background_fid.jpg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Revolutionary Fun: Why we can't stop talking about Beyoncé's 'Renaissance'

<em>Renaissance, </em>Beyoncé's seventh full-length solo album, mines a liberating history of dance music, from Donna Summer-sampling disco to modern Chicago house.
Carlijn Jacobs
/
Via Parkwood Entertainment
Renaissance, Beyoncé's seventh full-length solo album, mines a liberating history of dance music, from Donna Summer-sampling disco to modern Chicago house.

After nearly a decade of shifting the music industry with surprise drops and arresting visual albums, Beyoncé's seventh full-length album, Renaissance, emerged into the world on Friday in a way that almost felt traditional. There was a lead single, a properly announced release date and even a highly publicized leak, but the retro-leaning familiarity of Beyoncé's approach hasn't lessened the impact of an album that demands a deep decoding. Thick with references to dance music past and present and the Black artists who've built the genre, there's much to dig into on the overwhelming, energetic and well-studied Renaissance.

Can Queen Bey command the legions of listeners who follow her back to those sweaty, communal, utopian spaces that span decades of history and memory? NPR Music convened three critics — Ann Powers, Jason King and LaTesha Harris — to linger over the build and release of Renaissance and see how deep the dance floor ecstasy goes.


Jason King: The first thing that strikes me about Renaissance, Beyoncé's ultra-anticipated seventh solo album, is that it's her first full-length release I've listened to rather than watched since 2011's 4. Every other Bey event of the past nine years — 2013's surprise visual album Beyoncé, 2016's HBO-delivered musical film Lemonade, 2019's Netflix-assisted Homecoming, 2020's Disney+ tie-in Black is King — has been an immersive feast for the eyes as much as, or even more than, the ears. This time around, Renaissance's retro-'90s lead single "Break My Soul" climbed the pop charts without an official narrative feature music video. Beyoncé's no fool: she promoted Renaissance by way of a high-end fashion spread in British Vogue, and the tantalizing, slickly-rendered album art and photography. But I'm struck that she seems to want us to mostly hear her first—and all that implies.

Renaissance is a maximalist opus of 16 tracks that summon six decades of innovation across the sprawling multiverse of post-1970s Black dance music. It's Beyoncé, so naturally it's shrewdly calculated: There's Nile Rodgers' iconic chucking '70s disco guitar on "Cuff It;" the pioneering Chicago house of Green Velvet on "Cozy" (along with house music DJ Honey Dijon, who also contributes to "Alien Superstar"); the buckwild hip-hop banger "Church Girl" featuring a Twinkie Clark gospel sample served up by co-producers No I.D. and The-Dream; not to mention West African Afrobeats and South African gqom, trap and a whole lot more.

Songs start one way and then somehow morph into something else: "Pure/Honey" serves up 1990s underground New York voguing music (thanks to its sample of Kevin Aviance's "Cunty") before transforming into breezy Prince-esque '80s boogie. Samples and interpolations of the funk music past, paying homage to legends from James Brown to Teena Marie, abound in Beyoncé's expansive, quasi-chaotic musical Cuisinart. Even in the absence of Beyoncé's customary immersive visuals, Renaissance is such a barreling head rush of creative musical, sonic and lyrical ideas that the work of deconstructing and making sense of it is inherent to the album's coded power. Whether the results successfully cohere and do what Beyoncé seems to hope they will do — inspire escapist fun and transcendence in these grim times — is something to ponder.

LaTesha Harris: With a multitude of mirrors for light to reflect off, a disco ball is a space of infinite possibilities. Every glance offers a new perspective, a new world to disappear into. In late 2020, I predicted that Beyoncé planned to pivot to disco for her long-awaited solo seventh studio album based solely on the fact that her IG updates featured more power clashing fits. True to the clues, Beyoncé's sonorous new release is a power clash. Ambitious and experimental, disparate elements merge together with tracks starting in one era and ending in a different one.

As Jason described, Renaissance, the first of what she has called a three-part project, turns disco's infinite potential into a showcase of the sonic Black diaspora. In every refraction of light, a different genre is transformed and beamed down to the dance floor with the sole purpose of getting listeners out of their heads and into their bodies. What you said about this being the first Beyoncé project in nearly a decade we could only listen to start is so poignant. If Renaissance is the theme of the ball, Beyoncé is the house mother fussin' on the balcony, the queen on the floor serving face, the spectator snapping in time and omnipotent judge all at once. We're not meant to watch the renaissance, we're meant to go out and create it.

