I’m not in the business of reading minds, and attempting to do so with a superstar as taciturn as Beyoncé would be an exercise in pure projection at any rate, but objectively speaking, it was time for a hit. And while there are no guarantees in life, dance music is a fairly safe bet if you’re looking to command a crowd.
Beyoncé hasn’t been absent from pop culture, per se—in 2017, she went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on a duet remix of Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect,” and her 2019 concert film/live album Homecoming was very much an event—but it’s been a while since she stopped the world with a drop. After the beloved Lemonade (itself a cohesive statement and not exactly a factory of hit singles), she released Everything Is Love with Jay-Z and then The Lion King: The Gift. Neither were technically Beyoncé albums in the classic sense, nor did they hit like the classic Beyoncé albums did.
On Renaissance, arguably her seventh solo studio album (if you don’t count The Gift), she comes charging back into the hit-making fray on a horse that’s glimmering like a disco ball. So far, it’s working: The set’s first single, “Break My Soul,” currently sits at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 (the first Beyoncé-led single to enter the Top 10 since “Formation” peaked at No. 10 in 2016) and, thanks to heavy airplay, is at this point practically ubiquitous. It entered a culture primed to receive it. Pop’s embrace of dance music has been somewhat cyclical—the four-on-the-floor thump of disco evaporated for a while during the mid-‘80s only to come stomping back when house music went commercial in the early ‘90s. Toward the end of the aughts, that pounding bass drum returned yet again, in part due to StarGate collaborations with Rihanna (“Don’t Stop the Music”) and Ne-Yo (“Because of You”). Lady Gaga launched a career on throbbing dance pop. Katy Perry and Ke$ha racked up piles of housey hits. . With “Call Me Maybe,” Carly Rae Jepsen delivered an all-time classic. Daft Punk had its biggest success on the U.S. charts with the Pharrell/Nile Rogers collab “Get Lucky” in 2013. Lately, the likes of Doja Cat and Dua Lipa have been trading pretty heavily in disco.
Dance music has been renaissance’d. Renaissance’s novelty, then, is that it’s a full-length album of dance music by Beyoncé. The renaissance is hers, not her form’s.
In her Instagram announcement of Renaissance in June, Beyoncé wrote that she crafted the album to be “a place to be free of perfectionism and overthinking.” Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean she’s forgoing her overachieving tendencies. Renaissance connects the dots in a way that few contemporary artists seem inclined to do—it’s a love letter to the four-on-the-floor bass drum thump, testing that steady pulse’s sturdiness in a variety of subgenres. The bouncy disco of the Rogers-featuring “Cuff It” gives way to “Energy” and in the process, loses several layers. The latter is effectively an X-ray of the former, and a working model of how early house music stripped disco down to its raw elements. At times, it’s as though Bey and her collaborators can’t keep their hands off house music—“Thique” is the most straightforwardly trap-oriented thing on Renaissance…for a few seconds, anyway, until that pounding beat kicks in. Beyoncé is so comfortable with her form that she transgresses it—there are multiple instances of palpable tempo changes (during “I’m That Girl,” between “Plastic Off the Sofa” and “Virgo’s Groove,” and again between “Thique” and “All Up in Your Mind”). Traditionally that kind of bald-faced speed variation is a no-no, especially in DJ sets. That is, unless the tempo change is so pronounced as to be part of a song’s gimmick, like Lil’ Louis’ Chicago classic “French Kiss,” which slows down in the middle to make way for orgasmic moaning, only to rev up again and explode into its previous tempo.
