Album Review: Beyoncé - Renaissance

The post header image, featuring the text ‘?J Pop Album Review’ and a shot of a vinyl of Beyoncé’s album Renaissance.

Self-titled and Lemonade are two of Beyoncé’s albums which are widely revered. But despite both albums becoming part of the zeitgeist, so much of the conversation around them had little to do with the actual music. It was about Beyoncé’s brand of feminism. It was about her releasing an album out of nowhere. It was about how on earth she was able to work with so many people on an album and shoot 73 music videos without anything leaking. It was about who the hell Becky was. And how Jay-Z had the nerve to cheat on tiffany-pollard-meme.gif Beyoncé!? All things which are absolutely worth discussing. After all. You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation. But the artistry put into the music got a little lost in it all. Then there was The Lion King: The Gift, which everybody seemed to pass on, because nobody seemed to care about Afriyoncé. And then there is Renaissance. But something different happened with the discussion around this album. Everybody was talking about the music. And nothing BUT the music. I mean…now people are begging for music videos. But even so, it’s still in the context of the music.

Being a fan of Beyoncé has always been a little frustrating for me. Songwriting scandals aside; what always stuck in my craw with Beyoncé was that I always felt her albums weren’t true top to bottom reflections of her talents. And that they weren’t always true. There was a sense that she wasn’t always doing what she wanted, and she wasn’t always being true to herself - and that it was getting in the way of her releasing great albums. It seemed like she was always chasing something. Trying to be one thing or the other. Trying to be what she thought people wanted her to be. Even with self-titled there was a sense of this, but lesser so. Only with Lemonade did Beyoncé truly stop giving a fuck about public perceptions and expectations, and just did what felt right for her and true to her heart. And now with Renaissance, it’s like Beyoncé is revelling in this new space, which is probably down to where she’s at in life. She has purged all that was weighing her down on Lemonade. Her legacy has been cemented. She is decorated with every award. She’s doing things her way. She has a family. She’s rich as fuck. Everybody knows her name. And it colours Renaissance in the coolest of ways, because it feels so unrestrained, and as though Beyoncé has stepped into the realisation that she can just do what she wants to do, as opposed to what she feels she has to do.

Initially when I listened to Renaissance, it felt like a major shift from Beyoncé. But the more I listened to it, the more I realised that it wasn’t so much a shift, as it was Beyoncé returning back to herself. Renaissance is like Beyoncé’s New Game+. A chance for her to go back with all of the life experience, career experience, skills and relationships she’s built along the way, but without any of the concern about…well, anything.

Beyoncé sat in a lounge with a drink in hand, whilst wearing shades and a black Mugler dress with metallic titty plates.
Beyoncé - Renaissance | © Parkwood Entertainment, Columbia Records

As a fan who always knew from the early days of Destiny’s Child that Beyoncé was really fucking talented, Renaissance feels like a Cece Peniston sponsored relief. Because Beyoncé has fine-uh-lee released an album full of music which matches the potential and talent I knew she always had. And during a time in music when so many artists from the early 2000s seem to have lost sense of who they are, and new artists have no sense of identity outside of their social media personas - it’s nice to have Beyoncé put something out which feels like a true representation of her that I don’t think any of her albums have truly been since B’Day. Although 4 did come close, and definitely paved the way for Beyoncé to release an album like Renaissance.

But a Beyoncé album wouldn’t be a Beyoncé album without ‘the discourse’. And the bedazzled elephant in the room with Renaissance is how fucking gay it is, and that Beyoncé is just hopping on a trend.

