With a consistently hedonistic vibe from start to finish, here is your invite to a party as opulent as it is debauched
Much virtual ink has been spilled about pop star / rapper / icon Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, but less has been written about her awkward transition to the digital age. Both 2013’s Beyoncé and 2016’s Lemonade had their engagement stunted by album-only purchases and exclusivity deals respectively, causing a spike in piracy but more importantly cordoning off access to one of the most high-profile artists in the world. In this respect Renaissance really is a rebirth, and the genre-hopping of those records has been replaced with a consistently hedonistic vibe from start to finish, your invite to a party as opulent as it is debauched – “knocking Basquiats off the wall”, indeed.
Various aspects of the album feel like a DJ set, whether it’s the beat-flipping on songs like Virgo’s Groove and Thique or the way elements transition from track to track (the shuddering bass and dissonant riff of Energy working particularly well for this purpose). Beyoncé mostly eschews polished vocal performances in favour of expression, with the intricate vocal runs that wrap up Plastic Off The Sofa a notable exception, and while the explosive final verse of Heated is being edited at time of writing its raw and spontaneous quality is intensely satisfying (“Monday I’m overrated, Tuesday on my dick / flip-flop flippy flip-flopping-ass bitch”).
As we’ve come to expect the creative cast of Renaissance is impressive and large – highlights include Honey Dijon’s organic house groove on Cozy, No ID’s novel fusion of gospel and New Orleans bounce on Church Girl and AG Cook’s gnarly bass riff on All Up In Your Mind. Apart from the performer herself the record’s biggest contributor is The-Dream, who has been linked to Beyonce ever since the heady days of Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) and most likely deserves some credit for its cohesion.
Break My Soul was an excellent choice of first single, its mix of tribulation and resolve bringing to mind Kendrick Lamar’s Alright over a tasty Korg M1 organ line. The addition of Big Freedia might confuse those familiar with British house music but the combination works surprisingly well, all part of an artistic approach where various facets of club culture from around the world collide. Cuff It also seems to be building a head of steam as a more accessible cut, its breezy disco rhythms espousing the virtues of romance, sex and partying (“Bet you you’ll see far / Bet you you’ll see stars / Bet you you’ll elevate / Bet you you’ll meet God”).
Renaissance’s free-wheeling spirit also helps get it through some rougher patches, such as the somewhat formless opening track I’m That Girl, which would have worked better at half the length. America Has A Problem suffers from being one of the more conventional tracks and setting the bar far too high with its timeless Kilo Ali homage, though the record rallies in a major way with Pure/Honey’s seasick bass and Summer Renaissance’s stylish ostinatos – not many artists would have the gall to revamp I Feel Love, but Beyoncé pulls it off spectacularly.
Beyoncé and Lemonade both featured the meta-narrative of her marriage with Jay-Z, and at various points on those albums the trappings of monogamy became claustrophobic in nature (Jealous, the intro to Mine, Pray You Catch Me). By contrast Renaissance feels like a joyous and carefree open relationship, with the frisson of new love both implicit and explicit throughout, making the record great fun to listen to. There is no resting on laurels here, and if this is the type of music that Beyoncé can put out at the age of 40 then her career may well end up putting Madonna to shame.