It’s too much, this being alive. Too heavy, too insecure, too chronically disastrous, too bellicose, too unwell, too laden with a possibility of the perception of error. The word of recent years — at least in American activist and academic circles — has been “precarity.” That comes up with ideas of danger, neglect, contingencies, risks. In principle: were concerned. And: We are concerned that you are not concerned enough. Like I said, it’s too much.
If I were a world-renowned musician whose blink of an eye is checked for meaning, maybe now is the time to discover what it feels like to mean something else, appear lighter, float, float, splash, squirm and grind, to sashay-shante. To find ‘new salvation’ in building her ‘own foundation’.
If I was that musician, now might be the time to call my freestyle jam “America Has a Problem” and not say what the problem is, because A) Psyche! B) What am I saying you don’t already know? And C) The person who actually performs this song knows that “that booty is going to do whatever it wants.” Now is the time to work on your body instead of losing more of your mind. ‘America’ is one of the closing tracks on ‘Renaissance’, Beyoncé’s seventh solo studio album, the album where she overlooks the stakes and concludes they’re too damn high. Now is the time to remind yourself – to “tell everyone” as she sings on the lead single, “Break My Soul” – that there is no discourse without disco.
What a good time this is. All 16 songs come from a place with a dance floor – nightclubs, strip clubs, ballrooms, basements, Tatooine. Most of them are imbued with or fully executed with black queer bravado. And on almost everyone, Beyoncé sounds like she’s experiencing something personally new and privately glorious: downright ecstasy. It takes several forms: bliss, of course; but also a sexy rigor. Exercising control is just as entertaining on this album as releasing stress.
As expensive, production-wise, as “Renaissance” sounds (one track credits two dozen writers, including samples and interpolations), Beyoncé’s vocals here are beyond any price tag. The range of her voice approaches the galactic; the imagination it drives qualifies as cinema. She cooes, she growls, she growls, she doubles and triples herself. Butter, mustard, foie gras, the perfect ratio between frosting and cupcake.
About halfway through, something called ‘Plastic Off the Sofa’ arrives. Now, part of me cried because those are words she doesn’t even bother to sing. Plastic from the sofa? Have you again! The rest of me wept because the singing she does — in waves of rhapsodic long, Olympic emissions — seems to come from somewhere far beyond a human throat: the ocean? The oven? But this is one of the few songs recorded with live instruments – thumping guitar and some pitter-pat percussion. (The musical plastic is off the album’s couch.) The bassline continues to swell and bend and bloom until it outgrows its flower bed, and so does Beyoncé’s voice. It surfs on the swell. It smells like roses. “Renaissance” turns to gospel here and there – on “Church Girl”, the most sassy. This is the only one that sounds like it was recorded in Eden.
It takes a minute for all the rapture to kick in on “Renaissance”. First comes a mission statement (“I’m That Girl”) in which Beyoncé warns that love is her drug. Then it’s ‘Cozy’, an anthem in the making about black women who are comfortable in their own skin. This one has a bottom as heavy as a cast iron skillet and a bounce that the Richter scale couldn’t ignore. “Cozy” is about comfort but sounds like an approaching army. The first real exhale is ‘Cuff It’, a roller skate jam held aloft by Nile Rodgers’ signature guitar flutter while a fleet of horns provides afterburner. This is where Beyoncé wants to go out and have an indescribably fun time. And it’s contagious enough to ponder a throw-away line like “I want to go missing” later, when I’m sober.
Comedy abounds. Thanks for the sampled contributions from Big Freedia and Ts Madison. “Dark skin, fair skin, beige” — Madison sings on “Cozy” — “fluorescent beige.” Thank the tabloid TV keyboard blast on “America Has a Problem”. But Beyoncé herself has never been more funny than here. The rigor she applies to the word “No” on “America” alone would suffice. But there’s her imitation of Grace Jones’ reign on “Move,” a sharp-elbowed dance hall in which they order the plebes to “separate like the Red Sea” when the queen comes through (I’m not talking about who the queen is here). is in that scenario.) Pop music has been tattooed with Jones’ influence for 45 years. This is one of the few mainstream acknowledgments of her generous musical power. There’s also Beyoncé’s vamp at the end of “Heated,” which she recites to the cracking a spread hand fan. It’s one of those round table freestyles that get down on some balls. A fraction of her includes:”not anymorecle Jonny made my dress / That cheap spandex / She looks a mess.”
This is an album whose big idea is house. And the feeling of home is enormous. It’s mansion music. “Renaissance” borders on where pop has been: pulsating and throbbing. His muscles are bigger, his limbs more flexible, his ego firmer. I don’t hear any concerns from the market. The sense of adventure is off the charts of the genre, yet very aware of every coordinate. It’s a feat of synthesis that never sounds slavish or synthetic. These songs test this music and celebrate how spacious it is, how pliable. That may be why I like “Break My Soul” so much. It’s number 6, but it feels like the album’s thematic backbone. It has tenderness, determination and ideas – Beyoncé mediates between two different approaches to the church.
On “Pure/Honey,” Beyoncé breaks through wall after wall until she gets to the room where all the cousins from her smashing 2013 “Blow” are. It ends with her lilting alongside a sample of drag artist Moi Renee roaring, “Miss Honey? Miss Honey!” And it’s as close to the B-52s as any Beyoncé song could ever get (But Kate, Cindy, Fred, Keith: Call her anyway!)
The album’s embrace of house and not, shall we say, fall, unequivocally equates Beyoncé with queer black people. On the one hand, that means she’s just an elite pop star with extremely enthusiastic support. But “Renaissance” is more than fan service. It focuses on certain histories. The knotty symbiosis between cis women and gay men is one. The doors of imitation and tribute turn with centrifugal force.
With Beyoncé, her drag seems liberating rather than obscuring. It’s not just these lesser-known gay and trans artists and personalities that her music has absorbed. They are different artists. On “Blow,” Beyoncé wondered how it felt for her partner when he made love to her. Now the miracle is: how does it feel for her to make love – and art – as someone else sometimes? The last track of the album is ‘Summer Renaissance’ and it opens with the thump of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’. It’s not the first time she’s quoted La Donna. But the wink is not only where the reference is explicit. It’s in the rich middle of the album, which includes that sofa song and “Virgo’s Groove,” arguably the most delightful song Beyoncé has ever recorded. This is to say that “Renaissance” is an album about performing – from other pop’s past, but ultimately about Beyoncé, a star who is now 40, an age when the real risk is to pretend you have nothing to lose.
Another history is in the title of the album: 100 years ago, when things were too much for black Americans too – lynchings, “race riots” across the country – and fleeing north from the south seemed like a good alternative to murder, up in Harlem, Alain Locke and Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes and Aaron Douglas and Jessie Fauset, to choose five figures, were the center of an explosion of art that could be as frivolous, festive and vulgar as some of what’s here on album. The performers were gay and straight and everything in between. The thing is, they called that a renaissance too. It held and brought joy and provocation despite the surrounding crisis, it gave people looking for a home something close to home. New salvation, old foundation.