Ann Powers: Thank you both for setting up the question that's been haunting me ever since Beyoncé began the Renaissance rollout with the imperiously ecstatic "Break My Soul" and an image of her astride a glass horse, embodying disco decadence: Can Beyoncé actually have fun? Is that what this project is all about? She highlights that word in "Cuff It," the joyful Chic tribute that's one of the album's most instantly memorable tracks. "Have you ever had fun like this?" she sings with a softness that glows up the next line, the song's lyrical hook — "We gon' f*** up the night." Fun is what f**** up the night, what sets the established order on its head.

I'm distinguishing "fun" from "pleasure" here, and also from the work (it, girl) of providing fun to others. Fun is unpredictable and does not have a goal, even the bodily fulfillment pleasure offers: In queer spaces, the scholar Ben Walters writes, it is the sparkle dust that unites individuals: "Queer fun builds queer worlds." Beyoncé has long been a master and outspoken advocate of sexual pleasure, but even at her most sensual — think of "Rocket," which includes the line "I do it like it's my profession" — she's about business more than fun. Her command of the erotic is yet another product of her perfectionism, and if she gets mind-blowing orgasms out of it, that's her due.

Fun refutes the kind of perfectionism by which she lives, which is why I doubted her when she implied in her initial announcement that this project would be her entryway into it. Within her career, this child performer turned mother-mogul has embodied many virtues. Her impeccable work ethic complemented by her skill at maintaining an enviable work-life balance; her claims to power coupled with a steadfast commitment to mentorship and building Black-centered community; her visionary capabilities grounded in a dedication to craft — all of these qualities have made Beyoncé the formidable leader of an ever-more aspirational pop world. Yet for all the pleasure and catharsis she's offered her fans, Beyoncé has rarely presented herself as buoyantly free within her music. She works so we can enjoy her. So, accepting that she did feel as free as she claims while making this music, I am compelled to ask — what is the functionality of her fun?

Renaissance was designed as an immersive club experience, and despite the fact that it leaked two days before its scheduled release, it still commanded fans undivided attention when it hit streaming services.
Mason Poole / Via Parkwood Entertainment
/
Via Parkwood Entertainment

Jason King: On first listen, Renaissance seems to sidestep emotional confessionalism. There's no deep dive into protest politics, despite the loaded title of album cut "America Has a Problem." By any definition, that's a hard left turn for an artist whose 2016 Lemonade became one of the most politically trenchant and emotionally compelling works of art to emerge during a decade defined by #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo concerns. But Renaissance may be activist in another way: The album's driving focus on rhythm drove me — desperately — to hear these songs on a crowded dance floor in the IRL company of other dancers. I ventured Saturday night to a handful of New York queer bars and clubs to hear DJs spin selected album tracks (and in one club, the DJ just played the entire album in sequence). The electrifying beats and grooves did what they were intended to do: They summoned me to the nearest clubs, compelling me to shake off the isolation and silos I've become accustomed to over the past couple of years of pandemic Hell. Is Renaissance's mission of dance floor togetherness and social aggregation right on time? Or is it too early in its attempt to engineer the Roaring 2020s, given that we're still slogging our way through an exhaustive third summer of a global pandemic (and emerging viral outbreaks like monkeypox) and we're not out of it yet, no matter how hard some of us wish we were?

However you look at it, Renaissance is Beyoncé's Funkadelic moment, her Clintonian offer of a chance to dance your way out of your constrictions, to free your ass so your mind can follow — musical motivation to release your wiggle. It's telling that Renaissance wraps up with "Summer Renaissance," a key-shifting, deconstructed interpolation of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" — the pivotal 1977 track that helped inaugurate modern electronica and the current neo-disco craze. It's a brazen mic drop moment, a potent reminder that Black women — like Summer and Beyoncé herself — have always already been at the center, not on the periphery, of the past 50 years of electronic and dance music innovation.

LaTesha Harris: Beyoncé is generous to the girls who tore up the dance floor before her. Lead single "Break My Soul" shows love to Robin S. and Big Freedia, a New Orleans rapper whose work reflects a direct evolution of disco to hip-hop to bounce, and she snagged a feature from Studio-54 staple Grace Jones on the Tems-assisted "Move." She also doesn't shy away from the soulful aspects of house, rooting the genre in its Black origins as she replatforms it for the masses. The most notable stop in this extensive tour de flowers is Beyoncé's sampling of Moi Renee, a centerpiece of New York's underground ball culture in the '90s. The multi-layered "Pure/Honey'' is a masterclass, a nod to Mr. Fingers, and it even features a shoutout to Janet Jackson's 1986 funk hit, "Nasty" before returning back to the ball with Renee's "Miss Honey" — often considered the first bitch track. The drag legend's inclusion and replatforming on Renaissance makes the album Beyoncé's most explicit embrace of the support she's recieved from her longstanding queer audience. Shortly before the album's release, Beyoncé posted a statement on her website, thanking her Uncle Jonny who died of HIV-related complications in the early '90s: "He was my Godmother and the first person to expose me to a lot of the music and culture that serve as inspiration for this album. Thank you to all the pioneers who originate culture, to all of the fallen angels whose contributions have gone unrecognized for far too long. This is a celebration for you."

