The world is broken and so is the spirit. We want to escape reality to find time to rethink before returning to make things right again. Beyonce makes it happen on her new album, Renaissance, on which her home is the dance floor. And she wants you to join her to “feel free and adventurous at a time when little else is moving”. The last time a Beyonce album was heard it was 2016, when the world was free of Donald Trump’s antics, fear of the coronavirus and a war in Ukraine. Yet, it was the time when her world was broken, though not her spirit. It was a time when she liberated herself from being slave to genres, daring to think beyond herself. A bone had to be picked with her husband Jay Z, who needed to pay for his marital meanderings. In the process, she connected with the pain millions of women feel across the world. No, she was no longer just a soul singer or another R&B artiste. She became a visual storyteller. Her 2016 album Lemonade made her cut open the citrus fruit, separate the seeds and add enough sugar to make life palatable. After slowly sonically (and visually) roasting her husband over one hour for cheating on her, she made him release the album exclusively on his streaming service.
Six years is a long time in pop business. Now focus is measured in seconds. If a song doesn’t send a sonic chill down the spine in 15 seconds, it’s time to move on. Instead of taking a routine route to making music, she simply changes the rules. Renaissance also serves as a wake-up call for new artistes who are churning out a bunch of singles, gathering them with a broom to call it an album.
At its heart, Renaissance is an old-fashioned sonic package best enjoyed in 2022. The songs need to be heard in a certain order before you land up on your favourite tracks. The 40-year-old draws on house, disco and what not but somehow you can’t quite put your finger on the place where the sounds are coming from. Beyonce at once belongs to the music of tomorrow without failing to be mindful of the history of music. She is not required to make a record that makes anyone happy at the cost of her creative happiness.
A superstar looking inwards
Renaissance is like having a house party every weekend with someone you know well, or at least a voice you know well. It’s an album you can identify with and it’s an album that moves you… literally. Ideas flow in from all directions, yet everything merges seamlessly.
After a few plays, it’s easy to lean into Plastic Off the Sofa as a favourite. I keep coming back to the song because it calls out to a sweet era of soul music. She sounds naïve and sensual. It’s the track — complete with pop’s high-tech production as well as lush balladry — that makes the album gel, has an interesting place on the tracklist, succeeding Church Girl on which she sings Nobody can judge me but me, I was born free.
It’s also an album that acts as an intersection of being ambitious and familiar, best amplified on the song Break My Soul. Instruments slowly join in and the combination of personal and a larger perspective comes through. She is looking beyond herself on this song and yet, it’s a dance-floor banger.
To get a better feel of where Beyonce is at, look at where Madonna was around the age 40 mark. In 1998 Madge released Ray of Light, which was a new chapter in her musical journey. She was looking inward while questioning the nature of introspection. It connected dance music sounds of that time to older ones. Perhaps the biggest winning point of the album was how she presented her talent to be inspirational for other artistes.
This is important because as much as Madonna continued to remain relevant post Ray of Light, Renaissance will serve Beyonce a similar purpose. She is delivering the album when many superstars are struggling to hold on to their staying power. During the pandemic, new music from superstars has enjoyed weaker-than-expected sales or reviews.
Post Malone’s new album Twelve Carat Toothache released in June, hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200 album chart, and then slipped to No. 14. Also coming in June was Drake’s Honestly, Nevermind and it generated a third of the first-week numbers of his previous record. Going back a month, Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers gave the Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper one of his lowest ratings on Metacritic website that aggregates critics’ reviews. Turning back the clock to November 2021, Adele’s 30 was a hit but it just disappeared without making too much of a noise. These are artistes who are now jostling for space with relative newcomers Olivia Rodrigo, Lil Nas X and Bad Bunny.
Part of Beyonce’s charm is that she doesn’t care about streaming figures… or any figure. Renaissance is part of a “three-act project” she recorded during the pandemic. She refers to the album as “Act I”, “a place to dream and to find escape during a scary time for the world”. If working in isolation gave her creativity impetus, she can be seen to be in the same mould as the Beatles, who at the peak of their live-touring career decided to lock themselves inside studios to make music that defied time. The collaborators on her album worked remotely and after spending long hours in the studio, engineers and producers helped her come up with an intriguing sound.
The process is paying off as Beyonce has managed to get the world discussing her album. The importance of the album cannot be overlooked. In 2021, streaming of new music declined for the first time according to Wall Street Journal. The most-streamed artiste on Spotify last year was Bad Bunny, who didn’t even release a new album that year, while the top four songs on Billboard’s 2021 year-end singles chart were songs from 2020.
US market monitor Luminate has revealed that in the first half of 2021, there were 126 high-impact releases that debuted on the Billboard 200 album chart but by the end of the second quarter of 2022, there were only 102.
A decline in the streaming of new music doesn’t mean customers have moved to music that’s decades old. Sure, catalogues from the 1980s and ’90s are doing well. Take the example of Kate Bush’s 1985 song Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God), which rolled back into our lives after being used in the popular Netflix show Stranger Things. The problem is that listeners today are fragmented, says The Wall Street Journal. There was a time when Top 40 was an important marker. No longer. Platforms like TikTok are turning songs into hits in a random fashion.
Beyonce will perhaps go against the trend. She has chosen a conventional album rollout with weeks of advance promotion. Then there were ‘Club Renaissance’ listening parties ahead of the album launch. It is working out. Music analytics firm Chartmetric shows Beyonce’s career is experiencing “explosive growth” — the highest ranking on Chartmetric’s five-level gauge (‘explosive growth’, ‘high growth’, ‘growth’, ‘steady’ and ‘decline’).
