example of a well-crafted homage to ballroom culture and its queer architects and gatekeepers – replete with loops of DJ MikeQ and Kevin JZ Prodigy’s “Feels Like,” and Kevin Aviance’s “Cunty,” juxtaposed against a vocal interpolation of late drag performer Moi Renee’s versatile use of the phrase “Miss Honey.”
Despite Beyoncé’s attention to detail, not all executions on Renaissance land perfectly. The second half of “Heated,” a track dripping with Drake’s lyrical DNA, begins to lose its luster when Beyoncé transitions to her attempt at ballroom “chanting,” her brief nod to her beloved Uncle Jonny notwithstanding. With a slower beats per minute than the average vogue femme track, the lyrics and cadence delivered come off as less defiant and more breezy and irreverent. Beyoncé executes this more successfully in “Break My Soul (The QUEENS Remix),” swapping out Madonna’s lyrics in “Vogue” by listing iconic Black divas and ballroom houses, past and present.
Beyoncé’s museum of sound
British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful described listening to Renaissance as being hit with a “wall of sound” — an assortment of polyrhythms, syncopations, and vocals that transported him to a place both utterly contemporary while simultaneously enveloping him in the warm of his nostalgic club-going youth. But I envision the album as a metaphysical museum, comprising all of Beyoncé’s music and influences, offering her a broad array of eras to revisit, repolish, and renew, mixing and matching at will.
“All Up in Your Mind,” for instance, is the final iteration of the type of dance track that Beyoncé had been exploring with Lady Gaga in their “Telephone” and “Video Phone” collaborations more than a decade ago. This time, though, it’s refreshed with Beyoncé’s more mature vocal texture and devoid of the occasional cartoonish sheen of a Lady Gaga pop record. The second verse of “Alien Superstar” is a crystallization of Beyoncé’s ongoing creative relationship with her husband, Jay-Z, going back to 2003’s “Crazy in Love.” Beyoncé’s delivery of the lyrics, “Mastermind in haute couture/Label whores can’t clock, I’m so obscure,” in her syrupy Houston drawl enriches Jay-Z’s distinct rhyming cadence. It’s the culmination of decades of their partnership of performance and production.
When hearing the sample of Kilo Ali’s “Cocaine” in this album’s “America Has a Problem,” one can’t help but be teleported to an early ’90s era of bright colors, Soul Train lines, and planned choreography – a period that was marked by Beyoncé’s 1993 Star Search debut with Destiny’s Child, then named Girl’s Tyme. Also, her yearslong production collaboration with The-Dream comes into full bloom on Renaissance, where his skill of crafting nearly imperceptible song transitions shape the album, which feels like an hourlong club set.
There are also stretches in the album’s DNA where you can hear the specter of Prince, whom Beyoncé performed with and idolized, operating in harmony with her current musical influences. My two favorite tracks from the album are “Cozy,” which features a vocal sample from transgender reality star TS Madison as well as the ’90s song “Unique,” and “Alien Superstar,” which features a lyric interpolation of “I’m Too Sexy” paired with Johnny Dangerous’ introduction to “Moonraker.” They feel like one uninterrupted, uninhibited seven-minute experience built for the hyperkinetic escapism of a dance floor.
Basquiat famously explained that the subject matter of his art was “royalty, heroism, and the streets” — often depicted as his way of dignifying the various textures of Black life via his crown iconography. In his art, Basquiat examined the life and legacy of jazz music, the physical body, traditional ancestral practices, and Black boxers, juxtaposing them with his musings or iterations of present day-events. A queer Black man, Basquiat added heft and dimension to a composition that may seem like imperceptible yet pleasing etchings for those unaware of the context. Beyoncé has packaged Renaissance similarly.
No matter how clued in you are to Beyoncé’s musical journey or the cultures being lauded on this record — from house music to the ballroom scene to the rise of the disco diva and all of the Black dance subcultures in between — it’s almost impossible not to be engulfed in wave after wave of transcendent musical highs. But if you are a member of one of those referenced communities — whom Lisa Kennedy coined as “the Black familiar” — Renaissance can transport you past the album’s musical feats. By pulling from a plethora of references and samples, this album is a reminder that legends are preserved when they’re celebrated, and that the accumulated trauma of the past several years has made us eager for an escape. Thankfully, Beyoncé gave us the chance to express joy, freedom, and connection — all between the thumps of a heavy, unrelenting four count.