As much as Renaissance is Beyoncé's first electronic dance record, it's also her first solo rap record. Album opener, "I'm That Girl," arguably one of its more confessional tracks, delivers an homage to Princess Loko, an underground pioneer of Southern gangsta rap in the '90s. In returning to her roots as a teenaged music lover who grew up on Southern hip-hop, she has reinvented her approach to sound. Bey weaves trap elements, notably her signature rap-sing cadence as she delivers jaw-dropping bars, with synth beats akin to the bitch tracks '90s drag queens vogued to in gay underground ballroom scenes. True to her intention to honor hip-hop's legacy within the space of disco, on "Heated," a pop-trap masterclass that features the Queen at her most braggadocious, she brags, "Fan me off, I'm hot, hot, hot. Like stolen Chanel, lock me up in jail. Fingertips go tap, tap, tap on my MPC, makin' disco trap."

Ann Powers: Rap-mode Beyonce has long been her most playful manifestation, even as she matches any rival for wit and dexterity. That's extra true on Renaissance – I particularly love "Pure/Honey," LaTesha, not just for its nod to queens past but because her bratty, snappy delivery invokes Moi Renee's sharp, chaotic energy. By foregrounding voices like Renee's and Big Freedia's, who've been marginalized within a hip-hop pantheon grounded in traditionally masculine notions of virtuosity and strength, Beyonce also claims a safe space for herself. Like Madonna, who's returned to her dance floor roots many times to relax and rejuvenate, Beyonce is now over 40 in a pop field that barely tolerates women, and in this space she finds sustenance and affirmation.

When I first heard "Break My Soul," I honestly felt her voice was a bit lost in its swirling blare; but now I think that's the point. The internet chatter about Big Freedia's command to "release your wiggle" (and Beyonce's girlish echo, "I just quit my job and fell in love") being part of the mythical Great Resignation is off-base, in my opinion. This is about finding freedom wholly in the moment, in the provisional utopia a club can provide, and being rejuvenated so you can work — and fight — another day. It's instructive to recall the previous time Beyonce sampled Freedia, on "Formation," which along with its Katrina-themed video formed one of her most overtly political statements. A call to arms and to raised consciousness, "Formation" highlighted a Freedia line that reinforced that message: "I came to slay, bitch." Now, we're going on a decade of queer and BIPOC activism in the face of brutal challenge after brutal challenge. As the ACT-UP and Queer Nation activists who danced by night and raged by day knew, resilience requires not only fierceness but flexibility. Today's influencers call it self-care. "Break My Soul" resonated differently days after its release, after Roe v. Wade was overturned and new threats to LGBTQIA+ rights loomed. The wiggle it released in people was a soul adjustment needed to survive the battering.

Beyoncé herself does get loose, or at least looser, on Renaissance, in ways that differ greatly from her liberatory confessions on Lemonade or the highly strategic expressions of pride and empowerment that made Homecoming great and Black Is King and Everything Is Love more than just a soundtrack and a side project suggest. There are moments in the album's groovier songs in which she really unlocks her voice — I'm thinking about the dizzy soprano she accesses during "Virgo's Groove," the sensuality she favors over her usual big-swing balladry on "Plastic Off the Sofa," and that crazy melding with Summer's genre-shaking moans on "Summer Renaissance." It's key that the Summer sample jumping out of this grand finale centers on the phrase, "It's so good," the most scintillating utterance the elder diva makes in that song, an engulfment in orgasmic self-possession that's also open to another's touch. I like Beyoncé in this space. It feels good.

