Review: Beyoncé's ‘Renaissance’ is a landmark expression of Black joy (and you can dance to it)
Consider the wiggle released.
When Beyoncé told fans about her seventh solo studio album, “Renaissance” — and let’s just say right here that as far as seventh albums go, this one feels like as big a swing as “Born in the U.S.A.” or “Ray of Light” or “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” — she said she hoped the music would lead them to “release the wiggle,” a lovable phrase borrowed from the New Orleans bounce-music trailblazer Big Freedia.
What Beyoncé meant is that she wants these songs to help folks find the encouragement to be their truest selves; the jubilant drive of the album’s 1990s-house-inspired lead single, “Break My Soul” (which also incorporates Big Freedia’s command), foretold a powerful effort built on dance-music styles created by Black and queer people over the past several decades. But not even the most devoted member of the Beyhive could’ve predicted how thoroughly the 40-year-old superstar would follow through on her promise with the wild and ravishing “Renaissance,” which came out Friday and immediately reshaped the conversation about 2022’s most important music.
After just a couple of days, the wiggle seems so far out of the box that it’s hard to imagine anybody ever putting it back inside.
The 16-track LP, described by Beyoncé as the first installment in a planned trilogy, isn’t the first foray into club culture from a singer who was commissioning sumptuous house and disco remixes back in her teenage girl-group days with Destiny’s Child. Nor is she the only pop artist taking up these sounds now, more than two years into a pandemic that’s left many yearning for the communal experience of the dance floor; Drake, who has a writing credit on “Renaissance,” just dropped his own house immersion, “Honestly, Nevermind,” while Doja Cat and Dua Lipa have both scored monster radio smashes lately with thumping club jams.
Worth noting: “Break My Soul” is Beyoncé’s first solo single to make it inside the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 since “Formation” six years ago; should the song go to No. 1, as some analysts predict it soon might, it’ll be the singer’s first chart-topper of her own since “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” in 2008. As removed as Beyoncé can sometimes appear from the hurly-burly of pop music in the social-media era — she didn’t join TikTok until this summer — she clearly wants hits to bring attention to projects as intellectually ambitious as her 2018 Coachella performance or the short film she made to accompany 2016’s “Lemonade.”
Yet in terms of the new album’s scholarship — its dense weave of samples, cameos, references and interpolations, all deployed as a way to connect broader social and political narratives to the details of her fiercely guarded private life, including time she spent as a kid with a gay family member she called Uncle Jonny — “Renaissance” is miles ahead of the competition.
Forget the leaks, Beyoncé's new album ‘Renaissance’ has officially arrived. Catch up on all the album’s most important lyrics.
“No one else in this world can think like me,” she purrs over a jackhammering machine groove in “Alien Superstar,” and go ahead and ask yourself who else would make that claim (let alone sell it as Beyoncé does) in a song that later imagines her in “stilettos kicking vintage crystal off the bar.”
The music pulls from disco, funk, techno, hip-hop, house, dancehall, Afrobeats, ballroom and more; Beyoncé’s collaborators include The-Dream, Honey Dijon, Skrillex, Syd, Hit-Boy, Mike Dean and A.G. Cook, among many others. (“Alien Superstar” credits two dozen songwriters, not least the guys from Right Said Fred, whose “I’m Too Sexy” evidently influenced Beyoncé’s vocal cadence.)
In the blistering “Move,” Beyoncé enlists Grace Jones and the Nigerian singer Tems to deliver a queenly warning to anyone foolish enough to get in their way: “Don’t make it turn into trouble / ’Cause we coming straight out the jungle.” “Cuff It,” an ebullient disco fantasia about “getting f— up tonight,” has Chic’s Nile Rodgers on guitar, Raphael Saadiq on bass and Sheila E. on percussion — a living lesson in funk history in 3½ rump-jiggling minutes.
Sometimes the voices come literally from the past, as in “Pure/Honey,” which samples the drag performers Moi Renee and Kevin Aviance for a flex about looking as good as a billion dollars, and “Church Girl,” which speeds up an old Clark Sisters gospel tune; sometimes it’s riffs and licks Beyoncé is recycling, as in the album’s shimmering closer, “Summer Renaissance,” which quotes Donna Summer’s epochal “I Feel Love” from 1977. It’s like a carefully curated library, this whole thing, with an astonishing depth of knowledge regarding rhythm and harmony that puts Beyoncé as an arranger and bandleader on a level with Prince and Stevie Wonder.
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For all its craft and know-how — there are transitions between songs here that could bring a tear to your eye — “Renaissance” is intensely, almost overwhelmingly emotional as Beyoncé savors the desire and satisfaction in her own life while contemplating the availability of those sensations to people on the margins. One of her few explicitly political statements comes in “Energy,” where she mentions “voting out 45” and rhymes “entered the country with Derringers” with “them Karens just turned into terrorists.” Yet the depictions of Black joy in songs like “Plastic Off the Sofa” and “Virgo’s Groove” have a kind of steadfast tenderness that acknowledges their hard-won nature. What a gift that the year’s smartest record is also its most deep-feeling.
And the vessel for that feeling? Beyoncé’s singing, of course, which has never sounded better than it does on “Renaissance.” The range alone is staggering: growly yet earnest in “Break My Soul,” throaty and sensual in “Cuff It,” a beam of swaggering Southern attitude in “Cozy” (about feeling “comfortable in my skin”) and “Thique” (about a dude who “thought he was loving me good” whom she told to “go harder”). There’s a section at the end of “Heated” where she just goes off in a way we’ve never heard her do before, howling raspily about stolen Chanel and Uncle Jonny and “stretch marks on my t—” with such abandon that you’re tempted to think she’s making it up as she goes.
A knowingly expansive canvas, “Renaissance” showcases Beyoncé’s flexibility across its hour-long running time. But it also has moments where she goes from here to there in the space of a few seconds, as in “Plastic Off the Sofa,” in which she’s cooing pristinely about how safe her lover makes her feel in a world that runs on conflict.
“I love the little things that make you you,” she tells him over another juicy bass line on an album chock-full of them, “I think you’re so cool.” Then she turns to us with a little laugh and breaks the spell with a priceless aside: “Even though I’m cooler than you.” It’s one more instance of Beyoncé taking it all in — and making space for herself to thrive.
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