SOMETIMES A CIGAR IS JUST A CIGAR, and that’s okay.
One of the weirder things about the lead up to the release of this Beyoncé album – apart from the fact that it was happening quite normally: with warning, with a preceding single: you know, like everybody else does, and rarely thought about doing otherwise until her mid-decade midnight releases out of the blue, with accompanying full suite of videos and virtual reading list of social and personal philosophy, became the new cool – was the search for meaning in advance.
The silliest may have been a story which used statistics gleaned from her previous albums to suggest the topics likely to come up in this one (“If Beyonce's past albums give any indication, Renaissance may be her most explicit yet, data shows”, said a very real newspaper in a very real Texan city), but there was no shortage of earnest takes, hopeful predictions and wild speculation.
While this tells you a lot about media needing to fill space (whether you’re a self-serving ex politician, a self-styled social commentator or a self-saucing music writer looking to pay the rent, those op-ed columns don’t write themselves you know) it also tells you a lot about the impact and the intentions of her two brilliant career-shifting records, 2016’s socio-political Lemonade and the personal-is-political self-titled one which preceded it.
Even the two less important packages which have been released in the interim, an album with husband Jay-Z and the soundtrack to Disney’s The Lion King remake, were seen as representing individual or cultural matters of state. The point was understood: Beyoncé albums were landmark events, well before anyone’s estimation of their quality was made.
So what then is Beyoncé “saying” with Renaissance? The shock of it may be that it is not much more than relax, have fun, get moving … enjoy.
This is a pop/R&B album with an emphasis on escape: from lockdown fever, from existential gloom, from political coarsening, from complexity, from past marital “hiccups”. It leans into pleasure and the dancefloor in a way she hasn’t done so unambiguously since 2006’s B’Day, pulling sounds and influences from the ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘70s and early 2000s equally, from straight and queer, American and neighbouring cultures in the same manner. And it’s sequenced without breaks to emphasise the continuous party line.
Renaissance is not without a message at all: owning your time and your pleasures, claiming your place and your needs, as a woman, is highlighted from the opening song, I’m That Girl, (“Bitch please, motherfuckers ain't stopping me/'Cause I'm in that ho/Playing all these boys like toys, I ain't going”), and that first single, Break My Soul, hints at not letting the economy become your de-facto society. But as it is embedded in the groove, the medium actually is the message.
Cuff It takes a bassline with longlegged disco strut, some pre-disco brass, rich ‘80s backing vocal layers, a light dusting of dancehall, adds a casually in control lead vocal and a deliberately almost throwaway contribution from Jamaican rapper, Beam, and stirs rather than shakes. On the same line of thinking are Thique, a low-riding bounce paired with a husky from-the-bedroom voice, Virgo’s Groove, silky rhythm and even smoother vocals, and Heated, shoulder-bopping bass, feet-skipping rim shots, and a delivery equal parts toasting as rapping.
And while Break My Soul may not do anything new, either for her or post-2000 music, its embracing of both simplicity and confidence – not to mention one of those instant hooks that defy the natural gravity of our attention span – is a mid-album statement of its own. The kind of statement that prepares the ground for the electro spikes of Pure/Honey just as much as the Donna Summer cascades of Summer Renaissance.
If the first year or so of Covid/post-Covid releases dug into the fears and losses we all were experiencing, drawing on the repercussions, both positive and negative, of isolation on creativity and a sense of self, 2022 is looking like the year when some people have decided it’s time for the pall to lift. In recent weeks alone, Drake and Lizzo have released albums which mostly look up and out rather than down and in, confining their musical or lyrical “messaging” to simple, direct physicality.
Beyoncé Knowles has arrived at that party. Naturally, the party is now hers.
SPOTIFY: Listen to Beyoncé – Renaissance https://open.spotify.com/album/6FJxoadUE4JNVwWHghBwnb?si=GnsyRQCqSceBNGXORh-b2w
APPLE MUSIC: Listen to Beyoncé – Renaissance