Jason King: For an album that's so focused on timing and rhythm, Renaissance is a late arriver to the Top 40 disco and deep house revival party. Beyoncé's stated mission to gift us with "a place to dream and to find escape during a scary time for the world" isn't all that far removed than the language artists like Jessie Ware and Dua Lipa were using just a couple of years ago to talk about their lockdown era retro-disco albums. And Renaissance enters the pop music mainstream just two weeks after Lizzo's Special: Her fastball disco-throwback single "About Damn Time" climbed to No. 1 last week. Given Beyoncé's conspicuous absence from the Top 10 for the past six years, Renaissance's club music approach also feels a bit like catch-up. But Renaissance distinguishes itself from the pack because it seems committed to disco (and the later styles it spawned) as politics, not just as sound. Despite the disco and house influenced pop delivered by black artists like Doja Cat, Victoria Monet, Drake and The Weeknd, much of the recent disco and deep house resurgence has been commandeered by white folks. Renaissance finds Beyoncé explicitly naming and claiming Blackness and racial identity in the context of the club music revival.

Renaissance, as Ann notes, feels invested in the politics of queer pleasure and fun. It's Beyoncé romanticizing LGBTQ+ worldmaking and the idea of the club as an immersive utopia of power and possibility. On songs like "Break My Soul" and "I'm That Girl" she draws on club music's claims to inspirational optimism (think of the hook of disco classic "Ain'' No Stoppin' Us Now" or the lyric to '80s deep house chestnut "Can You Feel It" by Mr. Fingers) and matches them with hip-hop and her brand of new-age self-sufficiency (" motherf****** ain't stopping me" is the album's first lyric). "I didn't want this power," Beyoncé confesses — but she's putting her celebrity influence (and money) to work anyway. It matters that she's doing so at a fraught political moment when queer-phobic U.S. legislators are introducing so-called "don't say gay" bills and misplacing their energy on canceling drag queen story-time programs at public libraries.

As LaTesha noted, Beyoncé is positioning herself as a student of club history and LGBTQ+ culture. Renaissance is the outcome of that educational crash course, as she gives dap to a whole array of club music founders and pioneers. Some might cynically call Renaissance virtue-signaling opportunism — but Beyoncé is wisely continuing to align herself with marginalized, vulnerable communities in a way that can only empower them. Renaissance, I think, could only have happened in a burn-down-your-closet pop music world that Lil Nas X helped build.

Ann Powers: Jason, I want to return to that question you asked at the start of this conversation — what does it mean to release music that compels people to gather, dance and breathe all over each other while the world remains stuck in not one but two viral health crises, one particularly affecting (and unjustly stigmatizing) LGBTQIA+ communities? Problematic, right? Except maybe not, because as you also wrote about Dua Lipa's breakthrough record in 2020, Renaissance is also a dance record that can be enjoyed in solitude. Or rather, in the strange communal solitude the collision of the pandemic and social media has made common.

With the historic surprise drop of her 2013 self-titled album, Beyoncé entered the supergiant phase of her career by rejecting standard industry practices, but these boss moves hurt her in one significant way: sales. As a thorough New York Times piece on the Renaissance rollout noted, she's found many other ways to make bank while also securing her status as a genius – "one of one," as she raps in the cybernetically fierce "Alien Superstar." But her chart numbers have dropped as her status as a groundbreaking artist has risen. With this album drop she's clearly aiming for old-fashioned chart dominance.

This plan could have been foiled when Renaissance leaked Wednesday afternoon, but the Beyhive's devotion or, perhaps, lack of access to pirated material had fans waiting to experience the album together at its scheduled arrival time. Midnight EST felt like 2 a.m. with your favorite DJ on the decks, for sure — social media platforms lit up like Saturday Night Fever's dance floor as fans let the album, which plays as one continuous DJ set, wash over them. Responses were predictably hyperbolic, with special attention being paid to the album's satisfying sequencing and fanciful transitions between songs; the veneration-through-sampling-and-collaboration of LGBTQIA+ icons and innovators; and dense layering of sounds within each track, which critic Jenna Wortham dubbed a "sensory abundance tank."

Some faves from my Twitter feed, mostly posted by other writers: Wynter Mitchell calling the album "impressively horny, as a 40+ woman very reflective of sexuality over 40"; Gerrick Kennedy hearing echoes of his youthful days seeking club-kid community in New Orleans; Akilah Hughes declaring, "All Up In Your Mind's bass is the Afrofuturism I dream of"; many, many people making cocaine jokes. (Vintage club culture loved white powder, in case anyone's forgotten.) The platform had become a Brooklyn roller disco circa 1978, pulsating with energy. "If this is what Beyoncé was doing up in the house all quarantine, LOCK US BACK UP!!" wrote the photographer/videographer and dancer Rhon Cameron.

