‘Renaissance’ Review: The Continuing Education of Beyoncé Knowles

Beyoncé Knowles has never been an artist to let the public know her next move, let alone share details of her personal life. But in August of 2021, the musician broke both those rules, delivering a longform interview to Harper’s Bazaar where she not only discussed her creative and personal inspirations, but also gave a hint to the guiding themes of her next project. “With all the isolation and injustice over the past year, I think we are all ready to escape, travel, love, and laugh again,” said Knowles. “I feel a renaissance emerging, and I want to be part of nurturing that escape in any way possible.”

One year later, Renaissance, Beyoncé’s seventh studio album, has arrived. The Oxford Dictionary defines “renaissance” as “a revival of or renewed interest in something,” although the exact French translation would be “rebirth.” By the artist’s own admission, the record is meant to document a period of reprieve and joy after two years of pandemics, protests, and all-around grief. However, it would be easy to interpret the album’s title as a reference to the artist herself, as Renaissance marks her first full-length project since her 2016 masterpiece, Lemonade. Renaissance‘s title raises several questions: What does it mean for an artist like Beyoncé, who is never far from the center of cultural conversation even when she is not actively putting out music, to have a renaissance? What does it look like when a musician who in many ways set the modern industry standard is reborn? On RenaissanceBeyoncé demonstrates a commitment to continued artistic growth, refusing to rest on her laurels no matter how big her star has become.

Renaissance marks a new method of storytelling from Beyoncé: If Lemonade was an exercise in building a longform musical narrative, her latest record clips together individual scenes as part of a larger world-building project. The universe Beyoncé has created on Renaissance is one of joy, pleasure, hedonism, regained confidence, and assured power. Although she’s previously explored these themes, they feel recontextualized given the social and political climate in which she is releasing the record. This new mindset is perhaps most evident in her takes on feminism and power, which has shifted dramatically since the beginning of her discography. On the breakout single “Break My Soul,” Beyoncé sings joyfully about quitting her job in order to focus on love and pleasure, while a Big Freedia sample encourages listeners to “release” their work and stress. “They work me so damn hard, work by nine, then off past five,” Beyoncé laments. Her sentiment comes in direct opposition to her 2011 hit “Run the World (Girls),” in which the artist celebrated the working woman: “I work my nine to five, better cut my check.” Other tracks, like opener “I’m That Girl” reify the artist’s colossal confidence and swagger while separating her from the opulence often associated with her stardom: “It’s not the diamonds, it’s not the pearls, I’m that girl.” On Renaissance, power is derived not from money, work, or status, but rather the “release” of all of these things that previously defined Beyoncé’s artistry and persona. The record finds the artist at her most free-spirited, which, in a sense, puts her at her most powerful in turn.

While the lyricism and themes of Renaissance find Beyoncé putting old ideas in a new light, her music and production illustrate her ability to step onto entirely new ground and experiment with genres that have yet to be heard in her expansive discography. Powerful Afrobeats are plentiful on Renaissance, making the tracks feel gloriously decadent and effortlessly danceable. The record’s fifth song, “Energy,” finds Beyoncé rapping over seductive, tropical instrumentation as Jamaican American reggae artist BEAM describes the sublime energy of the club. On “Move,” which features Nigerian musician and producer Tems, an infectiously danceable beat mirrors the song’s encouraging lyrics: “Move, move, move, skrrt off, make room / stampede coming through,” Beyoncé proclaims as the track accelerates, emulating the immediacy of a flood onto the dance floor. In a testament to Beyoncé’s range, those quick-paced Afrobeats live right next to several more ethereal, disco-inspired tracks on Renaissance; impossibly smooth transitions allow both sounds to not only coexist but coalesce on the album. “Cuff It” and “Virgo’s Groove” utilize an effective combination of psychedelic strings, light brass instrumentation, and a grounding, funky bass line to create a shiny, uptempo groove perfect for the dance floor. The album’s closing track, “Summer Renaissance,” solidifies Beyoncé’s ode to disco via references to Donna Summer’s classic 1977 hit, “I Feel Love.” She even dives into light EDM: “All Up In Your Mind,” co-produced by hyperpop artist AG Cook, has an undeniably electronic feel.

