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  • Writer's pictureIlana Kaplan, Variety

Beyonce’s Renaissance is cathartic, club-inspired masterpiece

Beyonce performs during ABC telecast of the 94th Oscars on March 27, in Los Angeles. (MasonPoole/A.M.P.A.S)

Six years after the release of Beyonce’s magnum opus Lemonade, the pop icon has come through again: giving us all something to talk about. The long-anticipated Renaissance (volume one of three) is sticky, sweaty, hedonistic art—flanked by a pastiche of genres that never lingers on long enough for the listener to get too comfortable.

It’s what makes the collection its own kind of masterpiece: beauty in the chaos. After the the grieving Lemonade, a project carefully curated around and steeped in Black womanhood and personal strife, “ is brimming with excitement and exploration. It’s an homage Black joy, queer culture, pleasure and the liberation of the dance floor. In the past, such exaltation brought with it glitter and a certain kind of white powder, but as Beyonce notes at the album’s opening track, “I’m That Girl”: “Don’t need drugs for some freak shit / I’m just high all the time / I’m out of my mind.”

Musically, Renaissance draws a throughline to Beyonce’s sonic collaborators, dance icon forbears like Nile Rodgers, Grace Jones, Robin S., Donna Summer and Honey Dijon. Her first single, “Break My Soul,” the thrusting house earworm sampling Robin S.’s 1993 club banger, “Show Me Love” and featuring New Orleans bounce diva Big Freedia, was the appetizer—a necessary balm and “hot girl summer” anthem to usher in the this new era. But it was also an ideal track to showcase the experimental, retro-futuristic terrain bursting from the album’s 16 tracks. You can hear the influence of ‘70s and early ‘80s disco as it melds with trap, soul, Afrobeats, soul-funk, thotty rap, hyperpop, dancehall... Prince would be proud.

And pride factors throughout Renaissance, which serves up a deliciously euphoric, indulgent, over-sexed ode to the Black LGBTQ+ community. Songs like “Pure/Honey,” “Heated,” “Thique” and “Summer Renaissance” nod stylistically to ballroom culture, an underground competition popularized in the 1970s, that emerged as a safe haven for queer Black and brown people to express themselves freely. Certainly Beyonce was intentional with who she enlisted and sampled for these tracks—the aforementioned DJ and Chicago house icon Dijon, trans comedian Ts Madison, ballroom DJ Mike Q and ‘90s drag star Moi Renee. The tributes to trans and queer ancestors, however, extend beyond the music. Fans connected that Beyonce’s styling in the project’s corresponding photos not only paid tribute to ballroom culture, but specifically to Paris Is Burning stars like iconic drag queen Pepper LeBjia and model and ballroom legend Octavia St. Laurent.

Another hallmark of the album is the playful way in which Beyonce embraces pleasure. The funkified “Cuff It” is a sexy supernatural anthem that recalls her sensual 2013 cut “Blow”—”I wanna go higher, can I sit on top of you?” she begs. Track titles like “Church Girl” and “America Has a Problem” serve as red herrings. The former features ethereal 808-sampled gospel and touches on her own religious upbringing, but is actually a twerk-ready rap anthem poised to take over TikTok with its signature line, “drop it like a thottie.” As for “America Has a Problem,” its slightly monotonous groove betrays the sass in which Bey lands the key line: “You can’t get no higher than this. Nope.” The teasing continues on two-parter “Pure/Honey,” which sees Beyonce taunt and seduce with clever wordplay as the song melts from vogue-inspired synths to exhilarating disco. “All my girls look so yummy, yummy / And all the boys want my honey from me,” she coos in a sultry lilt.

The closest thing to a ballad on Renaissance is the sensual “Plastic Off the Sofa,” a neo-soul ode to her husband that flaunts Beyonce’s signature feathery vocals. “I know you had it rough growing up, but that’s OK / I like it rough,” she says with a wink and a nod. The tone shifts ever so slightly on “Virgo’s Groove,” a dizzying disco romp in which Beyonce calls the shots —be they in the bedroom or on the dancefloor. Later, she gets full-on filthy on the techno-trap cut “Thique”with the lines, “He thought he was loving me good / I told him go harder.” Credit producer A. G. Cook for bringing the album to climax with the breathy “All Up in Your Mind,” followed by the Donna Summer-sampled album closer “Summer Renaissance,” where the pulsating Giorgio Moroder riff from 1977’s “I Feel Love” pairs seamlessly with Beyonce’s uninhibited vocals. “I’m in my bag,” she asserts on the track. Hov’s love, she delivers.

Beyonce hasn’t gone completely apolitical with this collection, however. She alludes to “voting out 45” and “Karens who turned into terrorists” on “Energy.” On “Cozy,” she builds a radical self-love anthem for Black femmes. “Comfortable in my skin / Cozy with who I am,” Beyonce sings. But mostly, she uses the hour of Renaissance as a salve for the dumpster fire world we live in—a rallying cry to find community and an urgent reminder to revel in the fleeting euphoria that surrounds us. She said as much in Harper’s Bazaar last year: “With all the isolation and injustice over the past year, I think we are all ready to escape, travel, love and laugh again. I feel a renaissance emerging, and I want to be part of nurturing that escape in any way possible.”

(C) 2022 Variety Media, LLC, a subsidiary of Penske Business Media; Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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