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Ten minutes into Beyoncé’s seventh studio album, Renaissance, the superstar asks, “Have you ever had fun like this?” At first blush, it’s a benign moment, neat lyrical punctuation on the whirling, Teena Marie–sampling disco track, “Cuff It.” But in the context of Beyoncé’s storied career, especially over the last decade, it’s a provocative one.
Since her paradigm-shifting self-titled visual album in 2013, Queen B’s career could be called many things: revolutionary, industry-shattering, sexually liberated, valiantly self-interrogational, and thrillingly ambitious among them. But “fun,” save for a few highlights (“Blow” Hive, stand up!), doesn’t immediately jump to mind. The real question when it comes to Renaissance, a dazzling, dense vortex of Black and queer diasporic musical history filtered through a strikingly loose and gloriously libidinous Beyoncé, is: “Has Beyoncé ever had fun like this?”
In fact, beyond just her work in the 2010s — defined largely by a series of audio-visual masterworks that have elevated her stature beyond mere pop stardom and into something much grander — breezy bacchanalia has never really been Beyoncé’s calling card.
Destiny’s Child, the girl group she fronted from the age of 16 during the late 1990s and early 2000s, was certainly boisterous, all staccato sing-rapping and jagged, precise lyrical bombast on twitchy hits like “Say My Name” and “Survivor.” And in the early part of her solo career, Beyoncé often gestured toward a kind of bodily emancipation on tracks like “Baby Boy” and “Naughty Girl,” but always measuredly, true to her beginnings as a canny, studied child star visionary who hit her marks with aplomb.
Mostly, though, Beyoncé’s early solo work was defined by three things: fervent paeans to ecstatic monogamy (see: “Crazy in Love”), the deadly emotional fallout when that was destroyed by infidelity, as on hits like “Ring the Alarm,” and, most plainly, complete and impenetrable perfectionism. This devotion to operatic emotional melodrama and fastidious control lent her a classic polished-diva sheen, increasingly rare in the pop space, but could sometimes make her seem cold to the touch.
This began to change with 2013’s Beyoncé, which dropped from the sky with no advance notice and both fundamentally shifted music industry norms and expanded Beyoncé’s persona. Beyoncé continued tried-and-true themes of rapturous monogamy, lust, and of course betrayal, but also found the star unveiled as never before: introspective, and unfurling nuanced layers of her selfhood, sexuality, bodily sovereignty, motherhood, feminism, and Blackness without the traditional boundaries confining her previous work. Paired with lavish visuals for each song, this work also positioned Beyoncé as an artist of great substance.
Lemonade, her 2016 visual concept album, linked marital infidelity to intergenerational trauma. It also took her gravitas and newfound knack for on-record vulnerability to their logical endpoint. In what is widely considered to be her masterpiece, Beyoncé used the visual setting of post–Hurricane Katrina New Orleans and her most revelatory songs to date to narrate the stages of grief, both in the ruins of her own relationship and of the brutal, racist history of the United States. It’s a project that confronts, enrages, and ultimately reaches toward salvation.
Lemonade was somehow at once Beyoncé’s most unbridled work to date — in the visual for “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” she tosses her wedding ring at the camera while screaming, “Who the fuck do you think I am? … You gon’ watch my fat ass twist, boy, as I bounce to the next dick, boy!” — but also the culmination of both her superlative artistic discipline and transition from working stiff singer to pop auteur. While this period of Beyoncé’s career had its share of bangers, the call-to-arms-as-rump-shaker “Formation” and the divinely salacious “Partition” among them, these two records are largely art at which to marvel and to process, reaching toward thinkpieces rather than the club. The word “fun” only rarely enters the chat.
Now we have Renaissance, Beyoncé’s first solo album in over six years, the first of her 40s, since the beginning and end of the Trump presidency, the COVID-19 pandemic, and in a pop music ecosystem completely subsumed by streaming. Since it was announced in late June, it’s been clear that Renaissance is yet another pivot from a woman who has fashioned herself modern pop’s greatest daredevil and which initially seemed like one step back toward convention.