On Renaissance, Beyoncé pushes herself to journey into genres that feel surprising even for an artist of seemingly infinite range. One of the most surprising and lyrically impressive songs on the record is “Church Girl,” which finds the artist singing about “Church girls acting loose” and “bad girls acting snotty” over a staccato bounce beat built around a hymnal sample from the prominent gospel group The Clark Sisters. Beyoncé grew up in the church and sang in her church choir, experiences which translate beautifully onto this track: the song is at once a celebration of the gospel tradition and a subversion of the often rigid, misogynistic standards Black women are held to under Christianity. Her religious expertise comes through clearly in her subtly clever lyricism. “Nobody can judge me but me, I was born free,” the artist proclaims, a play on the common Christian saying that “only God can judge you.” An undeniably danceable anthem, the track goes beyond simply encouraging listeners to “drop it like a thotty” to advocate for bodily autonomy within the church and outside of it. In the Christian tradition, children often undergo Communion, a ritual where they eat a wafer that symbolizes the body of Christ. “Now you are the body of Christ,” reads Corinthians 12:27, “and each one of you is a part of it.” When Beyoncé declares that “soon as I get in this party, I’m gonna let go of this body,” it feels like a direct rejection of this Christian ideal, a proclamation that her body is hers to dance and move as she pleases. In a way, the track operates as a musical mirror to Beyoncé’s 2016 hit “Daddy Lessons,” a boisterous country jam in which the artist’s Texan Christian father “swore it on the Bible” that she needs to protect herself from and even “shoot” dangerous i. “Church Girl” is a continuation of Beyoncé’s rejection of a patriarchal Christian tradition, and the track stands as a reminder that she can bring us to church on her own terms.

Another surprise on Renaissance is its nods to queer ballroom culture, which comes through in several songs. Ballroom, an underground culture popularized by young Black and Brown queer people in the 1980s, which entered the mainstream in the 2010s with TV shows like Pose oath RuPaul’s Drag Race, is a mode of creative and gender expression in which people competitively strut, often down runways, while in elaborate costumes and to a power anthem of their choice. It may seem like an odd choice for Beyoncé, who is not openly queer or trans, to incorporate elements of ballroom into her album. The artist explained her inspiration in a post on her website, thanking her late uncle Johnny, who was queer and first introduced Beyoncé to many different genres of music. Her post continues to pay homage to the many queer Black people whose countless contributions to music and culture often went unnamed: “Thank you to all of the pioneers who originate culture, to all of the fallen angels whose contributions have gone unrecognized for far too long . This is a celebration for you.” Although odes to ballroom appear throughout the album, they are most prominent on “Pure/Honey,” which utilizes a percussive beat reminiscent of stilettos pounding a catwalk. A joyful and anthemic track, the lyrics toe the line between ironic and caricature: “Pretty gworls to the floor, get your money money cunty hunty,” the artist chants over the pounding bass. On the whole, the elements of the ballroom Renaissance feel more like collaboration than appropriation, as evidenced by the record’s collaborators, such as the Black transgender DJ and producer Honey Dijon, and ’90s drag artist Moi Renee. The credits of Renaissance boast more queer and trans collaborators than any other preceding Beyoncé album: Singer-songwriter Syd, for example, cowrote and coproduced the sultry and impossibly smooth “Plastic Off The Sofa.” These collaborations, which function as a recognition of and homage to the communities that have always been at the forefront of art and culture, underscore Beyoncé’s commitment to artistic learning and growth.

Beyoncé’s love of music and her listeners shines bright on Renaissance—that the artist put out an album at all while raising a family and running a separate business during a pandemic speaks volumes about her commitment to her art. In a sense, the album functions as not only a learning opportunity for the artist but for the consumer as well, who may very well be introduced to a new genre or artist upon their first listen. Perhaps this is the biggest lesson Beyoncé has given us: No matter how bright our stars already shine, we still have it within us to continue learning and experimenting—to be reborn.

Mary Retta writes about politics and culture. Her work can be found in New York magazine, The Nation, Viceand other outlets.

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