Such a love avalanche may be expected when an artist with a huge, passionate fan base debuts a new project. Harry Styles, for example, caused a similar stan riot when his Harry's House first leaked and then was officially released back in May. But the instant embrace of Renaissance felt more like a watershed moment, a true melding of the real and the virtual. In this way, it reminded me of a similar event that took place just days before — venerated singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell's return to performing after many years, last month at the Newport Folk Festival. That surprise set, which showed Mitchell to be stronger in voice and spirit than many had assumed a 78-year-old still recovering from a 2015 aneurysm could be, was certainly bucket-list stuff for the crowd gathered in Rhode Island to hear her. But it resonated immediately with a worldwide audience through the videos fans and festival organizers posted of her singing and playing guitar. Countless fans posted accounts of weeping as they watched these videos, their outpouring of feeling as powerful as any account from the Fort Adams field itself. Though not designed as a hybrid event, Mitchell's return to the stage revealed just how central virtual experience has become within popular culture. Renaissance did the same, and more intentionally.

Opting for a traditional roll-out after shifting the music industry with surprise drops, after battling a highly publicized leak Beyoncé dropped her seventh full-length RENAISSANCE on July 29.
Mason Poole / Via Parkwood Entertainment
/
Via Parkwood Entertainment

Jason King: One night several years ago I was at a dinner with the late great cultural critic Greg Tate, and he riffed about how Beyoncé has never necessarily been a genius in terms of her originality — but rather, she's a curatorial genius whose magic is to bring together collaborators and other people's intellectual property into a unique artistic vision that is a sum often greater than its parts. Beyoncé's curatorial genius is part of the explanation for Renaissance's aesthetic sprawl and the sheer number of contributors involved (just reading through the credit list is a task unto itself). She knows how to solicit excellence out of her collaborators: That's why "Heated," her Drake collab on Renaissance, sounds like a better Drake track than most of what ended up on Honestly, Nevermind, Drake's mediocre bid for dance-music relevancy this year. Renaissance deserves to be considered in relation to other important culture-hopping, curated dance music albums like the ingenious 1997 Masters at Work-produced Nuyorican Soul. I'm even prepared to think of Renaissance as a document of historical black music research in the spirit of Quincy Jones' Grammy-winning 1989 Back on the Block.

Beyoncé's mercenary approach to curation can also rub some people the wrong way. Last week, R&B artist Kelis spoke out forcefully about her dismay in learning that "Milkshake," one of her 2003 hits with writing fully credited to The Neptunes — a song for which she claims she never received credit or compensation — was allegedly interpolated by Beyoncé on the track "Energy" without her advance notice or permission. While Kelis likened the sample to "theft," I suspect that Beyoncé did nothing wrong by the letter of the law: Kelis does not appear to be a copyright owner of the composition or the master recording. If the usage was legally cleared, and all copyright owners were contacted and compensated, there is no legal obligation to give the performer a heads up that their work is being used. However, sampling and interpolating — due to the still-troubling politics of music business and the extractive nature of recording contracts — continues to bring up ethical questions of who gets to shine and who remains uninvited to the party.

There's plenty to celebrate in witnessing Beyoncé use her curatorial superpower to give flowers and credit to the often overlooked OG pioneers of club music like Green Velvet and Kevin Aviance and her recruitment of current queer, non-binary and trans contributors like Honey Dijon. But what of other intrepid and alternative black artists of the recent past who've been serving as the default custodians of the same left-curve disco, house, techno and electronica Beyoncé is now putting forth? I'm not just thinking of Kelis, but also independent musicians like Ultra Naté, Aluna, Jayda G, Dawn Richard and Azealia Banks — none of whom get much credit for doing the musical and sonic R&D from which the club music revival mainstream is currently drawing its power. It's certainly not Beyoncé's responsibility in any way to include any of those artists in her vision of her own renaissance. But with great power comes great responsibility — and sometimes in using our power to illuminate and bring the distant past into the disco ball's infinite light, we inadvertently obscure what's right in front of us.

LaTesha Harris: I believe that in an alternate, less fortunate universe, Beyoncé never makes Renaissance. The first splinter from that world is the moment at the 2015 Grammy awards ceremony when her industry-changing and world-stopping self-titled visual album lost album of the year to Beck, and then again when her magnum opus Lemonade lost the same prize to Adele. It's no secret the Recording Academy has a race problem. At the same time, it's a truth universally acknowledged that Beyoncé and Lemonade are bodies of works unmatched in their cultural and political impact, sonic genius and ability to innovate the music industry. The question of course becomes, when a Black woman creates and releases two of the best albums ever made and the highest court in the land ignores her contributions, what is left to be done in a musical career?

