Photo: Beyoncé’s ‘Renaissance’
Beyoncé’s last solo studio album, ‘Lemonade,’ released in 2016, was an enormous success, both critically and commercially. Widely considered her magnum opus, the hype and pressure surrounding ‘Renaissance,’ her seventh project, was high. The album was described as “a celebration of a club era when anyone who felt like an outsider sought each other and formed a community of freedom-seekers to express themselves creatively through the rhythm, which we still celebrate today.” This nostalgia amplifies the record, which takes many of its cues from disco, funk, and afrobeat.
The inherent difficulty with releases paying tribute to earlier artists is staying on the right side of the line between homage and pastiche. On the whole, Beyoncé succeeds in bringing her own spin to the genres she takes inspiration from. She either adds something musically new or executes the genre in such an accomplished manner and it becomes a musical collage, with enough of the pieces fit together to make this a thoroughly enjoyable and neatly coherent LP to listen through.
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Beyoncé – More honest than ever
Beyoncé has told fans that ‘Renaissance’ represented for her “a place to be free of perfectionism and overthinking.” If one heard only the instrumentals for this record, this statement would read as artistic modesty. The complex and vibrant production of ‘Renaissance’ seems to convey a considerable intent in every note. On the other hand, her lyrics come into focus in light of this comment. She shares a more honest and open individual than previously known from ‘Lemonade,’ delving into her relationship to fame and even daring to touch on the mundane. The opening track, ‘I’m That Girl,’ where she confidently declares that “You know all these songs sound good.” Her confidence, though, does not come from anything superficial: “It’s not the diamonds / It’s not the pearls / I’m that girl,” she says. “‘It’s not my man / It’s not my stance / I’m that girl / It’s just that I’m that girl,” she repeats a motif that suggests a deeper analysis of her own identity beyond the persona. Transcending her wealth, her status, and the fame of her husband, she declares that she’s just great in her own right, beyond anything she’s achieved. Already, she’s positioning herself perhaps not quite as a ‘normal’ person, but as an exceptional ‘normal’ person. More importantly, all of this confidence is put to a rap with masterful flow and overlaid over fantastically heavy bass. As usual, when Beyoncé switches between rapping and singing or stops somewhere between, the results are universally loved.
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If any song embodies the honesty of this album, though, it’s the funky yet soft ‘Plastic off the Sofa.’ This track stands out among both the songs on ‘Renaissance’ and even the rest of her catalog. “I love the little things that make you you” does not fit with the typical brand of irreverent, sensual, and fierce lyricism expected from Beyoncé. It’s clichéd and prosaic – yet not in the sense that it sounds lazy or unimaginative, but rather in the sense that it sounds like the way someone, anyone speaks – a normal person who doesn’t know how to say ‘I love you’ in any better way than just that. Similarly, when she sings “I think you’re so cool, even though I’m cooler than you,” it reads not as bland but as a rare moment of candid naivety. Coming from the artist who once sang “I am the dragon breathing fire. Beautiful mane, I’m the lion,” this honest attempt to express her relationship with Jay-Z in plain terms is interesting and touchingly humanizing. In the end, this makes for one of the stronger cuts on the album, helped also by fantastically animated vocals which seem to flutter from note to note. Often she is happy to wander off course to some strange note or other for a moment or two.
As confident as ever
This vulnerability is not sustained for the entire length of the record, though. Unsurprisingly, a Beyoncé record wouldn’t be complete without a good amount of playfully rowdy self-praise. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s iconic – indeed, it’s the very contrast between her confidence and the relationship difficulties she has had with Jay-Z which helped make ‘Lemonade’ so captivating. ‘Cozy’ captures this boisterously proud attitude perfectly, with such lines as “She’s a god, she’s a hero / She survived all she been through / Confident, damn, she lethal” and “Comfortable in my skin / Cozy with who I am.” The afrobeat percussion and singing that is impossible to keep up with add to the charisma behind this song and make it a delightful track. That same charisma is also felt in the final cut on the album, ‘Summer Renaissance,’ aided by Mike Dean, producer for Megan Thee Stallion. “I wanna house you and make you take my name / I’m gonna spouse you and make you tat your ring” channels Beyoncé’s girl boss attitude in a humorous yet powerful fashion, while supplying the confidence needed to carry an indulgent interpolation of Donna Summer’s disco classic ‘I Feel Love’.