Beyoncé at a ball wearing a gold outfit, as a bunch of gays watch her from the side-lines.
Beyoncé - Renaissance | © Parkwood Entertainment, Columbia Records

Renaissance being gay as hell does have a context, which some may find convenient. Renaissance is dedicated to Beyoncé’s Uncle Jonny, who passed away due to AIDS related complications. Of course being the gay uncle, Jonny knew how to dress and make a dress. He had great taste in music. He was ahead of trends. All of the fabulous things that Black queers do and are. But of course, Beyoncé has been accused of pandering to the gays. I’m not gonna defend or refute these claims. Beyoncé has always been opportunistic when it’s come to her career and her music. Sometimes to a fault. This is one of the things that made I Am… Officer Knowles the mess that it was, because a bitch wanted to have her cake and eat it too. But what I will say is that Beyoncé’s music has always been gay as hell. A large cross section of her fans are Black queers. *Shakes a pack of cigarettes* And Beyoncé has never actively shied away from acknowledging this. Just look at the opening of the music video for “Freakum Dress”, the Tyra Banks Show performance of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)”, and the inclusion of Big Freedia on “Formation”; the video of which also features a Black gay whinin’ up their waist in a mirror. Beyoncé’s stylist for years (Ty Hunter) was gay. Beyoncé’s current creative director (Andrew Makadsi) is a gay…I think. And I’m sure a whole bunch of folk at Parkwood are part of the LGBTQWXYZ.

Beyoncé wearing a black body suit with coned titties, whilst posing on a set of red steps.
Beyoncé - Renaissance | © Parkwood Entertainment, Columbia Records

Whilst I do think Beyoncé is cashing in just a tad on what is a rise of visibility of queer culture within mainstream popular culture, I don’t inherently think this is a bad thing. Beyoncé has become an adored figure to Black queers specifically, in a space where she is outnumbered by the abundance of white women across every generation of popular music that the white gays have had to idolise, and often credit with things that Black folk did and have always been doing. And Renaissance speaks to this, reclaiming dance music, and letting folk know that Black people and Black queer culture have always been at the heart of it.

To be quite frank; it’s really hard to fault Beyoncé for galloping on the gay bandwagon when the result is an album that’s THIS good and feels so intentional in going about things in the right way. Renaissance feels like it is honouring the culture, putting a huge spotlight on it, validating it, and putting money in the pockets of those who are a part of it; as opposed to simply appropriating it. Also, throughout time, Black women have always put out music which has felt queer adjacent and resonated with queer fans, whether it was the intention or not. Just look at The Weather Girls, The Pointer Sisters, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, Donna Summer, Gwen Guthrie, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson. All artists whose influences you can see in Beyoncé’s performances and hear in her music. There is no surprise that Renaissance is what it is. This was always an album we were gonna get at some point. Always.

But the queerness of Renaissance is not just in the sounds that it borrows and adopts, but in how each of the songs feel. Renaissance is tagged as a dance record, an album for the gays; and both things are true. But what Renaissance is at its core, is a soundtrack to being free. And I can’t think of anything which speaks to queerness more than freedom.

When it comes to being queer, there is so much emphasis placed on who you fuck, how you dress, if you watch Drag Race - just a checkbox of things which people feel define queerness. Or YOUR queerness specifically. But being queer is about being free and valuing that freedom to be who you want to be. More so if you’re Black or of colour, where the intersectionality of being queer makes things that much harder, and Beyoncé gets this too; which is why we get songs produced by Black trans DJ and producer Honey Dijon, voice clips from Black trans online personality TS Madison, and songs which sample Black drag icon Kevin Aviance from the notable House of Aviance, and Kevin Prodigy and MikeQ who are part of a new generation of talent within the Vogue ballroom scene.

Parkwood did their fucking homework.
And Beyoncé sounds the best that she’s ever sounded, because she herself just sounds so free.

Beyoncé sat on a chair wearing a silver dress with large flowing sleeves, whilst holding her right titty in her hand.
Beyoncé - Renaissance | © Parkwood Entertainment, Columbia Records

But it’s not just Black queer folk that Renaissance honours. But Black women whose music is adored on the scene by everybody. “Break My Soul” samples Robin S’s “Show Me Love”; a song which has been remixed, remade and re-released every other year since its first release in 1990. “Summer Renaissance” samples and interpolates Donna Summer’s gay classic “I Feel Love”, with the song title being in reference to her - which feels like a full circle moment, given that Beyoncé interpolated Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” on her 2004 hit “Naughty Girl”.