Enter "I'm That Girl," the opening track of Renaissance. Beyoncé reminds listeners of her superior ability to create sonic magic before claiming in a low register, almost blase, "It's not the diamonds, it's not the pearls, it's not my man, it's not my stance, it's just that I'm that girl." Here, Beyoncé discusses her inherent radiant light — she's secure in herself without material adornments. Her apparent denouncement of wealth continues with the complex line "I be beatin' down the block, knockin' Basquiats off the wall-all." The line transitions into "cleanse me of my sins," perhaps a suggestion that Beyoncé is at least reflecting on her decades-long obsession with wealth and materialism. She even states, as Jason mentioned, that she never wanted the power she accumulated in the past 25 years. "I'm That Girl'' finds B shrugging off the burden of reputation that the world has assigned to her and she found herself mythologized in. It's self confidence in the fact that even without the glamor and recognition, she's still that girl.

This is all to say, I think that after experiencing two of the most egregious snubs back to back, Beyoncé decided to switch it up. It didn't matter how perfectly she curated her image, it didn't matter how meticulous she was with her work ethic, it didn't matter how much blood, sweat and tears she shed, someone could always deny her flowers. The way I see things, Beyoncé announced her retirement as Beyoncé the careerist with Homecoming (she did indeed "quit her job" as she claimed on "Break My Soul") and evolved into Beyonce the executive producer and sonic curator. The live performance, studio album and documentary three-punch combo delivered the final word on her status as the world's greatest living entertainer. In the 2019 Netflix documentary, she discussed the toll she put her body through after a difficult pregnancy with her twins. Reflecting on her return to the stage, she remarked that she pushed herself more than she knew she could and learned the valuable lesson: "I will never never push myself that far again." With that promise to herself, she ascended to the experimental space of executive producer. And now she's blessed us with a maximalist dance-electronic album, and Beyoncé the music enthusiast samples everything from Chicago house, Jamaican dancehall, riddim, classic '70s disco, EDM, '80s synth-pop and related Detroit techno to create a pastiche of Black contributions. Even better, Beyoncé not only pays homage but reaches forward to collaborate with a variety of Black, and often queer, voices. It's a complete deconstruction of Beyoncé as we've come to know her; a liberation from perfection and expectation welcomes a refreshing jumpstart to her already wildly exciting career.

Renaissance finds Beyoncé explicitly naming and claiming Blackness and racial identity in the context of the club music revival.
Carlijn Jacobs / Via Parkwood Entertainment
/
Via Parkwood Entertainment

Ann Powers: LaTesha, your imagined post-Grammy snubs trajectory for our tireless self-made sovereign intrigues. I don't see any evidence, though, that Beyonce has abandoned her old self. If anything, she's doubled down on certain tropes that by now are starting to feel a bit worn. "It should cost a billion to look this good, but she make it easy like she got it," from "Pure/Honey," is basically "I woke up like this" from "Flawless"; "comfortable in my skin" from "Cozy" has her yet again "feelin' myself." If she really wanted to release her job, she wouldn't have made a solo album at all, much less three, and certainly not one steeped like tea in references to her unquenchable hunger for wealth and luxury. The diversification of her portfolio benefits her as a veteran artist who can't necessarily count on the love of the kids who've always made hit singles huge; the artwork for Renaissance proves that she's also willing to work like hell to preserve her youthful form. She is a mom now, in reality and in the pop imaginary – as you say, the mother of the dream House of Deréon this album constructs. But the power she projects remains grounded in ideas of both sexuality and music games that require top-flight training and an athlete's body to begin with.

That body costs money. The hottest debates I'm seeing now that Renaissance is in the world involve Beyonce's relationship to capitalism: Does she have the right to align herself with underground cultures when her family empire remains firmly in the one percent? That question echoes another in the news, about the exorbitant ticket prices for working man's hero Bruce Springsteen's current tour. My view of this is, pop stars are gonna pop star. They're never really like us. Like Springsteen, the Carters are more like the post-presidency Obamas with their the major book and streaming network deals; like all wealthy people they've been elevated and transformed by a system that inevitably affects whatever progressive values they had coming into the game. In my view, the pendulum swings between stan worship of these people and straw-person arguments against them narrows our understanding of them, and of the cultures they help shape.

Jason King: I keep returning to Beyoncé's mission statement in which she says she made this album during the pandemic and she made it as a place to be "free of perfectionism and overthinking. A place to scream, release, feel freedom." I can't speak to Beyoncé's creative process during the making of the album. But I don't hear any moments of mistake, failure, imperfection or anything else even failure-adjacent. Just the opposite: Renaissance sounds bold, confident, precise, and immaculate. It slays!