If Beyoncé and her co-producers (The-Dream, NovaWav, Hit-Boy, Honey Dijon, and Skrillex among them) are referencing “French Kiss,” it’s implicitly. She’s more overt elsewhere. “Break My Soul” includes credits to Allen George and Fred McFarlane, the writers of Robin S’s “Show Me Love,” which became a global smash in 1993 thanks to a remix by StoneBridge. Though there was initial confusion as to just how much of “Love” was in “Soul” (the just-released credits say that the Beyoncé track contains “elements of” “Show Me Love,” suggesting it has been interpolated and not sampled), the credits made its inspiration clear. “Summer Renaissance” liberally (and more apparently) borrows from Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” These reference points are about as obvious as it gets; they’re two of the most influential songs in the history of dance music. Not everything is so obvious, though. “Cozy” borrows its bass line from Chicago’s Lidell Townsell & the M.T.F.’s “Get With U” (a club but not pop hit) that was written by Curtis Alan Jones (better known via his Green Velvet and Cajmere monikers). “Pure/Honey” works in Kevin Aviance’s bitch track “Cunty,” MikeQ and Kevin Jz Prodigy’s “Feels Like,” and Moi Renee’s cult fav “Miss Honey”—that’s a lot of ballroom and drag jammed into one track.
There are some odd mastering choices here for a dance album: The bass drum is often turned down too low to really pummel, the ‘80s-boogie type synth in “Virgo’s Groove” that would threaten to electrocute your brain in its original form is restrained, and the Kilo Ali sample in “America Has a Problem” sounds compressed into murk. Electro should have bounce, but “America” is deflated. That said, some of the subtlety works, like the way a synth melody creeps into the Grace Jones and Tems-featuring “Move.” After the barked bravado of the song’s opening, the beauty of if all dawns on you.
Beyoncé’s far from anonymous here, but she rarely goes all in vocally—exceptions include “Plastic Off the Sofa,” which she chews on in a way that Prince used to; a hyperventilating precision in “All Up in Your Mind;” and glorious ad libs that wiggle up and down scales in “Virgo’s Groove.” There’s a lot going on here, so perhaps she reserved the vocal acrobatics for the forthcoming chapters of the project (the album’s technical title is Act I: Renaissance, and in a message timed to this album’s release, she described it as part of a “three act project”). Her voice sounds flawless as always, but perhaps the relative vocal restraint is to avoid getting in the way of her tracks and, by extension, the dancing they invite.
Renaissance is dense and overwhelming musically, but lyrically it mostly sticks to the tried-and-true themes of Beyoncé’s greatness and love’s supremacy. She’s so rapturous with self-love in the Drake collaboration “Heated” that I thought at first her lyrics were bisexual (“Never met a girl with a mind like this, no, no/To kill space and time like this, my love/Nеver met a girl so fine likе this, no, no, no, no, no/Wanna waste some while like this”). Her bragging turns surrealistic on the highlight “Alien Superstar” (“I got pearls beneath my legs, my lips, my hands, my hips/I’ve got diamonds beneath my thighs, but his ego will find bliss/Can’t find an ocean deep than can compete with this cinnamon kiss/Fire beneath your feet, music when you speak, you’re so unique”). Gelling the album are repeated lyrical themes—a rejection of drugs for love (“Love is my weakness/Don’t need drugs for some freak shit” in “I’m That Girl;” “Your love keeps me high” in “Virgo’s Groove”), and the specifically ballroom reference of naming a moment’s category (in “Alien Superstar,” the categories are “bad bitch” and “sexy bitch,” and in “Summer Renaissance,” it’s “bae”).
There’s not much overtly political discourse here, save a reference to Karens who “just turned into terrorists.” That is not to say that the album is apolitical, though. In her artist statement, Bey gives a shoutout to her uncle Jonny, whom she refers to as her “godmother and the first person to expose me to a lot of the music and culture that serve as inspiration for this album.” She continues: “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.” Beyoncé previously referred to Jonny, who had HIV, as “the most fabulous gay man I ever knew, who helped raise me and my sister.”
At a time when LGBTQ+ people are under attack from the right, which baselessly calls us “groomers,” attempts to rob trans people (especially kids) of their ability to live as their authentic selves, and may threaten marriage equality just for the cruelty of it all, the biggest pop star in the world created an album that is openly indebted to the contributions of queer people, particularly the Black gay progenitors of house music. While people today frequently dance mindlessly, unaware of the roots of the sound that are propelling them, Beyoncé has repeatedly raised awareness. It makes all the difference.