Renaissance doesn’t rise to the heights of more personal records like Beyoncé and Lemonade, but it’s complex deep house influence still makes a persuasive case for the vitalness of the artist’s current, curatorial era.
Dropping just over a month after Drizzy’s divisive, house music-inflected megamix, listening through Beyoncé’s sinuous dance record might provoke commentary like the text that another InRO writer sent me the Friday morning of Renaissance’s release: “Is Bey copying Drake’s homework?” But let’s unpack that a bit. Drake’s tribute to his friend Virgil Abloh, the visionary late LV Artistic Director known early in his career for playing house music-heavy DJ sets, returns to the “playlist” concept the rapper-crooner fashioned for his 2017 project More Life. What was new on Honestly, Nevermind was that the commitment to a “seamless” listening experience extended to a more tunnel-visioned aesthetic direction — influences were drawn from hard techno, Baltimore’s signature club music, and some of the ballroom and Afrobeat that Drake has more regularly incorporated into his sound since More Life, but the constant is a compositional minimalism. The insistence on stripping back songs to just skeletal instrumental frames — with an ever-present, breathy Drake gliding over the beats and pulses — also goes some way toward explaining dismissals of Honestly, Nevermind. For one, “minimal house” isn’t typically the domain of “vocal house,” and only a handful of tracks on Drake’s latest (notably, “Massive”) mustered the sonic muscle of that deep house sound that took root in the ‘90s, and that introduced a heavily gospel-influenced vocal presence that Drake’s own whispery delivery couldn’t hope to emulate.
So did Drake really do much “homework” for Honestly, Nevermind? Maybe not, and in truth that’s the charm of what’s actually one of this year’s best albums: It’s less a work of calculated pastiche than coy experimentation, Drake caring less about genre reverence than exploring how he can meld the instrument that God gave him with these specific sounds and textures, locking in on ingratiating vocal hooks and melodies along the way. In contrast, Beyoncé’s dance record is nothing if not studied: A set studded with album credit-inflating samples or interpolations, like the instantly-recognizable snaking synth line from Robin S.’s “Show Me Love” (1993) that bolsters lead single “Break My Soul,” the flip of Teena Marie’s sparkling late-disco anthem “Ooo La La La” (1988) that spans both “Cuff It” and “Energy,” and the peak disco classic of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” (1977) that Bey lovingly pays tribute to on album-closer “Summer Renaissance.” Beyoncé is anything but a minimalist, and since at least the hard-reboot of her self-titled album/“visual album” in 2013 — which embraced a kaleidoscopic range of experimental R&B, pop, soul, and electronic subgenres — she’s approached her albums as canvases for intricate, musically eclectic, politically charged, and disarmingly personal statements.
Renaissance is largely another effort in line with that ethos. Opener “I’m That Girl” is at least as experimental and off-kilter as something like the beat-switching “Haunted” off Beyoncé (2013), with a looped, lo-fi vocal of the late Memphis underground rapper Princess Loko serving as the principle beat over which Beyoncé raps for the first part of the song, and later blending that sample into a denser mix of pounding bass and Bey’s own multi-layered harmonies. As with Honestly, Nevermind, the whole of this album can function as one continuous playthrough, a compositional integrity that’s built for the dancefloor. But some individual songs do assert themselves more than others: While the first two tracks on Renaissance hold back the bigger hooks and euphoric releases, “Alien Superstar” finally embraces the anthemic, with a chorus that vaguely interpolates Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” but that, thanks to some new wave-inflected synth lines, comes off sounding more like a prime era Prince single. The narrative of the song, which looks to transcend the emotional stress of the workday grind by elevating the uniqueness of those individuals under their capitalist cog cloaks, is quintessential Bey self-empowerment (“Bullshit we flying over”) with just enough of a twist to keep it fresh.
Just as impeccably crafted is lead single “Break My Soul,” though that wasn’t as obvious (to this writer anyway) when listened to separately from the song sequence that builds to it. Producers Terius Nash AKA The-Dream (who’s all over this album) and Tricky Stewart deserve a lot of credit for architecting what’s essentially an expert mash-up between the aforementioned deep house classic “Show Me Love” and New Orleans bounce icon Big Freedia’s bomb-throwing “Explode,” but at the center of all that is a stellar Beyoncé song asserting its own powerful agency, building on the foundational themes of hard work and perseverance established in the preceding song-suite by filtering Big Freedia’s anti-capitalism (“Release your job”) through Robin S.’s defiant demand for love and appreciation, and again landing on a message of empowerment that isn’t as platitudinous as it might at first seem. The next song is even better: “Church Girl” not only chipmunk-souls the legendary Clark Sisters, making an unholy union of gospel and twerk music, but it commits to the provocation of that juxtaposition, taking Renaissance’s “mash-up” project in a more overtly socially progressive direction by spinning a narrative about liberation from oppressive attitudes toward women’s bodies in a “Christian nation” by owning spirituality and embracing sexuality in one fell swoop. It helps that the song is both an absolute banger and a borderline spiritual experience itself, with Bey’s gorgeous vocal trills taking cues from the Clarks.
Renaissance succeeds on both the formal strength of its sonic collage and (perhaps even more so) on the underlying, emphatic timeliness of the message that emerges from the act of “reviving” / “revitalizing” a wide range of pioneering voices from dance music’s past and present. Beyoncé certainly deserves her place within that lineage, and she turns in some of her best and most charismatic vocal performances to date on songs like “Church Girl,” the second part of “Pure/Honey,” and “Summer Renaissance” by following the various muses (notably Donna Summer) that course through this music. That doesn’t mean, though, that Renaissance always escapes the pitfalls of pastiche. As a follow-up to explicitly personal statements like Beyoncé and Lemonade (2016), the reliance on the substance of others’ musical and thematic ambitions here does serve to distance us some from an artist who, even at her most diaristic, still can seem guarded, frequently ensconcing her candidness in some form of memeable branding (“Becky with the good hair,” “Monica Lewinski’d all on my gown,” etc.). And as someone who’s generally more partial to songs than vibes, I do miss the pop gravitas with which even 2019’s very underrated The Lion King: The Gift (and a better-sequenced 2020 “deluxe” of that soundtrack) absolutely bursted. That great album likewise set its sights on a sustained aesthetic experience — the colorful, rhythmic dexterity of Afropop, which not everyone, like me, will prefer to the worship-at-the-four on the floor altar that is Renaissance. Both albums, though, serve as very persuasive cases for the vitalness of this current, curatorial Beyoncé era.
Published as part of Album Roundup — July 2022 | Part 1.