And as somebody who rarely goes out, yet feels continually starved for hearing gay classics from Black women who weren’t born in the 60s (always the case when it’s a white DJ), it’s so nice to hear “Break My Soul” and “Summer Renaissance” being put in rotation. And it makes me smile to think that future generations will revere songs from Renaissance in the same way that we do some of the queer classics from the 70s and 80s.

But Beyoncé also does something clever with songs on Renaissance, which is to also offer something new, and introduce sounds which most wouldn’t necessarily associate with queerness. And “Heated” is the poster child for this. “Heated” has a dancehall vibe about it, through and through. Dancehall is a genre of music that Black queer men have always liked, despite the homophobic history of the genre and its country of origin. And yet, Beyoncé takes this sound and makes what is probably the queerest song on the album. You would think that the queerest song on the album would be something like “Pure/Honey” or “Alien Superstar”. But that’s just not possible. Not with what Beyoncé does for the last 1 minute and 21 seconds of “Heated”, where she tows the line between a ballroom commentator and an MC at a sound system, and shouts-out her gay Uncle Jonny. There are an abundance of stand-out, memeable and memorable moments on Renaissance. But the outro of “Heated” is up there.

As fresh and as different as Renaissance sounds and feels, it doesn’t feel *looks into the camera* alien. Because everything that makes up Renaissance touches in some way on something Beyoncé had done before. Beyoncé delivering disco club records just as she did during her Destiny’s Child days, via Joshua Maruice’s remixes which always feature re-recorded vocals. The album cover featuring the campness, silver and sparkles of Dangerously in Love’s. The abundance of sampling and interpolating, as per Dangerously in Love. Beyoncé’s return to the soul and funk of her first two albums. Beyoncé’s boldness of B’Day. Beyoncé singing about the needs of her pussy on self-titled. Beyoncé’s lack of insistence on always singing high and pretty, and not being afraid of giving grit, which was a big part of 4. The Afrobeats influence of The Lion King: The Gift. Even Destiny’s Child’s terrible-ass Survivor album feels like it has some of its DNA woven into this album, with how it casually just hops between styles and genres.

Renaissance folds EVERYTHING Beyoncé has done throughout her career. Not just on studio albums, but also tours. Because d’you know what Renaissance also features? Good-ass song segues; which amongst many others things, was one of the best aspects of Homecoming.

Beyoncé - Renaissance | © Parkwood Entertainment, Columbia Records

Whilst Beyoncé’s music has always been decent enough, I’ve always found her albums to be middling. There are always a couple of great songs, but I feel the strength of these couple of songs has often been enough to catapult Beyoncé’s albums and almost define them.

Dangerously in Love had a great run of singles, but the album was nothing special to me. There was very little about it that made it feel like this whole other experience to a Destiny’s Child album. The album title track even featured on a Destiny’s Child album, and the Survivor version of this song was miles better. Tenitra and Kelendria’s debut albums got far more spins outta me, because I found them more interesting.

With the exception of I Am… In Black and White, I can’t say any of Beyoncé’s albums are bad. And even I Am… A Female Version of a Hustler has a couple of great songs. And the strength of two of its huge hit singles defined the album; making it hard to deem it irrelevant. But I always felt something was missing with Beyoncé’s albums, and that they were often memorable for things other than just being good albums. Even with how good Lemonade was, you couldn’t really divorce it from the visuals. And the visuals also connected the songs thematically in a way that isn’t present in the music, because we don’t get the poetry segues which also came with visual transitions which linked the themes and the music videos. And then there’s “Formation”, which just didn’t fit the album whatsoever. There are songs on Lemonade that I adore. “Daddy Lessons” is amazing. And “Love Drought” is one of Beyoncé’s best songs. But it just wasn’t an album I ever found myself listening to front to back with any regularity.