I can appreciate that the album's focus on bodily freedom and transcendent release on a dance floor is where Beyoncé's revitalized creative freedom reveals itself. I'm just not sure I hear the freedom from perfection in the way you two might be hearing it. Renaissance's highly creative, intentional sequencing is an example of peak Beyoncé flawlessness. She wants us to listen to the album in a linear way, and that's been perfectly designed/engineered into the song sequence itself. The original intent of seamless sequencing and beatmatching in disco — one of the genre's great innovations, by the way — was that dancers would never have a reason to stop moving.

Renaissance is Beyoncé at her loca-motion best: The kinetic album seems to rarely let up or stop, or take a break. It's bursting over with musical and sonic and lyrical details and ideas. (Palette cleanser "Plastic on the Sofa" is the closest the album comes to dulcet Quiet Storm vibes, though the bass line is bustling and the outro vamp trades calmness for showy melismatic runs). On repeat listens, and after hearing it this weekend blasting out of nightclub speakers, the one thing Renaissance may be missing is attention to varied musical dynamics (much, though not all, of the album is pitched at a kind of unrelenting fortissimo) and negative space. Though Renaissance references classic disco and house, it doesn't have much use for those genres' tried-and-true toolboxes: There's no tension-releasing four on the floor breakdowns on this album, no suspense-generating instrumental stretches and few exhale-delivering pianissimo colors or diminuendo moments. (The metaphor of Beyoncé refusing to have a breakdown during her pandemic album is not lost on me).

For all its wondrous immersive power, Renaissance is not an album that breathes all that much. I've often thought that lack of negative space in music production can sometimes be a sign of perfectionism and anxiety — not relief from it. Teena Marie — who is interpolated not once but twice on Renaissance — is one of my favorite musicians, and she made some of the most indelible disco and R&B. She didn't always leave room for "down time" in her full-throttle arrangements to hit songs like "It Must Be Magic" or "Square Biz." I think of them as classics for sure, but busy classics. Excess may be Renaissance's core power: "more is more" is one of the ways that Beyoncé continues to superserve her ultraloyal fans. But the album might have benefitted from more diversity in its musical dynamics and approach to tempo intensity or just a few more strategic moments of pause, rest or relief. It is an album that wants you to know how hard it is working.

LaTesha Harris: I want to push back on what Jason said earlier, that this album avoids politics. The first reason being that, in America, to be loud, Black and queer is always an act of defiance and Renaissance immerses itself in disparate Black sounds and bridges them for an enriching, joyful community experience. On "ALIEN SUPERSTAR," Beyoncé speaks through social visionary Barbara Ann Teer to celebrate the uniqueness and connectivity of Black art: "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. All of these things we do in a different, unique specific way that is personally ours." The second reason being that dance music always resurfaces in mainstream conversations during times of cultural and political devastation; there was jazz and swing during The Great Depression, disco during throughout the antiwar era and the EDM craze during the 2008 recession. As Jason mentioned, when revealing the album artwork for Renaissance, Beyoncé took to Instagram to write her intention was to create a "place to scream, release, feel freedom." What better place to scream, release and feel freedom than the ballroom?

"Creating this album allowed me a place to dream and to find escape during a scary time for the world," Beyoncé wrote in a statement about recording RENAISSANCE.
Mason Poole / Via Parkwood Entertainment
/
Via Parkwood Entertainment

The thing is, the ballroom — a space where much of Renaissance pulls inspiration in visuals, ambience and sonic cues from — is where you go when you're alone, when you're lost and want to be found. Specifically, the culture began as a safe space for Black and brown queer and transgender youth to express themselves and provide for themselves. Often homeless after being rejected from their biological family, queens could seek asylum in the arms of a house mother, perform for their meals and keep and rejoice in community. After nearly three "scary" — a severe understatement — years of disconnection and isolated solitude, it makes sense that the most prolific producer of pop music would take her fans to a glittery, liberatory dance floor. Regardless of era, the difference between the queen voguing on the runway and Queen B herself is, of course, multitudinous. The pandemic was the first time everyone felt flattened by the same institutional failures and Beyonce's response to that equalization is to engineer a homage to a culture and people that is still around and actively struggling to create space in the music industry.

