A record released with a title like RENAISSANCE by any major artist other than Beyoncé would be utterly classless and indulgent, an embarrassingly transparent ploy to resuscitate a career that never really was all that impactful in the first place. Capitalizing off of our nostalgia-obsessed times has proved a lucrative venture for many artists, often at the expense of quality. Luckily for Bey, hers is a career worthy of a renaissance.
The titular “renaissance” is not just self-referential — it’s meta. Save for Lemonade, the record is Beyoncé’s most experimental work. Where Lemonade was cross-medium, vulnerable and empirical — a melange of decade-defining visuals and soundbytes — RENAISSANCE is experimental in a less traditional sense. It reinvigorates a typically fringe sound and subculture with glitzy 2022, mainstream panache.
When “Break My Soul,” the only single for RENAISSANCE, dropped in July, it was fervently heralded as catalyzing a resurgence of house and disco, especially in light of Drake’s similarly inspired (but far inferior) Honestly, Nevermind. As Big Freedia persistently raps, the sound Beyoncé rekindles on the record is tethered to the idea of “release” — be it of “ya mind”, “time”, “stress” or convention.
For Beyoncé, the record is also experimental insofar as it is extricated from the supernova of her celebrity. It’s startlingly depersonalized, echoing with platitudes and “hot girl” speak, made ubiquitous by the likes of Megan Thee Stallion and Flo Milli. She gets away with it, of course, because she’s Beyoncé. She simply knows better than anyone how to craft an album that ticks all the boxes even when you don’t expect it to. And who needs profundity these days, anyway?
The language of 2022 is markedly post-ironic, something Beyoncé frequently leans into on the LP. On “Alien Superstar” she’s “unique,” a “bad bitch,” “that girl” — nothing listeners haven’t heard before, but rendered hypnotic and enthralling by syncopated thwacks and aqueous production. With raw sonic material and the gritty conviction of Beyoncé’s dynamic vocals, the track conjures a vérité dance floor.
Bey is knowingly out of touch; the record’s verbiage often calls back to 2017. Words like “deadass,” “thotty” or “thique” (with a “q,” of course) aren’t exactly in vogue anymore, yet Beyonce deploys them with the same frequency she might have three years ago and with an ironic twinge. RENAISSANCE doesn’t quite sound like an album made in 2022, but being outdated proves to be a strength.
Casting herself as both musicologist and historian, Beyoncé also dabbles in disco, particularly on the loose, seductive “Virgo’s Groove.” A callback to classic Beyoncé, breathy gasps fill the negative space between sultry beats and twangs. While remaining in many respects true to these roots, Bey primes listeners for a lavish sonic experience in the record’s myriad features and samples, retexturing music as a collaborative, community endeavor rather than an atomized pursuit.
Lemonade’s utility was personal in nature; it was the vehicle for Beyoncé to process the erosion, grief and rebuilding of her marriage. By situating an insular, specific strife within a broader Black American lineage and tradition, she ensured its resonance and acuity. Since 2016, however, she’s taken measures to flip this script, diverting energy away from the confessional and towards the strengthening of community. Her earth-shattering Coachella performance paid tribute to HBCUs, ablaze with Greek life iconography and a full drumline. On RENAISSANCE, she’s indebted to queer culture and the physical spaces it proliferates, from ballrooms to roller rinks.
In this regard, Beyoncé wears yet another hat: champion of those whose impact on culture and, more specifically, music has been expansive, but whose acknowledgment has been oblique at best. Rather than concerning herself with an exegesis of politics or persona, Beyoncé simply glues herself to the dance floor in a prescient understanding of our present milieu.
It’s unclear whether Beyoncé follows the culture or the culture follows her, but either way, she remains its ultimate barometer.