Beyoncé’s was full of albums from which I’d cherry pick a couple of songs, and never go back to the rest. None of her albums showcased every facet of who she was. Self-titled and Lemonade collectively came close, but still felt like they were missing something. And none of Beyoncé’s albums felt like the music created a seismic shift, even though the potential was always there for Beyoncé to deliver music which could do just that. Clearly. Because then this bitch rode in on her disco horse, put on her “Jumping Jumping” wig with extra inches, and put out an album that could, and to some, already has.

At a stage where Beyoncé has nothing to prove, but also everything to prove, she managed to deliver an album which has had me playing it with a level of frequency that I have never played a Beyoncé album before. And in a place of fulfilment with her career, restlessness from the height of the pandemic, and being able to do whatever type of album she wanted to do, with enough distance since Lemonade to be freed from the pressure of topping it - Beyoncé said ‘Fuck it’. And delivered something which feels purposeful and clearly planned, but also random and wonderfully chaotic, in a way which really pushes her artistry and sound forward into new territory. Beyoncé always had the voice and the audacity to do any genre of music she pleased, but often stayed within this box. And with Renaissance, she’s finally stepping out of it and having the time of her life.

Beyoncé in the silver mirrored hallway of a club, whilst wearing a black bodysuit with pointy horned detailing on the bodice, as somebody thick-legged stands in front of her wearing tights.
Beyoncé - Renaissance | © Parkwood Entertainment, Columbia Records

Renaissance is one of Beyoncé’s most varied and interesting albums to listen to. At times I listen to Renaissance and can’t quite believe it’s a Beyoncé album, because it’s so weird and frequently unconventional. But not in a ‘Look at me! I’m being different!’ kinda way. Renaissance doesn’t really command your attention. It entices you. It beckons you. It knows it’s so good that you won’t be able to come away from it without some level of admiration; whether it’s the production, the mixing, the queerness, Beyoncé’s vocals on “Plastic Off the Sofa”, how absolutely fucking perfect “Virgo’s Groove” is, the immediately likeability of “Cuff It”, or that the ballroom girls can vogue down to “Pure/Honey”.

Renaissance keeps you guessing, and it does so right up until the last song, which also zigs and zags like a motherfucker; right after a song which goes from a vogue ballroom jam, to a pop disco jam which sounds like something out of Goldmember.

Renaissance as an album is a ride, but the songs in themselves offer twists and turns. The album opener “I’m That Girl” is weird, because it’s not what you’d expect the album to open with having heard “Break My Soul”, and yet it is the best way for the album to open. The song is really strange and a bit unnerving, because you have no idea where it’s going to go, yet you’re so engaged off of the intrigue. But “I’m That Girl” works in a similar fashion to “Break My Soul”, in that whilst it isn’t a reflection of the sound of the album as a whole, it’s telling you what to expect from it; which is Beyoncé being free, realising her self worth, knowing that she is the baddest bitch, Beyoncé rapping, unconventional song structures, and transitions between songs.

The wild ride of this album also feels like Beyoncé challenging herself for her Renaissance tour. Because not only are the song structures unconventional, but there isn’t a great deal of repetition in songs where they usually would be. Even when it comes to the choruses. The chorus of “Church Girl” has slight lyric changes each time. Same with “Thique”. When Beyoncé sings the chorus for the last time on “Cuff It”, it’s different (‘elevate’, becomes ‘levitate’). And even on a song like “Break My Soul”, where the chorus lyrics are exactly the same each time, Beyoncé never sings the chorus in the exact same way. Beyoncé said ‘Fuck a chorus being the same every time’. She’s free. She’s New Game+’ing this shit for sure.

