How does lightning strike thrice? Renaissance is one of the most potent, purely pleasurable albums of this young century. The world is electrified by its sprawl. Its confines swarm the globe. The journey it sets forth is the journey of what makes music so transformative: an innate, immense desire to make one move and forget all troubles.
There is nothing like witnessing the power of a master before your very eyes. There is nothing like watching them shape and shift, contort and transform themselves into something glorious with each turn, tilt, or glance. It is a form of enchantment, magic—an all-consuming jolt to the senses one never knew they could feel nor need. In witnessing the impossible growth of another individual, we are somehow altered by their achievements as if they are our own, enveloping their incessant, endless possibilities as possibilities within ourselves. And perhaps no other Pop artist of our epoch exemplifies this source of divine nourishment greater than Beyoncé.
Has it only been six years since Lemonade, her groundbreaking, genre-busting Gesamkunstwerk invaded and changed the musical landscape forever? Never had there been a Pop album with such dominance and control, such dignity and grace, such savagery and scandal, accompanied by a gorgeous motion picture that existed as its own separate, revelatory entity. Even better: exposing her inner demons, familial fractures, and ethnic pride with such candor and aplomb against a backdrop of sunken police cars, Gothic weeping willows, and empty parking garages only accentuated the deep dive into her mythology commenced on her explosive 2013 self-titled visual album. Both albums shattered our expectations of what Beyoncé was capable of. Both albums shattered our expectations of what Pop was capable of. How could she possibly top those, we wondered foolishly, secretly desiring that the element of surprise we had ironically gotten used to would never wave.
And with Renaissance, her colossal seventh album and first non-visual in nearly a decade, that desire is more than fancied.
One must realize this is no fluke, this is no happenstance. Although even the greatest of Pop stars may concoct brilliance in enormous quantities, it is impossibly rare for anyone to obtain an album run so masterful, so ambitious, and so damn exciting. Quite often after tremendous bouts of freedom and experimentation, there is a fear of going too far and a sudden need to appeal to the greater masses once more. No longer will pushing boundaries be a mission, only the ability to fit in with the red-hot-current reigns supreme. However, as Beyoncé continues to drive herself even farther into an ocean of the avant-garde, it is quite apparent that that fear nor need exists within. She has crossed over to a point of sheer carelessness, a surrealist plane onto itself; with Renaissance, experimentation is the lingua franca.
This is immediately apparent upon the fuzzy, stuttering opener “I’m That Girl,” deliciously consumed by distortion and dissonance to the point of discomfort. As she oozes ridiculous confidence through a boughetto-tinged spoken word, there is a cool, startling embrace of Dionysian delight, epitomized by her own admission that she is “high all the time, out of my mind,” her voice delirious and syrupy, dripping with dew. But the moment we feel we have settled with this raptured cerebellum, Beyoncé casually confesses to living an “un-American life,” a bold, puzzling declaration from one of the nation’s greatest symbols and exports. It is then when we realize on Renaissance, all our expected unexpectations are only to be trifled with.
On the slick, slinky, slanky “Cozy,” the true manifesto of the album takes root—not only in tone, yet also in sound. In terms of tone, there has never been a Beyoncé release more aware of its courage, poise, and tenacity. We viewed these floodgates bursting open upon her last two solo works, but there has never been such a stream of sheer attitude as there is within these barriers. There is a sultry danger within her purrs and growls, slithering across the strolling production as if satisfied yet hungry, always, always hungry.
Which leads me to the sound: a stickler for innovation, where else would Beyoncé go but within the most innovative spheres of music that is dance? There, against the constant plow and lift of thumps, bumps, and drops, one experiences the most risks and experiments, the most challenges and chances, its only wish being to ignite the body into a state of absolute frenzy. And what of the nexus of cultures both sexual and ethnic? What of the clash of history and homage and memory? Kissing the noses of the pioneers of disco and house, Beyoncé lifts us from our humdrum, still-pestilent landscape, radicalizing the past with a sense of modernity that create odes devoid of parody and magnetized by futurism.