At 40 she is a generation older than the core music fan base, yet she has the power to hang on, like Madonna and Mariah Carey.
Of course, some may also say that Beyonce is now more of a visual artiste while the music on her new album simply pumps out unrelenting dance floor-friendly music while depriving listeners of the slow jams she is known for. That she relies on collaborations — dozens of them — to deliver well-sculpted tunes.
Sure, all that’s true but also true is that the next two “acts” following this album may explore more of her R&B side. For the time being, she celebrates music traditions without always sounding traditional. There are some brilliant interpolations on Renaissance, like the album’s final track, Summer Renaissance on which she sings “It’s so good, it’s so good, it’s so good, it’s sooooo good”, reminding us of Donna Summer’s 1977 disco hit I Feel Love with its pulsating rhythm. On Alien Superstar there is interpolation of Right Said Fred’s smash hit I’m Too Sexy while Beyonce sings I’m too classy for this world/Forever I’m that girl. Taylor Swift credited the same part on her 2017 track Look What You Made Me Do while Drake sampled iconic song on Way Too Sexy in 2021. On the track Cuff It, the bass line reminds one of Chic’s 1979 hit Good Times with Nile Rodgers getting credit for writing and playing guitars here. And a great celebration of traditions is seen when Grace Jones gets featured on Move. All of this highlight where Beyonce’s idea for the album comes from. She is like an archaeologist digging up musical traditions to make sense of it in a contemporary context.
If not anything, Beyonce’s message is clear — she is not low on ambition. When she commits herself to a project, she puts in her all without worrying about a misfire. Listening to Renaissance is like enjoying summer anytime of the year. She has simply unlocked the prison doors inside us, asking us to join her on the dance floor to enjoy our new-found freedom responsibly. She is Beyonce. She is fierce. Yet, she is more relatable than ever.
Beyonce down the years...
Dangerously In Love (2003)
The album that set her out on a solo career and it includes Crazy in Love, featuring her then-boyfriend-now-husband rapper Jay Z
It hit us like an open fire hydrant. The album contained tracks that are still dance-floor gold — Déjà vu, Irreplaceable and Get Me Bodied
I Am... Sasha Fierce (2009)
The album overflowing with power anthems — Single Ladies, Sweet Dreams and Diva. Sasha Fierce was the name of an alter ego Beyonce created over the years “whenever I have to perform,” she told Oprah Winfrey in 2008
Contains the triumphant Love On Top and the anthem Run the World (Girls)
Beyonce is at her most sensual on Drunk in Love, featuring Jay Z while reflective in Pretty Hurts and sweet on Blue, dedication to her daughter Blue Ivy
Key themes here are identity and the infidelity in her marriage with Jay-Z. Creatively, it has some of Beyonce’s best work
Hear it from Adil Rashid
Renaissance is a tribute to African-American history and culture, as well as a very groovy dance album. Moving slightly away from Beyonce’s pop diva R&B vibe, this album is all about big dance beats, percussions and big synths reminiscent of ’70s disco and block party culture of America.
So the album is all about samples, the producers have sampled speeches, iconic songs from yesteryear and riffs, synths and beats encompassing a plethora of genres that really show that this is a producer’s album. For example, I’m That Girl has sampled the Princess Loko’s 1998 hit Street Shit, and the samples are not used merely as production elements. The lyrics of the sampled track reflects the lyrics of Beyonce’s song and they work together, complementing each other, serving as a tribute as well as a new spin on the 90s sound. Cozy is about being comfortable with yourself and is a tribute to the colours of the pride flag, talking about inclusion, acceptance and individuality. Alien Superstar has sampled an iconic speech by Barbara Ann Teer about how unique African-American culture is and how it reflects on their interpretation and creation of art.
Break My Soul is the standout song on the album for me, not only being a beautifully melodic dance track, with Big Freedia being sampled, it deals with personal issues, and overcoming adversities as well as pays a huge tribute to Black culture and dance music and how music and dance was very important in inculcating the ideas of freedom, individuality and uniqueness in the black community.
This album is very different, and dance being the centre of its musical cadence. Lines between genres are blurred, but the soul of African-American musical history is very prominent in every song. It’s nostalgic, yet new. Energetic, yet thought provoking. A great listen and reading up on the history that inspired this album makes it even more interesting, and makes it unique compared to Beyonce’s earlier works.
Paloma Majumder’s take
The first thing that struck me after going through Renaissance, the 16-track album, was how Beyonce seamlessly enters the electro-funk/disco-retro elements into this new production, something she isn’t usually known for. While the track Summer Renaissance obviously brings back the Donna Summer classic I Feel Love, tracks like Energy, Break My Soul, and Virgo’s Groove are all written with the same sensibility of bringing disco back.
The common thread that runs through the lyrics of all the tracks is its unabashed homage and celebration of queer black aesthetic and ballroom culture seeped into her Creole-Louisiana roots. I also love how she celebrates all moods of being a woman in the juxtaposition of the tracks Cuff it and Church Girl. It also excites me that she collaborated with Nova Wav (a female songwriting/production duo of colour) for this album. I know that the Beyhive will be divided about this album because it is so different in its sound from Beyonce’s previous work but as an artiste and a fan, this album feels like she is rediscovering herself which intrigues and excites me.
— Urvashi Bhattacharya