With her seventh album, Renaissance, Beyoncé asserts herself as a topical curator of the pop canon. Additionally, the project presents her as the intermediary apparent between mainstream music and the more incendiary norms of hip-hop and experimental R&B. Featuring numerous guest musicians and producers, the set stands as a collective undertaking, Bey’s vision, talents, and ambition placed squarely on center stage.
“I’m That Girl”, replete with a sample from Tommy Wright III & Princess Loko’s “Still Pimpin”, dabbles in bassy synths, murky atmospherics, and echoey beats. The background chant – “Please motherfuckers ain’t stopping me” – contrasts effectively with Bey’s effusive lead vocal and semi-rap segues. “Cozy” shows Bey embracing a disco-inflected mix, texturing the soundscape with glitchy beats and serrated textures that recall her 2013 eponymously titled release.
“Alien Superstar” cycles lo-fi sounds, including staccato beats and loungey bass accents, through hi-fi filters. “No one else in this world can think like me,” Beyoncé brags, veering into stock yet still seductive fetishism (stilettos, whips) and materialistic vogueing (“feed you diamonds and pearls”). “Cuff It” tilts toward 1990s R&B conservatism, though Beyoncé is careful to bring lyrical and vocal edginess to the song, singing, in a somewhat ominous tone, “I’m in the mood to fuck something up.” In this way, she merges the perennial love song and the proverbial fuck tune.
While Renaissance never collapses into overt posturing, the album’s chief function, ultimately, is to highlight Beyoncé’s contemporaneity. Much as Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers tweaked Lamar’s image – presenting him as modishly aware, even PC-compliant, albeit with sufficient rebelliousness to sustain his role as an outsider – so Renaissance accentuates Beyoncé’s province in the current pop-scape. Throughout the album, she integrates her personas as boardroom chanteuse and “bad bitch”, to quote a phrase she sang on Rihanna’s 2015 track of the same name. Some listeners may find it illustrative of the music industry and broader cultural standards that Lamar’s rebrand, as a male rapper, revolved around presenting him as more sensitive, whereas Beyoncé’s remake, as a female singer, involves depicting her as more unabashedly aggressive.
“Church Girl” epitomizes this movement toward marketable paradoxes, sonically and in terms of image. The track launches with voices that evoke a Baptist choir, replete with an audial sample of Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me”. Initially, Beyoncé’s voice is prayerful, bringing to mind Tracy Chapman, though she then veers into a racy, albeit slightly kitschy, rap segment (“She gon’ shake that ass and them pretty tig ol’ bitties”) – interweaving and juxtaposing Christian values and jaded secularism, Saturday-night “acting loose” and Sunday-morning evangelism.
On “America Has a Problem”, Beyoncé navigates spacious bass tones and mercurial atmospherics reminiscent of the Weeknd’s 2013 debut. Her voice oozes classic R&B tones; however, she also adopts sexualized lyrics and a volatile lexicon culled from 30-plus years of gangster rap. She occurs at once as a romantic and pornographically inclined. Partial to intimacy yet prone to transactionalism. Vulnerable but capable of setting razor-wire boundaries.
As much as Renaissance serves to reconfirm Beyoncé as a pop gatekeeper, it also functions as a multifaceted canvas, Bey and company reconfiguring a litany of samples, allusions, and tributes. In this way, Renaissance conjures the literate approaches of Quentin Tarantino and Jordan Peele; the panoramic culturalism reflected in Basquiat’s paintings; and the syncretism of such texts as Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. Clearly, the two agendas, claiming one’s relevance and playing broadminded steward, complement each other aptly, Bey emerging from the sequence as the re-coronated Queen of Pop and the reigning regent of eclecticism.
Yet, Renaissance’s songs are beat-driven and rhythm-based rather than hook-oriented (though many of the beats and rhythms are catchy). That said, there are a handful of hyper-melodic moments, and these passages are probably among the project’s high points. “Virgo’s Groove”, for example, incorporates an unshakable earworm a la MJ circa Thriller. One can imagine the track performed live, a manic crowd singing along. “Thique” ventures into coldwave/darkwave territory, Bey painting an alluring portrait of sexual and consumeristic excess. “Heated” features a sultry melody set against garagey beats and throbbing bass.
Renaissance functions as an open party, Beyoncé and her friends reveling in a variety of soundscapes, mining various templates and modifying them as needed. As with many parties, however, particularly high-fashion or corporate galas, the gathering is rarely without a hierarchical motive, i.e., to advance the host’s reputation. Renaissance succeeds as a post-Covid soiree and massive PR campaign, though one can’t help but note that the album occasionally sports more style than substance.