Over the last 20 years, very few artists can claim to have operated at the same level as Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. A global icon since her teenage days in Destiny’s Child, her name has become synonymous with empowerment, glamour and a tireless work ethic bordering on the seemingly superhuman – a reputation she deepened over the past decade by releasing two radically personal, political and deeply referenced albums in Beyoncé and Lemonade.
In a pandemic, though, even the most accomplished of artists are allowed to go back to basics, to dig for the things that simply make them feel good. “Creating this album allowed me a place to dream and to find escape during a scary time for the world,” Beyoncé wrote in a rare letter to her fans when she announced her seventh album, Renaissance. “It allowed me to feel free and adventurous … A place to be free of perfectionism and overthinking.” As Beyoncé rides her glittery horse through the middle of her very own Studio 54, it’s clear that two decades into a multifaceted solo career, now in her 40s, she is still intent on finding new parties to make her own.
And party she does. Capturing the unspoken connectivity that so many of us crave from the club, Renaissance sees Beyoncé at her most lyrically playful, political by destiny rather than design. Break My Soul, the dance single of the summer, felt faintly ridiculous – a millionaire inviting us to “release your job!” amid a developing cost-of-living crisis – but nonetheless it resonated with a post-pandemic re-evaluation of personal priorities. Cuff It, the TikTok challenge sensation and roller-disco big sister to 2014’s Blow, also unapologetically threw caution to the wind, seeking out chaos in commitment: “I feel like fallin’ in love / I’m in the mood to fuck something up …”
Like an expert DJ set, Renaissance was sequenced and blended to create a sense of proper nighttime immersion, resisting the lull of the smoking area. There are no ballads, just endless horny bops: Church Girl invites you to “pop it like a thotty”, while America Has a Problem twerks its way around a skittering blend of trap-rap and 90s techno, dancing like everybody is watching. Only Plastic on the Sofa comes close to being genuinely lovey-dovey, but it’s still deeply rooted within the record’s lane of cheeky, purring self-celebration: “I think you’re so cool / Even though I’m cooler than you,” Beyoncé giggles at Jay-Z.
With minimal features from heteronormative guests, Beyoncé appears to have recommitted to Destiny’s Child’s recommendation that you leave men at home if you want to have a good time. Borrowing from Chicago house, Detroit techno and New York disco, the album is a tribute to the influence and endurance of the Black LGBTQ+ community, made in collaboration with producers and samples whose lived experiences and historical weight bring gravity to the sound. Arguably the first song to successfully interpolate Right Said Fred without invoking full-body cringe, Alien Superstar is a dramatic, pose-holding homage to ballroom culture, as is the orgasmic, shape-shifting stomp of Pure/Honey, which samples drag queen Kevin Aviance’s 1996 track Cunty.
Cozy, one of the record’s highlights, at first appears to be another chest-puffed self-love anthem (with a stair-climbing beat not dissimilar to Mr Fingers’ Mystery of Love), but it expands into a perceptive embrace of trans-inclusive womanhood: “Might I suggest you don’t fuck with my sis?” Beyoncé sings before listing the colours of Daniel Quaser’s Progress pride flag (designed to acknowledge Black trans people and those lost to the Aids crisis within the wider LBGTQ+ community). It’s a note of solidarity in the face of unjust threat, a lyrical theme that has always suited her well.
Renaissance proves two things: that turning 40 isn’t the artistic death knell that a sexist industry may present it as, and that music of great emotional and historic resonance can still come from a place of fun. By shimmying away from expectation, Beyoncé has created another glimmering facet in the immaculate disco ball of her artistry.