Monday, August 1, 2022

Review: Renaissance • Beyoncé

In the six years since it happened, there hasn’t been a moment in pop culture quite like the day Beyoncé dropped “Formation,” an unprecedented case study in a household name harnessing her inconceivable level of star power for social change. The single, and the album that followed it, solidified the journey that her self-titled record initiated: Beyoncé, a personally elusive yet professionally omnipresent entertainment figurehead, is determined to make boldface statements, not just music. It, of course, then didn’t seem unordinary when she charged out of a two-year silence adorned in strands of jewels atop an electrified horse, delivering a deep disco record in a promised trilogy set. The result, Renaissance, grasps dance music at its roots and exposes elements of the genre often steamrolled in modern day revivals.

Constructed atop a foundation of cross-generational samples – from the likes of Donna Summer, Big Freedia, and Kelis, with or without her blessing – with an abundance of self-confidence, Renaissance listens like a spontaneous amalgamation of yesterday’s unfettered funk and today’s filthy-forward vernacular. The songs are overheated and overcharged, launching out of the speakers like a water main break – a continuous stream of interdependent thumps and bumps made for the long haul of a club set, not for today's myopic playlist culture. To pull a song at random would feel like an unnatural interruption to the album's circadian rhythm: Even “Break My Soul,” the summer-defining lead single that blew through my car’s speakers as a self-standing fragment of this mural, feels incomplete now without its spitfire predecessor “Energy” and downright nasty “Church Girl” encore. 

With the rise in the words “quarantine” and “pandemic” in pop music critique also came the resurgence of “escapism.” Suddenly, dire worldwide affairs became the responsibility of artists to alleviate in hour-long increments – and even Beyoncé isn’t immune, as she roars, snarls, and moans through a record that is as much about a night in the sheets as it is a night in the club. In short, Renaissance is a solid bump ‘n grind record in spirit, but an even better disco record in construction. For better or for worse, many songs lack a hook worth committing to memory – because Beyoncé is far too busy delivering quick one-liners that are either ferociously forward (“Taste me, that fleshy part. I scream so loud, I curse the stars,” she slides across the metallic beat of “Virgo’s Groove”), quietly comical (“Monday, I'm overrated, Tuesday, on my dick”), or a bit of both.

“We jump in the car, quarter tank of gas. The world’s at war, low on cash,” she sings twiceoover on “Pure/Honey” as the song progresses from its moody “four, three, too fuckin’ busy” runway march to its unexpected call-and-response closing. (A literal escape, indeed.) While either of the album’s bookends – “I’m That Girl” and the Summer-sampling “Summer Renaissance” – could serve as the record’s thesis, there’s also a case to be made for “Pure/Honey,” where Beyoncé’s mission statement is unobstructed from any other distractions: Renaissance aims to repopulate disco music with the unadulterated eroticism and amplified flamboyance it once promoted within the cloaks of black and queer nightclubs. Sometimes it's quick and sloppy; but more frequently, it beats through any external distortion to assert Beyoncé, once again, as an unshakable force in musical collaging with a purpose.

Renaissance is available now under Columbia Records and Parkwood Entertainment.

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