Album Review: Beyoncé – Renaissance

[Parkwood / Columbia; 2022]

Bey is back and she’s sleepin’ real good at night. It’s no question as to why: she’s getting regular catharsis on the dancefloor and satisfaction in the bedroom. At least, that’s the Beyoncé we’re presented on Renaissance – this is the rebirth of the superstar as a club regular, a weekend warrior, a thotty, a sexual dynamo. Whether Beyoncé has actually been carving out time outside her family duties and million other commitments to hit the clubs and get nasty doesn’t really matter – these 16 tracks have facets of herself, but they mostly channel a wider variety of people and sounds that have been inspiring her of late. 

As the precisely-placed clip of Barbara Ann Teer reminds us on “Alien Superstar”: “We dress a certain way, we walk a certain way, we talk a certain way, we paint a certain way, we make love a certain way, you know? All of these things we do in a different, unique, specific way that is personally ours.” Across Renaissance, Beyoncé consistently reminds us of our individuality, and the inclusivity of club culture. She delivers anthems for every member of the dancefloor: for the nightclub regulars, comfortable in themselves; the groups of friends out to celebrate payday; the people looking to lock eyes with an eligible partner to take home; the saintly sort looking to cut loose for once; the fashion victim treating it like a catwalk; the business tycoon taking the opportunity to unbutton for a night; the person who’s just quit their job and is going to celebrate their freedom by shaking it all off. 

These different personas are dipped in and out of as Beyoncé and co keep switching up the beat and style, fluidly transferring from body to body, each as alive and active as the next. While there are plenty of young pop acts using dance sounds in their music, Beyoncé isn’t so interested in trying to do something modern – these songs are rooted in the tried and true styles of the last 50 years, from house to dancehall to disco and much more. 

While this reliance on the past could be branded as a criticism, it’s different for Beyoncé – she has the heft. She can bring in an array of musicians and producers to build these beats, whether they’re legends like Nile Rodgers, Raphael Saadiq and Grace Jones, or younger talents like Honey Dijon and Hit-Boy (to name a mere handful). These talents know how to redeploy these classic sounds in ways that honour the origins while making them sound just as vital as ever. On top of this, she has the power, poise, intelligence and vocal dexterity to comfortably grasp these styles and take them to new levels of her own. 

Renaissance is also helped by the slick sequencing, which ensures this is an experiential album – one that won’t let you stop moving for a moment. The attention-grabbing opener “I’m That Girl” finds Bey stepping out of the car, lights and flashbulbs watching her as she slides up to the door; her husky vocal letting us know she’s possessed by these beats and she only has one destination in mind: the middle of the mass of bodies. Things seamlessly segue into the delectable tech-house of “Cozy” – she’s on the floor and it is jumping; she’s proudly presenting her true self, she’s comfortable in her own skin – and she’s encouraging everyone else to feel the same.

Even as she moves through the bass-heavy “Alien Superstar” and into the wide-eyed disco of “Cuff It”, there is no let-up, and the message of self-love grows stronger with each new beat. The latter has her embodying the kind of person who’s out looking for lust, consequences be damned – “we gon’ fuck up the night” she and her vocalsits harmonize with honey-dipped sass. Things take a moment of slight reprieve in the zombified reggaeton of “Energy”, but it’s just an ideal way of teeing up “Break My Soul”, which comes swinging into the back of the track and hits like a jackhammer. In fact, the song works so much better in sequence; the early appearance of the chorus feels a lot more in place having had the momentum charged up by the preceding party starters.

This intelligent interplay allows for Renaissance to run for 63 minutes without for a second seeming like a slog. The six-minute disco funk centrepiece “Virgo’s Groove” finds Beyoncé in pure lover mode: she’s inviting her partner back to the dancefloor for a late night of action that is going to require a towel or two afterwards – her stupendous off-the-cuff vocal runs in the final few minutes give us a good idea of just how hot and heavy it’s going to get. 

On most albums, the monolithic “Virgo’s Groove” might signal time to wind down, but on Renaissance it’s only the half way point – there’s still a whole lot of bodies on the dancefloor ready to writhe their way through the rest of the night. The dancehall slammer “Move” follows and handily reminds us that there’s still a lot of energy to be expended in this sweaty mass – with Grace Jones and Tems leading the charge, carrying us into the down ‘n’ dirty tail of Renaissance. Here, we’re into the late part of the night where the all the chemicals at play (pheromones, alcohol and more) are demanding satisfaction.

The sweaty techno of “Heated” finds Bey fanning herself off – she knows she looks damn good, and she’s living for the attention. The deep and sexy “Thique” follows in a similar vein – exerting her physical prowess in a song that must be among the dirtiest ever written that doesn’t have any overly explicit words; instead she opts to keep it descriptive: “Hit it in the car and take you back to the casa / Bet I got you rock now, that thick all over that yacht now.” At that point, she knows that we’re powerless to resist her, and “All Up In Your Mind” arrives perfectly timed. She’s completely dominating our thoughts and desires, but she wants more, and the exacting and ascendant trance production from A.G. Cook (among others) sears her luminous image into your mind’s eye.

I haven’t had the pleasure to visit any clubs over this weekend, but I would put good money on every single one of these 16 tracks having been played out somewhere around the world in the last few nights. My personal pick would be “Pure/Honey”, which begins as a rampaging techno thumper that is bound to shockwaves through any crowd that gets to hear it on a proper soundsystem. Sitting as the penultimate track on the record, it’s Bey’s final call to the floor: “bad bitches to the left / money bitches to the right / you can meet in the middle / dance all night” she announces as the beat drops once again, sending eyes rolling into the backs of heads with the sheer pleasure of it. But, before you settle too deep into the groove, “Pure/Honey” segues into an energetic pop-soul jam full of the kind of pomp and confidence that recalls Destiny’s Child’s most resounding smashes. It’s pure alchemy.

After that, you’d think there’s hardly any juice left, but the interpolation of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” in the closing “Summer Renaissance” wrings the last drops out. While it’s not exactly an original pick to sample, the way it has been woven into a techno floater by the production team brings it a new lease of life – and its message provides the perfect send-off for the album. As cheesy as it sounds, the dancefloor is a place of pure love; no matter who you are or what you’re going through, you are accepted here, you are invited to move in any way that allows you to be expressed, you can’t help but feel love in every beat. Beyoncé is reminding herself and us of this throughout Renaissance; it’s an album expressing the joys of love – physical, verbal, musical, familial and all the other kinds. While she’s the one in the spotlight throughout the album, this isn’t a record about her – instead she’s honouring all those people who find themselves through the release provided by these communal spaces. And damn, it’s a hell of a good time.