Beyoncé - Renaissance | © Parkwood Entertainment, Columbia Records

Renaissance is one of Beyoncé’s best albums in terms of flow. It pretty much commands that you play it from top to bottom. And as is often a trend for albums, Renaissance is not top loaded. This album doesn’t end with a ballad or some mid-tempo jam, it ends with the most euphoric, jubilant, uptempo song on the album. In fact, the entire album is just a straight-up dance album. The only moment at which it slows is for “Plastic Off the Sofa”, a song I feel sorry for. Because as nice as it is, I just know it’s a song lots of people will skip, because it sticks out so much and is so sweet and sappy amongst a bunch of songs about Beyoncé’s hungry pussy. Also, it is sandwiched right in-between two of the best songs on the album, both of which are club records.

Renaissance truly is an album which feels crafted by a team of people who not only love music, but wanted to create something which feels like a journey full of moments. With each one holding your interest and wanting to venture into the next song, then the next song, then the next song - with each one song leaving you wondering what on earth is going to be thrown at you next, because Renaissance never pulls the same trick twice. But despite the variation, you always feel anchored in the album. And when a shift does come, it’s introduced via a segue, or a theme from one song carrying into another. The first point in Renaissance where a song ends without any form of transition is “Break My Soul”, which is 6 tracks into the album. But it’s then followed by “Church Girl”, which couldn’t be any more different in terms of sound. But “Break My Soul” featured elements of gospel with the introduction of a choir at the tail end of the song, and “Break My Soul” in and of itself feels like a song on some Kirk Franklin shit. So even though there isn’t a direct transition from “Break My Soul” into “Church Girl”, they are still connected thematically.

A close-up shot of Beyoncé wearing a plaited ponytail, red lipstick and silver star titty pasties.
Beyoncé - Renaissance | © Parkwood Entertainment, Columbia Records

The segues on this album are good and in some cases you truly don’t realise a new song has even started. But some of the transitions are so good, that it’s hard to pluck songs out of the album, without its companions. “Alien Superstar” doesn’t hit the same unless it’s coming off the back of “Cozy”. “Cuff It” doesn’t feel right unless it’s followed by “Energy”. “Break My Soul” feels like it’s missing something when it’s not led by “Energy”. “Virgo’s Groove” officially starts 3 minutes and 45 seconds into “Plastic Off the Sofa”. Each of these songs are so damn good that the enjoyment isn’t hindered if you choose to cherry pick them for playlists. But the segues add that extra something, and really highlight how connected to the songs are to the album. They’re part of a bigger tapestry.

Beyoncé is gonna have a lot of fun playing with the setlist of her Renaissance tour and fucking with the setlist, knowing that fans will expect certain songs in a certain order. Trust she is not keeping shit exactly the same as the album.

Beyoncé - Renaissance | © Parkwood Entertainment, Columbia Records

Renaissance finally presents a Beyoncé album where I feel Beyoncé did things right from start to finish. Self-titled tried to play with the ideas of segues, but it still felt like an album where things were just being thrown at the wall a little. Lemonade was held together by a narrative of Beyoncé navigating her own feelings as she processed Jay-Z infidelity, but I also felt that the album was tied too strongly to the visuals. Some songs just didn’t have the same gravitas unless you were watching the video along with it. With Renaissance, it’s almost as though Beyoncé looked back on self-titled and Lemonade and had similar thoughts. Everything manages to fit together on Renaissance, even when it really shouldn’t. And because there is (at time of writing) no accompanying music videos or film, you’re just taking the songs in for the music. But Renaissance also does something great, which is world build. The sonics of this album create a world which feels so vivid. But it’s also an album which makes you feel. “Break My Soul” makes you feel like you’re letting it all go in a club full of people. “Church Girl” makes you wanna shake in front of a stained glass window. “Virgo’s Groove” makes you feel like the sexiest bitch alive at Studio 54. “Summer Renaissance” makes your pussy feel like it’s floating into outer space. “Pure/Honey” makes you wanna vogue down, and then put on a lil’ gold halter neck jumpsuit and shimmy.