An important component to both Beyoncé and Lemonade — released during Beyoncé’s mid-30s, a danger zone in our sexist, racist, ageist pop-cultural climate — was how consummately they utilized newfound depth and broader cultural impact to side-step the pop star rat race. Both records centered breathtaking execution, profundity, and the element of surprise to circumvent the search for hit singles, a pursuit that has ruthlessly ended the careers of numerous pop titans. In fact, while each of those albums were massive sellers — both moved over half a million copies in their first weeks alone — neither produced a massive chart-topper, still the de rigueur currency for pop stars and one Beyoncé arguably has not traded in as a solo artist since 2008, when “Sweet Dreams” hit the Hot 100’s top 10.
By announcing the album with six weeks’ notice and releasing its lead single, “Break My Soul,” a few days later, Beyoncé effectively abandoned the shock-and-awe protocol she’d pioneered. “Break My Soul” was immediately notable for its uncomplicated lightness, the first piece of Beyoncé music in more than a decade unburdened from Saying Something. On the contrary, it reveled in being a down-the-middle pop single, complete with obvious, familiar references to ’90s diva house and a big, vaguely empowering, nearly meaningless hook. “You won’t break my soul, and I’m telling everybody,” Beyoncé repeats ad nauseam on the chorus, miles away from the gut-punch specificity of Lemonade-era lyrics like “I like my negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils.”
If “Break My Soul” was, on one level, a respite from Beyonce’s aggressively thoughtful oeuvre of the 2010s, it also felt vaguely disappointing, a concession from an artist who had so miraculously avoided them for so long. What it had in accessibility, it lacked in the iconoclastic thrill of her recent output.
As a commercial gambit, it only partially worked. “Break My Soul” has sat on the lower rungs of the top 10 for the past few weeks, but it hasn’t exactly reached the sheer inescapability of her peak-era hits like “Crazy in Love,” “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” or “Halo.” It raised some questions: Was grabbing for a conventional hit single a worthwhile gamble? And would the rest of Renaissance be similarly neutered?
Now that the record is out, the answer to those questions is “maybe” to the first and, joyously, “absolutely not” to the second. Renaissance arrived as planned (despite a leak 36 hours prior) at midnight Friday morning, 16 tracks, unadorned by visual bells and whistles, and with no solemn processing required.
The record is all the better for it.
A carnal dance fantasia of lust, abandon, and release rendered in a continuous mix of some of the most ravishing and inventive production in recent memory, Renaissance needs no accouterments to get its point across. What Beyoncé and her small nation-state of collaborators have achieved is a fusion of her most gleefully unencumbered music to date with the political and social resonance and virtuosic mastery that are her trademarks.
Here, the dance floor is a place for Black and queer revelry-as-resistance. Take “Cozy,” a thick, steamy dancehall track in which Beyoncé coos, “Comfortable in my skin, cozy with who I am,” layered in the mix with another striking observation: “They hate me because they want me / I’m dark brown, dark skin … that’s all me.” This is the kind of euphoric self-empowerment banger, complete with allusions to Black solidarity and beauty, that Lizzo often attempts with much less dexterity; Beyoncé achieves it here without ever losing her edge or, notably in this very chill vocal performance, even breaking a sweat.
In “Church Girl,” a wonderful piece of New Orleans bounce blasphemy in the style of New Orleans bounce pioneer Mannie Fresh, Beyoncé commands, “Drop it like a thotty” and, in nearly the same breath, “I’m gon’ let go of this body, I’m gonna love on me … I was born free.” It’s an anarchic, rowdy club song and also, through its musical references and lyrical flourishes, a powerful representation of the radical healing powers of Black jubilation. That it accomplishes this without tipping into ponderousness is a testament to the ongoing refinement of Beyoncé’s musical acumen and the sheer amount of fun she is having not taking herself too seriously.
