fri 12/08/2022

Album: Beyoncé - Renaissance | reviews, news & interviews

Album: Beyoncé - Renaissance

Album: Beyoncé - Renaissance

Musical life begins at 40 as Beyoncé lives up to the highest expectations

Beyoncé, queen of the world

There’s polarising discourse and there’s polarising discourse, and then there’s Beyoncé discourse. On the one hand, there’s “the Bey Hive”: the very model of a furious modern fandom who will boost her and monster her critics at a microsecond’s notice.

There are the commentators for whom everything she does is by definition profound, moral and important, regardless of any hypercapitalist excesses and hanging out with dicators’ offspring. And they're all buoyed up by a press so desperate for “access” that every profile is done with HELLO! magazine levels of management-vetted swooning.  

On the other there are The Haters. There are the wedge-drivers, driven by internecine pop fandom rivalry who wish to tear her down to raise their faves up. And worse, there are the legions of real music bores – of course exclusively men – who feel that their tastes in rock, hip hop and latterly house music can only be affirmed by howling that Ms Knowles showing some skin or having co-writers is the symbol of all that is shallow and facile in this world. 

These latter can be so gut-twistingly dull and dispiriting it’s tempting to join the side of the boosters purely to piss on their pathetic visions of authenticity. But all too often it’s been hard to pick apart Beyoncé the artist from all these tangles of signification, and for all the incredible video art, world-beating performance and radical production, her last album, 2016’s Lemonade often felt it was determined to be something to be revered more than loved. 

Not so Renaissance. This is instantly, and consistently, enjoyable before you get to any of the deep-and-meaningful stuff. And though it’s much more about the groove than the high drama of Lemonade, it feels more confident in itself. It’s hugely significant that where its predecessor had rock-press-impressing, serious, male guests galore – Jack White, James Blake, Kendrick Lamar – the only huge name co-vocalist here is Miss Grace Jones (purring a backing vocal on the Caribbean bounce of “Move”), while at various points there are samples or interpolations of other black women: Donna Summer, Kelis, Lauryn Hill. 

It's been called a house album, and there is certainly a steady kick-drum pulse running through it. But really it’s about a deeper black American and diasporic set of connections – so from the fundamental pulse, it expands into neo soul (“Plastic off the Sofa”, the kind of groove you’d expect more from Beyoncé’s sister Solange), booty electro (“America Has a Problem”), proper disco/boogie (“Cuff It”, “Virgo’s Groove”, “Pure/Honey”), dancehall (“Heated”, the narcotic sci-fi Skrillex co-production “Energy”) and super-queer ballroom beats (the devilishly great “Alien Superstar”). 

Lots of this is capital-I Important too, mind. Lyrically it touches on all the questions of race, class, gender, capital, identity and so forth that Lemonade did, with an extra serving of LGBTQ+ representation, sometimes with potent directness, sometimes with the subtlest of winks, sometimes in ways that really need puzzling out. But the absolute, radical, fearsome joy of the music comes first – in fact boosting the power of its messages, but allowing you to leave them to the discourse lovers if you want. By all accounts this album is the first of a trilogy of new music, all composed in the Covid era. If the rest is as good as this, then all debate about Beyoncé is over and she is queen of the world. But even just this really affirms her as a star as great, funny, switched on and compelling as Grace Jones, as David Bowie, as Nina Simone. It is her best album, a truly mighty achievement, and – yes – fully deserving of its title.

@joemuggs

Listen to "Summer Renaissance":

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