To further complicate the mix, Beyoncé declares that her life is an un-American one in "I'm That Girl." When we consider Beyoncé, the billionaire who earlier this year crossed a picket line to attend her husband's annual Oscars Gold party at the Chateau Marmont, I can't think of anything more American than capitalism. When we consider Beyoncé the newfound drag king, camouflaged under the disco lights and ever changing throughout her homage to '90s ball culture, she ushers in a renaissance of club hedonism as it directly opposes America's capitalist ideals of productivity — those who spend sundown to sunup getting their life under neon lights are defective cogs, who are shunned and discarded examples of what not to be. "We don't need the world's acceptance," B claims in "Plastic Off the Sofa." Even though she's most likely alluding to her high-profile relationship with Jay-Z, the line echoes the thematic driving force of Renaissance: personal satisfaction. While Beyoncé's indulgence in personal satisfaction is a siren song seducing us to the dance floor for our own, it's imperative we keep the future of our collective wellbeing in mind. The album can lift us to do the work, carry us through the hardships as Black liberatory music always has, but the task requires consciousness and focus.

That task exists within the context of being permanently plugged in to bad news — we're in a recession, the Roe v. Wade decision dampens the fun of "actin' hella thotty," two pandemics prevent people from sweating their ass off in the clubs and gas costs way too much to be leaving the house like that anyways. There are also record-breaking heat waves, an average of 11 mass shootings per week since the beginning of the year and little girls have to travel across state lines for abortions as war rages on in Ukraine and Palestine. Renaissance is a dance masterpiece, but its release in this moment is futile. Yes, our zombified corpses have been given an electrical shock to their infinitely eroding systems: It is not a sustainable one. Beyoncé has released an ideal escapism record based on individual pleasure in a time when it's more beneficial for us to be present, critical and demanding. In an offline conversation, Jason mentioned that Renaissance is a romanticization of the club, and I can't agree more. More myth than reality, Beyoncé's club is a place of escapism that no one can ethically reach.

Ann Powers: At a certain point Beyonce became the kind of star who mines her personal experiences for lyrical and other kinds of inspiration. On Renaissance, however, personal expression seems secondary — the most potent lyrical lines echo the archetypal fierceness of those ballroom house mothers and disco divas she means to celebrate or the women rappers, like Megan Thee Stallion, with whom she now feels aligned. Women in dance music have struggled against being turned into essences floating across the soundscape, sometimes not even receiving name acknowledgment on the tracks powered by their voices. That would never happen to Beyoncé, but in celebrating the dance floor realm of glitz and glamor, she definitely leans into the archetypal here, and away from the no-makeup Beyoncé that woke up on Beyoncé and changed pop.

We now know that this album is part of a trilogy, and it's likely that the other two entries in the series will enter different worlds that she seeks to both honor and conquer. Hints about a country collection have been dropped, and I'd welcome a whole set of "Daddy Lessons" to support and further the cause championed by current Nashville change-makers like Mickey Guyton and the Black Opry crew, to restore the African-American foundations of that most unnaturally segregated music genre. Maybe she'll even offer some protest songs; while I hear you, LaTesha, on the framing of this album as political, I'd still like for Beyoncé to use her enormous symbolic power to intervene more directly, if only inspirationally, during this desperate political time. As for release number three — LaTesha, when we were texting back and forth you playfully proposed that she might go classical. Why not? Beyoncé loves nothing more than a ridiculously difficult challenge, and following in the footsteps Aretha Franklin laid down connecting R&B queendom to operatic divatude would not be out of character.

One of Beyoncé's greatest accomplishments has been to prove that the white supremacist notion that genius resides most authentically in the individual brains and voices of mostly male authors — the Shakespeare standard, the Dylan paradigm — is false. On Renaissance, the spirit of great American music is really grounded in the African diasporic legacies that put collaboration first, consider interpolation and sampling primary aspects of composition, valuing the supposedly frivolous goal of making people feel good and get loose above any puffed-up idea of "serious art." And that our bodies, free and feeling themselves, are the treasure houses of our souls. As I listened to Renaissance this weekend, my partner, enjoying it on headphones nearby, noted that another era-defining musician also made sweeping song suites like this one. He was talking about Duke Ellington. That genius once famously argued that musicians who don't dance can't really understand music, because they can't feel the beat in their bodies. "I used to be a pretty fine dancer myself, at one time," he said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.
LaTesha Harris is NPR Music's editorial assistant. A relentless jack-of-all-trades, she takes turns writing, editing and producing music coverage. Invested in the culture behind pop, hip-hop and R&B, her work highlights the intersection between identity and history. Once in a blue moon, Harris moonlights as a talking head with no filter.