‘Renaissance’ review: America has a problem and Beyoncé isn’t it
It’s too much to be alive. Too heavy, too uncertain, too chronically cataclysmic, too warlike, too sick, too loaded with the possibility of Perception of error. The word for the past few years — in American activist and academic circles, anyway — has been “precariousness.” This amounts to the ideas of endangerment, negligence, contingency, risk. Fundamentally: We are worried. And: We’re afraid you don’t care enough. Like I said, it’s too much.
If I were a world famous musician whose every blink is inspected for meaning, maybe now is the time to find out what it feels like to mean something else, to seem lighter, to float, to dance, to splash, twist and grind, sashay-shanty . To find a “new salvation” by building one’s “own foundation”.
If I was that musician, maybe it’s time to call my freestyle jam “America has a problem” and not say what the problem is because A) Psych! B) What am I saying that you don’t already know? And C) The person actually performing this song knows “that booty is gonna do whatever it wants”. Now is the time to work your body instead of losing your mind more. “America” is one of the closing tracks on “Renaissance,” Beyoncé’s seventh solo studio album, the one where she considers the stakes and concludes they are too high. Now is the time to remind you – to “tell everybody”, as she sings on the first single, “Break My Soul” — that there is no discourse without disco.
What a good time this thing is. All 16 songs are from anywhere with a dance floor – nightclubs, strip clubs, ballrooms, basements, Tatooin. Most of them are steeped in or run entirely with black queer bravado. And on almost everyone, Beyoncé gives the impression that she is experiencing something personally new and glorious in private: total ecstasy. It takes different forms: happiness, of course; but a sexy severity too. The exercise of control is as entertaining on this album as the exorcism of stress.
As expensive, production-wise, as the “Renaissance” sounds (one song credits two dozen authors, including samples and tweens), Beyoncé’s singing here transcends any price. The range of his voice approaches galactic; the imagination that feeds it is qualified as cinema. It coos, it growls, it growls, it doubles and triples. Butter, mustard, foie gras, the perfect ratio between icing and cupcake.
About halfway through, something happens called “Plastic Off the Sofa”. Now part of me cried because those are words she doesn’t even bother to sing. Plastic on the couch? I still have you! The rest of me wept because the chanting she does—in waves of rhapsodically long, Olympic-level broadcasts—seems to emanate from somewhere far beyond a human throat: The ocean? The oven? But it’s one of the few songs that sound recorded with live instruments – plinking guitar and pitter-pat percussion. (The musical plastic peels off the album’s sofa.) The bass line continues to swell, curve and bloom until it overtakes its flowerbed, and so does Beyoncé’s vocals. He surfs the swell. It smells of roses. “Renaissance” turns to the gospel here and there – on “Church Girl,” the most brazenly. It’s the only one that sounds like it was recorded in Eden.
It takes a minute for all the rapture of “Renaissance” to kick in. First comes a mission statement (“I’m That Girl”) in which Beyoncé warns that love is her drug. Next, it’s the turn of “Cosy,” an up-and-coming anthem about black women lounging in their skin. This one has a bottom as heavy as a cast iron skillet and a bounce that the Richter scale couldn’t ignore. “Cosy” is about comfort but sounds like an oncoming army. The first real exhale is “Cuff It,” a roller skate jam held aloft by Nile Rodgers’ signature guitar beat as a fleet of horns provide an afterburner. Here, Beyoncé wants to hang out and have a good time without an impression. And it’s contagious enough to overthink a disposable line like “I want to disappear” later, when I am sober.
Comedy abounds. Credit sampled contributions from Big Freedia and Ts Madison for this. “Dark skin, light skin, beige” – Madison hangs out on “Cosy” – “fluorescent beige.” Thank the tabloid TV keyboard blasts on “America’s Got a Problem.” But Beyoncé herself has never been funnier than she is here. word “No” on “America” would suffice on its own. But there’s her imitation of Grace Jones’ imperiousness on “Move,” a sharp-elbowed dancehall refraction in which the two order the plebs to ” part like the Red Sea” when the queen passes by. (Here, I’m not touching who the queen is in this scenario.) Pop music has been tattooed with Jones’ influence for 45 years. It’s one rare mainstream acknowledgments of her bountiful musical power. There’s also Beyoncé’s vamp at the end of “Heated,” which she recites to the sound of a flared fan. It’s one of those round table freestyles who go down to certain balls. A fraction of his includes:Unnncle Jonny made my dress / That cheap spandex / She looks messy.
It’s an album whose big idea is house. And his sense of home is huge. It’s mansion music. “Renaissance” is adjacent to where pop has been: pulsating and haunting. His muscles are bigger, his limbs more flexible, his ego sure. I don’t hear the concerns of the market. His sense of adventure is off the genre map, but very aware of every coordinate. It’s a synthetic achievement that never sounds slavish or synthetic. These songs test this music, celebrating its capacity, its flexibility. Maybe that’s why I love “Break My Soul” so much. It’s track 6, but it feels like the thematic backbone of the album. There’s tenderness, determination and ideas – Beyoncé negotiates two different approaches to the church.
On “Pure/Honey”, Beyoncé goes through wall after wall until she arrives in the bedroom that contains all her cousins 2013 sizzle “Blow”. It ends with its rhythm next to a sample of the drag artist Me Renee bellowing, “Miss Honey?” Miss Honey! And it’s also close to the B-52s like a Beyoncé song could ever come. (But Kate, Cindy, Fred, Keith: Call her anyway!)
The album’s embrace of house and not, say, trap unambiguously aligns Beyoncé with queer black people. On the one hand, that means she’s simply an elite pop star with a particularly eager following. But “Renaissance” is more than fan service. It is oriented to certain stories. The knotty symbiosis between cis women and gay men is one. The doors of impersonation and homage turn with centrifugal force.
With Beyoncé, her drag seems liberating rather than obscuring. It’s not just these lesser-known gay and trans artists and personalities that his music has absorbed. They are other artists. On “Blow,” Beyoncé wondered what it felt like to her partner when he made love to her. Now, the wonder is this: what does it feel like for her to make love—and make art—sometimes as someone else? The last song on the album is “Summer Rebirth” and it opens to the beat of “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer. This isn’t the first time she’s quoted La Donna. But the wink is not only there, where the reference is explicit. It’s in the rich middle of the album, which includes this couch song and “Virgo’s Groove,” perhaps the most luscious track Beyoncé has ever recorded. That is to say, “Renaissance” is an album about performance – from other pop’s past, but ultimately from Beyoncé, a star who is now 40, an age where the real risk is to act as if you had nothing to lose.
Another story is right there in the title of the album: 100 years ago, when it was too much for black Americans too—lynchings, “race riots” across the country—and the flight north from the Sud seemed like a good alternative to murder, until in Harlem, Alain Locke and Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes and Aaron Douglas and Jessie Fauset, to pick five characters, were the focus of an art explosion that could be as frivolous, festive and vulgar than some of what’s on this album. Its artists were gay and straight and everything in between. The thing is, they also called it a rebirth. He supported and delivered joy and defiance despite the surrounding crisis, he gave home seekers something close to home. New salvation, old foundation.