But there is also a sense that perhaps Beyoncé realised she was coasting a little with her last few albums. Because one of the things I truly missed with self-titled, Lemonade and The Lion King: The Gift was Beyoncé actually SINGING, and giving me the intricately dense vocal arrangements that she became notable for on B’Day. The Lion King: The Gift really highlighted how much Beyoncé’s tone had changed, and she really dug into it on songs like “Otherside”, but it felt like Beyoncé was still only scratching the surface of her changed voice. But on Renaissance, Beyoncé really settles into her lower tone and plays with it alot. But she also does something she didn’t do much of with her last couple of albums, and that’s also show that she can still go high. Her high notes are far raspier than they were before, but it adds so much more colour to her voice. She sounds incredible on “Plastic Off the Sofa” and “Virgo’s Groove” in particular, where Beyoncé just completely shows off, to remind people that she can SING sing. Just in case anybody reached the midpoint of the album and thought ‘Beyoncé isn’t really singing tho’.

Beyoncé lying on the floor in a black body suit with big feathered sleeves, whilst tipping her large black hat.
Beyoncé - Renaissance | © Parkwood Entertainment, Columbia Records

Beyoncé has never been an artist who has lacked confidence, but there was definitely a sense with some of her songs putting her in a place that she may not have been ready to truly sell them from her pussy heart. “Naughty Girl” and “Work it Out” were sexy songs, but Beyoncé didn’t really sell the sex of them. And it’s no surprise given that Beyoncé was barely out of her teens when she recorded them, and was void of life experience as a woman, a lover and a mother. But here on Renaissance; when Beyoncé sings that she wants to sit on some dick, that she’s grabbing dick through some Levi’s and that she’s got a cocaine coochie, you believe her - because her delivery makes you believe it. Beyoncé is playing a character on every single one of these songs, and having fun with it, which not only makes the songs a joy to listen to, but makes you want to commit to a character as well.

I always hoped that Beyoncé would deliver an album like this, but wondered if she ever would. And now I’m wondering how on earth she is going to top this with Act 2. But if Beyoncé and her team of 246 songwriters and producers managed to pull this off, then there’s nothing to say that she can’t top it. After all, I never thought Beyoncé would actually give me the album I’ve always wanted from her. And lo and behold, she did it.

With Renaissance, not only does Beyoncé do a great job of honouring her own sound, which has been cultivated over the course of her own career, but she expands it. The end of “Summer Renaissance” doesn’t feel like an ending at all. It feels like a beginning. Like you’re standing on the edge of existence, with limitless choices lay before you. Kinda like that moment in Final Fantasy VII: Remake when you realise ‘Oh. This isn’t a Remake. It’s a whole new thing’. And Aerith is like ‘You’re all gonna help me rewrite a new future, where my ass don’t get shanked by Sephiroth’.

After an album like this, Beyoncé can do all but one thing. And that’s go back.

Beyoncé - Renaissance | © Parkwood Entertainment, Columbia Records

It took a couple of listens to Renaissance to click with me, but when it did, it really did. And I said to myself ‘THIS is the fucking album I’ve been wanting from this bitch for YEARS’. But then I thought about the artist that Beyoncé was at the point in time when I thought about wanting a Beyoncé album like this, and I don’t think she would have been able to have done it justice. So, Renaissance not only feels on time for the moment in music where club music is back with a vengeance on mainstream charts, and queerness is no longer this underground thing, but with where Beyoncé is at in her life and her career. At a point where she is not only surer of herself and less concerned with what others think of her, but in a position where she knows she is a force big enough to really make an impact at scale. But Beyoncé also realises that she is in a position to do things musically that not everybody could do, which is a big part of what makes Renaissance special.

Renaissance is right on time. And Beyoncé truly is one of one.

And for the record, this is absolutely, without a doubt, Beyoncé’s best album.

Verdict: I’m gonna give the Black gays everything they want

▪ Cozy 🔥
▪ Alien Superstar
▪ Cuff It 🔥
▪ Break My Soul 🔥
▪ Church Girl 🔥
▪ Virgo’s Groove 🏆
▪ America Has a Problem
▪ Heated 🔥
▪ Thique
▪ Pure/Honey 🔥
▪ Summer Renaissance 🔥