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This kind of attitude doesn’t always feel sincere, though. ‘Alien Superstar,’ although musically solid (featuring some interesting synths and nicely hard drums, albeit a strange sampling decision with Right Said Fred’s ‘I’m Too Sexy’), descends into rather trite lyrical territory. “I’m one of one, I’m number one, I’m the only one / Don’t even waste your time trying to compete with me,” we hear, rattled off like a shopping list of brags. It’s not that these lyrics ruin the song; they just don’t add anything, representing the more clichéd and uninspiring side of Beyoncé’s self-possession. ‘Thique’ suffers from a similar issue; coming off like an attempt to recapture the risqué memorability of ‘Bootylicious,’ it falls flat and seems, as Will Dukes aptly put it for Rolling Stone, “as if Beyoncé absentmindedly consulted some instant IG caption generator.” Again, this is only such a shame because the music’s not half bad; the bass thumps out the speakers boldly, Knowles’ singing has a superb moodiness to it, and the switch in atmosphere halfway through the song works neatly. ‘Pure/Honey’ suffers from similar issues (see: “Cunty (Cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt) / Feminine to pussy cunt, feminine to pussy, what”).
Beyoncé as never before.
Nonetheless, the musical quality of the album is present throughout. ‘Cuff It,’ for example, is a definite highlight of the LP. Written partly by Nile Rogers and featuring drums from Sheila E of The George Duke Band, it is the most productive genre experiment on ‘Renaissance,’ using funk guitar to elevate an infectious and tremendously free-spirited vocal melody, going far into unexpected territory in a way that a funk context helps support. ‘Virgo’s Groove’ operates in the same funk medium, once again working together with some impressive vocal runs that never feel forced. A six-minute track, the breeziness of the instrumentation means it never overstays its welcome.
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Some of the forays into new regions are not so successful, though. ‘Alien Superstar,’ as mentioned earlier, feels a little messy in terms of selection and integration of its sample, even if the compound formed isn’t anything that could be called “bad”. Nevertheless, even in some of the genre-blending tracks that work, they don’t seem to fully make the most of the potential of the experiments conducted. Thus they don’t wholly justify the innovation in the first place. ‘Heated,’ for one, is nothing if not a solid dance song. It’s catchy, energetic, and distinguishable from the rest of the album. But it’s nothing special. The song does feature Drake, and as has become increasingly obvious in recent years, it takes real effort and imagination to make a Drake feature exciting and fresh, note Brent Faiyaz did this admirably in ‘Wasteland’ (2022). In this case, his looming, dreary presence is audible but only through his distinctively velvety and fermata-laced singing style which Knowles adopts, as well as on the drumbeat. In fewer words, ‘Heated’ sounds like a dance track penned by Drake, and following ‘Honestly, Nevermind’ (2022), this isn’t anything Drake fans are interested in hearing, let alone Beyoncé listeners. Something a little newer or unexpected was necessary to really elevate this track beyond filler. Another example of a good song is ‘Move’. Undeniably fun, fresh, and lively, it’s a strong effort, but one can’t help thinking that with the likes of Grace Jones contributing to this track, could have soared a little higher.
Inevitably, the kind of bold explorations attempted in ‘Renaissance’ always run the risk of falling into mediocrity. Impressively, though the balance is often unsteady, Beyoncé never ends up on the wrong side of history. Although the full potential of every cut is not always explored, one feels that each stone is always given a good look, even if occasionally left unturned.
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Nowadays, every other album is described as ‘eclectic’ or ‘diverse’ by somebody else. Hence, variation is no longer as impressive. A record can’t get by solely on the basis of diversity alone, rather a well-executed range of music is now expected. Indeed, ‘Renaissance’ is varied and mostly well executed. Nevertheless, there are passages of the LP where eclecticism – that is, the unique nature of a given song, seems to be expected to carry it – even when the track itself is not actually hugely original or enjoyable. The majority, however, is playful, fresh, and thoroughly idiosyncratic. The most important thing for a Beyoncé record to achieve is that distinctly Beyoncé tone and ‘Renaissance’ certainly achieves this, despite its admirable musical dissimilarity from her previous work. Not only does this release show a different side to the pop star’s identity but also to her artistic capabilities. Although not as well-rounded, complete, or exceptional as ‘Lemonade,’ it is still an excellent showing that demonstrates a boldness to go in new directions and to express oneself. Though nostalgic, ‘Renaissance’ undeniably shoots a fair few glances forward – operating on borrowed terrain, Beyoncé renews and repurposes the ground she walks on. Apparently constituting “Act I” of what will likely become a trilogy, it will be exciting to see where Beyoncé looks for inspiration next.
By Samuel Sandor
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Outside of his ongoing MA degree in English and Philosophy at St Andrews, Samuel Sandor spends his spare hours writing – short stories, essays, articles on film, music, or any other subject he finds himself preoccupied by. Through all these strands, he strives to find a unique and unexpected way to look at the subject at hand. Without a concerted effort, it’s easy to form surface-level impressions of both the art and the news that one consumes. Sam’s pieces attempt to answer this interpretative simplicity by inducing curiosity in subjects one might ordinarily devote little thought to. It is this desire to transform viewpoints with novel ideas and to stoke deeper and more extensive conversations which attracted him to The Hollywood Insider.