On 'Renaissance,' Beyoncé Demands Joy

The new album from the world's most revered pop star looks to the past—specifically the history of Black dance music—in an effort to survive the present.

beyonce renaissance
Columbia Records
Columbia Records

Joy is the message, if you want it.

On Renaissance, her most experimental and audacious solo record yet, Beyoncé traverses a new musical landscape in a quest for personal and collective transformation. In stark contrast to the raw, heady vulnerability of Lemonade and in direct conversation with the Afrobeat grooves of The Lion King: The Gift, Renaissance is an album about life, power, beauty, and hope after the storm. Here, Beyoncé immerses us in the mother beat of the dance floor (as producer Eris Drew once touted), cleaning us of our grief and strife while molding us into something healed anew.

Renaissance is part of a three-act project recorded during the past few years. In a letter posted to her website prior to the album’s release, Beyoncé described Renaissance as “a place to dream and to find escape.” Crafted during a moment of cultural stillness, she leaned into a dream of the past—her unremembered nostalgia—to envision a new future. If gyrating hips and sweat-drenched dance floors and glittering beauty and unshakeable confidence once pushed our ancestors forward, perhaps those things could do it again for us in the present.

She also points to her Uncle Jonny, her “godmother,” as a source of inspiration. Jonny, who Beyonce’s mother Tina Knowles-Lawson revealed on Instagram was her nephew, first exposed Bey to much of the music that inspired this record. Black and gay, Jonny died of complications from HIV. His legacy lives on in this music, but also serves as a stark reminder of the generation of queer creative forces who built the excellence of these sounds and passed far too soon. “Thank you to all of the pioneers who originate culture, to all of the fallen angels whose contributions have gone unrecognized for far too long,” Beyoncé later wrote.

On “Cozy,” a sensual and groovy track about self-empowerment and nerve co-produced by Black trans artist Honey Dijon, Beyoncé reiterates this idea by lyrically embedding the colors of Daniel Quasar’s Progress Pride flag in the song’s second verse. Quasar’s flag modernized the existing Pride flag to include the trans community and queer people of color. In a 2018 Facebook post, Quasar also said the new black stripe of the flag represented “those living with AIDS and the stigma and prejudice surrounding them, and those who have been lost to the disease.”

This is a record about making it through, a musical sojourn traveling the unparalleled legacy of Black joy, queer joy and Black queer joy in music. From funk to disco to house, R&B and Afrobeat, Renaissance is as much an auditory trip as it is a history lesson.

“Summer Renaissance,” which includes a sample of the late, great Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” is a bouncy disco delight. “Virgo’s Groove,” one of the strongest and longest songs on the record, is a carnal, funky beauty reminiscent of '80s Earth, Wind & Fire. “Heated,” co-written by Drake, taps into the contemporary popularity of Afrobeat that served as the foundation for Beyonce’s last release, the 2019 collaborative album The Lion King: The Gift.

While each track is distinct in scope, none feel out of place on the record as a whole. That's because if we are to consider Black music as an ongoing story of our pain, our glory, our hope, then songs of disparate Black-created genres can work together and sound complete. We see this again in “Church Girl,” which samples gospel group The Clark Sisters’ “Center Thy Will” but then transitions into a NOLA bounce-esque ditty about letting loose while staying spiritually faithful. It’s a sentiment all too familiar to the southern Black women Beyoncé speaks to and the southern Black woman Beyoncé is.

In short, Renaissance has produced some of Beyonce’s strongest songs ever. “Alien Superstar,” the second song on the record produced by Honey Dijon, is undoubtedly one of her catchiest, loveliest, most profound tracks. Like the title suggests, the song invokes something otherworldly in its construction, drifting from the propulsive synths of its beginning into a chorus (interpolating Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy”) that sparks magic in the ear. It is one of the most un-Beyoncé songs on the record—more dreamy and celestial than her signature ferocity—and yet it is impossible to imagine any other artist capable of gliding along the twists and turns of its production. “I'm one of one, I'm number one, I'm the only one / Don't even waste your time trying to compete with me,” she sings on the chorus—and you believe it.

“Pure/Honey,” the penultimate song on Renaissance, extracts a similar mood. It's easily the heart of the album. “Pure/Honey” is where the story of Renaissance—its dedication to queer artists of the past and present, its invocation of Black joy through music, its true zest for the possibilities of life—is actually told. It’s a song with heft, with something to say. It’s a tour de force of Black artistry and a sonic triumph. Complex, imaginative, and intelligent, “Pure/Honey” is a music nerd, house head and club queen’s dream. With perfect samples rooted throughout (including drag queen Kevin Aviance’s “Cunty,” MikeQ’s “Feels Like,” and Mr. Fingers’ groundbreaking house classic “Mystery of Love”), “Pure/Honey” wants the listener to understand and revel in its history.

And then, before listeners have a chance to dive too deep into its ballroom glamor, the song glides into something funkier and sweet. Featuring samples of Moi Renee’s “Honey” and a chorus that sounds like a melding of Prince’s “Controversy” and “I Feel for You,” the second half of the track soars to new heights. Its only fault is that it doesn’t keep going. “Pure/Honey” sounds like it could last forever, pushing the listener into new, fantastic aural territory.

There is power in art, in music. And albums, as an art form, are a vessel of delivery. Each track on Renaissance slips into the next, a direct affront to the shuffle-heavy, playlist-driven culture of music consumption today. Beyoncé, who redefined the music video with her last two albums, has released no music videos (yet) to accompany any of the tracks, including lead single “Break My Soul." Instead, she has released simple, colorful lyric videos, arguably emphasizing the content of the music itself. There are no distractions, no starts and stops, no interference here.

I can’t help but think of the late Prince, a clear influence on Renaissance, who once used tracks like “Diamonds and Pearls” to tout love as “the master plan.” On Renaissance, a similar message—love of self, love of others, love of possibility, love of resilience—may be the bedrock. “My intention was to create a safe place, a place without judgment, a place to be free of perfectionism and overthinking. A place to scream, release, feel freedom,” Beyoncé wrote in her letter. Soak it in. Keep going. Enjoy.

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Britt Julious is a born and bred Chicagoan with a love of dance floors and cider. Follow her witticisms and criticisms @britticisms.