While she hasn’t exactly taken time off, RENAISSANCE is the first proper Beyonce album we’ve received in nearly six and a half years in the wake of the ground-breaking and culture-shifting Lemonade back in 2016. Scoring The Lion King, dropping one of history’s finest headlining slots at Coachella, teaming up with her famous husband for a collaboration project and still finding time for some Grammy-nominated singles in the meantime, this new act in the former pop princess’ career truly does feel like a renaissance as she morphs into one of pop culture’s most larger-than-life figures. It’s why it’s always such a surprise that she simply doesn’t stop releasing excellent material – there’s nothing left for her to prove. Still, RENAISSANCE both proves that it can measure up to Lemonade and her self-titled project, and offers yet another creative and meaningful reinvention that Beyonce pulls off extraordinarily well, diving into the storied history of dance and ballroom music Black and LGBTQ+ culture through a wide variety of samples. Because it’s Beyonce, we get a lot of infectious flexing and spellbinding vocal runs on top, the flawless transitions making it feel like a nonstop club mix. It’s the kind of release everyone was looking for right now, and against all odds, Beyonce has done it again.
RENAISSANCE often feels like it’s meant to mirror the experience of a wild night out and all the sounds and feelings necessary to have a great time. If that’s the case, “I’M THAT GIRL” feels more like the warmup. It takes a little bit for the frantic, sped-up vocal sample and Beyonce running through her spoken-word boasts, rap flows and heavenly harmonies to click together and it doesn’t have the tight rhythms of the remainder of the project, but it certainly does its job to ease listeners in and introduce some of the motifs and themes. The track “COZY” is where the party really begins. Beyonce has mentioned that this album is dedicated to her late Uncle Jonny, a gay man who introduced her to the sounds and fashions her career thrives on, and she returns the favour with a series of inclusive empowerment anthems about celebrating one’s quirks. Featuring a speech from Black trans actress Ts Madison celebrating her identity interspersed into the mix, the track is built around a driving dance-club bassline and a hook that’s understated by Beyonce standards, but still percussive and powerful as she leans into the rhythmic pocket to declare “cozy with who I am.” A verse where she creatively incorporates every colour on the Progress Pride flag into her lyrics is another standout moment. The track “ALIEN SUPERSTAR” contains the most beautiful sample of “I’m Too Sexy” you’ll ever hear. It also gestures to some Prince lyrics, and this is the kind of song he’d make – the synths in the back and explosive percussion are appropriately alien, Beyonce juxtaposing braggadocious, vocal fry-laden raps with a truly heavenly chorus and a repeated rallying cry of “Unique!”
The true scene-stealers across the board are the transitional moments, making it nearly impossible to pause or turn off the album at any point once it’s on. The most impressive run introduced by “CUFF IT” and concluding in big single “BREAK MY SOUL.” “CUFF IT” switches gears with a disco-funk instrumental that has both Nile Rodgers and Raphael Saadiq on board, and it honestly houses what might be the best Beyonce vocal performance since “Love on Top.” What’s even better is that she’s clearly having an incredible amount of fun recording it – this is the song where the new, creatively enlightened Beyonce stops taking herself so seriously as she tackles a syncopated horn section with an audible smile and some adorable inflections in her high range as she prepares to step out on the town. “ENERGY” serves as more of a brief interlude as the instrumental shifts from the funkier area to the house tones of “BREAK MY SOUL” via an Afrobeats diversion as Jamaican rapper BEAM steps into the mix. The track also contains some of the most overtly political lyrical moments, as Beyonce gives some side-eyes to the “Karens” at the January 6 insurrection and opens with “Voting out 45, don’t get out of line,” a pun that’s simultaneously funny, sad and purposeful. Big Freedia’s hyperactive delivery creeps into the mix before fully taking over as the Robin S. sample of “BREAK MY SOUL” drops. The track thrives in the context of the album, the kicks mixed right at the forefront to give the procession of tracks a new gear as the night moves from the pregame to the club. The party doesn’t stop when they have church in the morning either. “CHURCH GIRL” sees No ID flipping a Clark Sisters gospel sample with a Chicago hip-hop beat as Beyonce delivers a fun rap track about church girls releasing their inhibitions and letting loose with dance – featuring her own gospel harmonies, of course.
For all of the funkier moments in the early goings of the tracklist, the back-to-back of “PLASTIC OFF THE SOFA” and “VIRGO’S GROOVE” essentially feels like a 10-minute jam session with a connecting storyline thread and some of the most mind-bending vocal runs you’ll hear all year scattered throughout. The former sees Beyonce with a loved-up and romantic delivery as she addresses her partner and expresses her gratitude that they’ve been together so long that she loves all of the good and the bad that make up who he is. “VIRGO’S GROOVE” takes the cute to the carnal as more percussion storms into the mix, featuring a central “come over” hook over the project’s most dynamic and full instrumental. With some call-and-response vocals with impressive layering, Beyonce gets lost in the passion and ecstasy, a common theme for the project as a whole. The tracks “MOVE” and “HEATED” are Beyonce’s take on Afrobeats, and while the more generic, trendy approach to the beats here make it feel like the only moment on the album that isn’t completely distinctive and original, the tracks are still highly effective. “MOVE” brings out none other than Grace Jones as well as burgeoning superstar Tems for a tribalistic, creeping number featuring Beyonce and her entourage on the prowl for a spot on the dance floor, while “HEATED” has a great chorus where Beyonce buries hard-hitting raps under a more chill, summery vibe before an outro reminiscent of Nicki Minaj’s unhinged Roman Zolanski antics.
The experimentation returns as the album nears its conclusion. “THIQUE” is a dark and menacing fusion of trap, house and Miami bass that exemplifies why people treat Beyonce like a goddess – nobody is on her level of confidence and mic presence as she builds herself and her achievements up through an icy, boastful sneer. “ALL UP IN YOUR MIND” might not have the strongest sense of musicality here, but it’s absolutely fascinating to witness her team up with hyperpop titan A. G. Cook on production who provides her with a backdrop of industrial and blown-out sounds. “AMERICA HAS A PROBLEM” is one of the more hip-hop influenced tracks here with some scratching in the back and some straight-up bars from Beyonce, but “PURE/HONEY” takes things to a new level. One of the most buzzing, energetic house tracks here, it features a massive thump of a beat and a distorted synth line that feels like it’s threatening to unravel on the front end before a shift to classic-sounding traditional smooth R&B over a lush, 70s disco palate. The project concludes with “SUMMER RENAISSANCE,” an interpolation of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” that pays homage to all of her influential and everlasting sounds across the album as a whole.
Truthfully, Beyonce is Beyonce – she has no need to continue to go this hard. But we should be ever thankful that she does. Indeed, the most exciting part of this album is that it’s apparently a part of a three-act project, with more to come soon. If this is only the beginning of the renaissance, the whole game should be on watch.
Favourite Tracks: CUFF IT, VIRGO’S GROOVE, PURE/HONEY, ALIEN SUPERSTAR, PLASTIC OFF THE SOFA
Least Favourite Track: I’M THAT GIRL