“Cozy,” wrapped in its tale of centuries-long survival tactics now twisted into badges of impenetrable certainty, flows majestically upon this mixture of total pleasure and total pride. The luxurious chill of “Might I suggest you don’t fuck with my sis, oh she’s comfortable” exemplifies this code of contentment, but the stirring passion behind Ts Madison’s “I’m dark brown, dark skin, light skin, bеige, fluorescent bеige, bitch, I’m black!” is what unleashes an additional punch of consideration. Along with the careful, clever play on colors (“Yellow diamonds/limoncello glisterin”), there is a sense of audacious ease that illuminates, and by nature commences, the carefree, club-drenched atmosphere.
Whereas “Cozy” ignites the nocturnal, it is “Alien Superstar” which sends it straight into orbit. Ensconced by an oppressive marching-band stomp, Beyoncé delivers the kind of clipped, rose-tinged monologue we greedily gobble from divas and queens throughout time and space. As clued by its title, an otherworldly arrogance effortlessly spills through, its cadence and verbiage gingerly evoking the steely, ice-cold glamour and grandeur of ballroom excellence. These theatrical stylings are some of the most common leitmotifs within Renaissance, and serve as constant reminders of the glittered-ball trappings she has been most inspired by.
Speaking of glittered balls, “Cuff It” is perhaps the most emblematic of the ultracontemporary Nu Disco that has infiltered the mainstream during these most perplexing of times. Serving as both a celebration and a pastiche of disco, enveloping its conventions and deconstructing them with sweet finesse, the buoyant throbs and bubbled swirls are the sonic equivalent of a drunk and destressed Saturday night. Cascading into the vibe-heavy “Energy,” the air has gotten tighter and hotter, yet somehow looser. Less than two minutes long, it morphs from smooth bump to chaotic clank to hypnotic horns, all stitched together by Beyoncé’s breathless outlaw snarl and the scrumptiously apathetic flow of BEAM.
And then we come to “Break My Soul,” the breezy, bouncy prototype of summer anthems, a sun-drenched festival of letting go of oneself. However, what merely appears to be a simple proclamation of renewal and self-preservation transforms into a blood-curdling mantra of survival, of the microaggressions and pains we constantly push aside, believing we are healing when we are really creating greater ruin. It is then a reflection of allowing yourself the grace and appreciation you truly deserve, giving you the lease to live as you wish, a sentiment that sounds so much easier to obtain than it ever is. Though a jovial piece of tropical sunshine, such deceptions block out the tear-stained desperation lurking within every utterance of its chorus, turning “I’m tellin everybody!” into a plea as much as a proclamation.
The exploration of the psyche turns pleasantly unique on “Church Girl.” Approaching the nice church girl stereotype with an almost Cubist intensity, Beyoncé provides a much-needed space for dispelling pressures and burdens placed upon those constantly tied between spirituality and secularity. Here the release from judgment comes in form of dance and music, driven deeply by the angelic coos of the Clark Sisters intertwining with the rough, clinched-teeth demands by Beyoncé to “drop it like a thotty, drop it like a thotty!” As Kraftwerkian twinkles abound, this homespun ambience becomes hazier and more dreamlike, mimicking the free-flowing spirit of a person wishing only to be free.
The groove-laden, orange-flavored 1970s swift madly through Renaissance’s parameters, but never do they reach greater heights than on “Plastic On The Sofa” and “Virgo’s Groove.” With the former, the vinyl-rich mellow saunters soothingly, a mesmeric mixture of afternoon delight and beachside bakeouts. Like a modern inverse of yacht-rock, it feels delicate and palatial without reaching ostentation, her voice so enchanting and intimate one feels as if she is whispering into their ear. The latter, all funky and futuristic, is an exercise in pure seduction. As she slithers and slurs her words with yearning and passion, she appears a turned-out space goddess wandering a holographic world of loneliness. Euphoric as it is decadent, her chanting of “The love of my life!” resembles an aural intoxication, what perhaps the great Odysseus must’ve been shielding his fellow soldiers from.
