Beyoncé’s recent work has explored social injustice, marital infidelity and the black experience. Now, she is ready to let loose.
Act i: Renaissance, her first new solo album in six years, follows the culture-defining Lemonade (2016). That record, with its accompanying visual essay, gave voice to her rage over a cheating husband and reclaimed genres assimilated by white artists, from rock’n’roll to bluegrass and country. It was a political statement as much as a musical one.
Renaissance, by contrast, is a relentless celebration of club culture, full of aphorisms that celebrate personal power and joy. It is a diversion from the more serious, academic route she has taken in the past decade: this return to good time hits suits her down to the ground.
When she trailed the album on Instagram this week, Beyoncé wrote that she wanted to inspire us to “release the wiggle”. I would challenge anyone not to feel the need to move during this thrilling hour of music.
With beats that thump and skitter through musical styles, looping and twirling from disco to house, she harks back to the skeezy days of Studio 54, to the dank of a Shoreditch basement and everywhere in between. It is a gloriously fun record – a release, a response to all the pain and anguish of three pandemic years and the fight that came before them. It wants you to get out there and dance – to quote a previous Beyoncé track, it really wants you to feel yourself.
“Renaissance” is a title that suggests both a return, and a fresh start (which we may perhaps see built upon – she has said this is a three-act project). This music is frequently inspired by queer black culture – the sound of the underground Ball Scene evident in the bounce and shimmy of the beats, the echoing monotonous lists of designer labels, the clipped guitar and the sheer disco of it all.
We’ve seen a number of artists embrace disco’s influence in recent years (among them Kylie Minogue and Dua Lipa) but Beyoncé has broadened her sphere from the energetic Chic-style floor fillers to something more grime-y and intimate. It is her most danceable record yet.
Unlike 2013’s BEYONCÉ (marital bliss) and its successor Lemonade (navigating the fallout of infidelity), Renaissance doesn’t so much tell a story as paint a picture of a woman who is in complete control of herself and her emotions. She sings about the fragments that make up a life, of sex, of love, of going out and letting off steam with friends, of understanding your history and living your truth.
Where once Beyoncé extolled the virtues of being “Flawless”, here she is simply happy with who she is – on “Cozy”, she sings, “Comfortable in my skin, cozy with who I am… I love myself goddamn.” There’s an air of abandon throughout Renaissance, a sense that there’s no time for perfectionism when you’re sweating on the dancefloor, flinging yourself about without a thought for who might be watching.
There are reams of impressive collaborators on this record, from Nile Rodgers to Skrillex to Pharrell to Grace Jones to, against all odds, Right Said Fred (you’ll find a very Beyoncé take on “I’m Too Sexy” in “Alien Superstar”). This mosaic approach to songwriting is one of Beyoncé’s gifts: her role is much more than just vocalist and entertainer; she is a master of musical curation and there is so much to hear on Renaissance, each track layered with chattering samples, bubbling synth lines and harmonies.
Classic and familiar pop harmonies are stapled to white-label house beats and all with Beyoncé’s knack for vocalising specific feelings (“I feel like falling in love, I’m in the mood to fuck something up”, she sings, on the fantastic “Cuff It”).
It’s a delight to hear Beyoncé unleash her vocals: not belting out choruses, but weaving gorgeous harmonies into flourishes that are as much part of the accompaniment as anything else. On the ridiculously sensual sex-banger “Virgo’s Groove”, she spends almost a full minute noodling around the phrase “love of my life” in her upper register, reminding us of her expansive range.
It’s not perfect: we might wonder at the hefty 62-minute length and at the scrappiness of the sequencing that departs from her more polished, concept-driven albums. But these do not detract from this dazzling tribute to underground and underappreciated black cultures, this endless party with its effusive reminder that you are allowed to enjoy yourself.
Beyoncé has thrown herself into the euphoria of the dancefloor. It feels right and sounds good, and it would be madness not to join her.
Songs to stream: Cuff It, Virgo’s Groove, Summer Renaissance