It should be noted that, after much internet ballyhooing about the record’s potential nods toward the ‘90s house of “Break My Soul,” Renaissance is much less concerned with a specific era of music than with journeying through a panoply of global dance styles across time and space. There’s the thickset Afrobeat of “Move” and “Energy,” establishing her 2020 side project Black Is King as a gateway, not a dalliance. There’s Afrika Bambataa hip-house on “America Has a Problem,” luscious funk on the stunning “Virgo’s Groove,” flourishes of bass music and trance on “Thique,” Donna Summer–sampling Eurodisco on “Summer Renaissance,” and even Charli XCX–style hyperpop on the A.G. Cook–produced “All Up in Your Mind.”
The beating heart of Renaissance, though, is a celebration of ballroom culture. Beyoncé has dedicated the album to her Uncle Jonny, who died from AIDS in the 1990s. In “Heated,” Beyoncé assumes the role of the ballroom emcee, a scene which flourished during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, invoking her relative directly: “Uncle Jonny made my dress / That cheap spandex, she looks a mess,” comes her vocoder chant amid an electrifying and deeply amusing cavalcade of other traditional and improvised ballroom callouts. “Tens across the board!” she appraises later in the song. “Pure/Honey” seamlessly threads minimalist house to lush nu-disco and alludes directly to vogueing and ballroom: “Check my technique,” she purrs, “Come and feel my technique … It should cost a billion to look this good.”
Queer culture also permeates in appearances by drag legend Kevin Aviance, bounce icon Big Freedia, and trans reality TV icon Ts Madison. It’s in the handheld fan cracks on “Heated,” the “Category is!” directives on “Alien Superstar,” and “Pure/Honey,” when she instructs “all the pretty boys to the floor.” Part of Beyoncé’s core audience has always been queer men. She’s drawn on our culture often and with skill, but rarely has she spoken directly to us on record. Renaissance is a touching and overdue recognition between icon and diehards, where Beyoncé wholly embraces her status as a fundamental piece of queer culture.
Mostly, though, this music finds the most consequential pop star of her generation sounding majestically unbothered in her sexuality, womanhood, Blackness, and artistry. Throughout this record, pop’s ultimate perfectionist has fully and finally hit the “fuck it” button, granting us an unfettered look at the thoroughly bizarre — and may I add, very horny — mind beneath the meticulous veneer.
Renaissance is filled with wacky, salacious lyrics about lust and sex. “Black silicone and rubbers / I can feel you through those jeans,” she moans on “Summer Renaissance.” On “Thique,” she muses, “Bet I got you rock now / That thique all over that yacht now.” This from the woman who once told a “Nasty Girl” to “put some clothes on.”
She also provides affectionate and hilarious looks at the idiosyncrasies of her 25-year-long relationship. “Say you won’t change / I love the little things that make you you … I think you’re so cool / Even though I’m cooler than you,” she lilts, punctuated by a laugh, on “Plastic Off the Sofa.” “You Mr. Nasty, I’ll clean it up,” she winks on “Cuff It.” Never has she sounded more buoyant, carefree, more radiantly unrestrained. You can’t help but want to join her in that space.
On a recent episode of my podcast Pop Pantheon, Yale University professor Dr. Daphne A. Brooks described Beyoncé’s latter period work as “innovating from the ruins to build a new home for us … a sociopolitical statement about what home can and should be for Black folks: dispossessed people trying to reimagine the universe for the good of us all.” Beyoncé herself has called Renaissance “a place free of judgment … of perfectionism and overthinking.”
This record finds Beyoncé building upon and flipping the script from Lemonade in every possible way. It’s not about burrowing into the dark crevices of her psyche and American history to build a shelter for her people. Rather, Renaissance’s mission is to do so by freeing herself completely, creating a nourishing space for radical Black and queer exuberance, unbeholden to any burdens, including even the search for meaning, along the way.
In “Plastic Off the Sofa” she states, “We don’t need the world’s acceptance.” Indeed, Renaissance is where Beyoncé has chosen ecstasy over caring what others think or, even more subversive, making sense of anything. Here, she can simply cut loose and have a blast, and thus, so can we. We can just dance. We can be sublimely strange and hot and free. We can happily reimagine the universe for ourselves. In a world filled with increasing peril, both from within and without, having fun may be Beyoncé’s most radical act yet.
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