“Move” is one of those appetizing scramblers concocted first in fan-club fantasies and believed to never reach fruition. By combining the art-pop brilliance of Grace Jones with the Platonian ideal of Beyoncé, one feels the shaking of the ground beneath their feet, the feeling that there is too much majesty for one to contain. However, this inevitable, domineering union is nothing short of magnificence, serving as a raucous imperial coronation as it zigzags through its tense, anxious, and damn-near frightening depths.
We come up for air with “Heated,” all bouncy, chilled-out relentlessness. The most “conventional” of the tracks in terms of speed, pacing, and delicacy, its ease and calm is contrasted with its seemingly standard boast of designer-drenched wardrobes that morphs into an almost delirious appreciation of the self. Throughout the song, we keep hearing background, playground chants of “Uncle Johnny made my dress,” a reference to the late family member who introduced her to the house music spilling from the album’s every crevice. Though the finished couplet itself is filled with silly arrogance, the poignancy behind twists it into something incredibly gratifying.
Beyoncé may be the greatest Pop proponent of the ass as a signifier of strength and beauty. From the girl-group classicism of “Bootylicious” to the retro-tinged epic of “Rocket,” she has always recognized the curves and assets of fuller-figured women as cornerstones of absolute perfection. And on “Thique,” a crawling, sneaking, throb-upon-throb diamond, she returns back to one of her favorite subjects, her tone so smooth, laidback, and certain that she comes off like a pensive crime queen, listing the greatness of her thickness with thirst and terror. This terror is taken to more perilous degrees on “All Up In Your Mind.” Glitchy, mournful and melancholy in the strangest sense, it is the kind of torch standard one expects to hear on a faraway planet in the 31st century, taking the futuristic balladry of TLC’s latter oeuvre and morphing it into mechanical elegance. Alive and erratic, “All Up In Your Mind” is the synthesis of Renaissance’s experimentations, turning pain into the stuff of fatal obsessions.
Though curiously titled “America Has A Problem,” the track in question, possibly my favorite, is surprisingly a completely uncomplicated, practically depoliticized trap-inflected reflection of 1980s Miami Bass, aligning Beyoncé’s quick, casual flow with that of L’Trimm. As she compares her aura to addiction, she delivers, against an increasingly foreboding sinister backdrop, a cadence and confidence that seems to float wistfully, absolutely indestructible.
We return exclusively to the ballroom confines with “Pure/Honey,” the first part doused in couture regality, evoking the dramatic silhouettes of Escadan Amazons snapping to-and-fro Parisian runways. The second part, however, melts into a Prince-induced reverie of gorgeous sex-funk, reaching heavenly heights that feel both carnal as they do spiritual. It is that touch of spiritual awakening which makes the finality of “Summer Renaissance” so utterly amazing.
Over a heavily-sampled Summer/Moroder classic, Beyoncé references The Jungle Brothers within the first lines, setting off a four-minute perfect-ending ode to the genres that begat the album. Encapsulating and giving praise to those bygone eras and subcultures of which provided dance’s incubation and evolution, Beyoncé’s almost-freakish devotion to her lover is a marvelous siren swan song, giving the 21st century that same sense of urgency and faith. It is reaffirming, cathartic, and enriching, not unlike spiritual rapture, and fills your soul even after the beat has given its last thud.
When we commit ourselves to expectation, we are often led to the valley of disappointment. Yet, when our expectations are to be expectedly challenged, there arises something stranger and more curious: we are no longer slaves to predictability. That predictability, which seems to filter into our daily lives more and more, must be shaken. It must be dismantled, and it must be provoked. True great works of art are guilty of this crime; they force us to rethink the world around us, and even ourselves.
Renaissance is a glorious marker of an artist still desiring new things and new horizons, still wanting to learn and understand and grow. It is unabashed in its celebration of black beauty and diversity, of freedom both in spirit and sexuality, of truth and love. Yet, more than anything, it is a conscious glimmer of hope and joy in a time when gloom appears at every angle; a sensual, reckless reminder that when all feels lost, there is always the rhythm of the beat to warm your soul and melt your heart.
How does lightning strike thrice? Only the gods know.