Beyoncé’s much-anticipated album—the first of a teased trilogy—Renaissance, has finally arrived. The project’s title literally welcomes a new focus, defined as an overall revival of art. Should all stars align, this project will usher in a new era in more ways than one.
Sonically, Renaissance is a careful study of dance music, reimagined for the times through the eyes and hands of a wildly talented and varied group of artists including Honey Dijon, Mike Dean, Skrillex, Tems, and more. It’s a buoyant effort born from a difficult period that only seems to get worse with the emergence of new viruses and regressive laws. But, beyond the confirmation that—as one song is titled—“America has a problem,” this project is a cocoon one can enter to escape. Throughout Renaissance, Beyoncé asks, or rather demands, the listener to tap into their own greatness. Moments of softness like “Plastic Off The Sofa” and affirmations like “Cozy,” make this project a much-needed momentary repose from a world in flames.
Not only does Renaissance expand Beyoncé’s discography’s range, it also takes us back to the queer ballrooms of the 1980’s where public expressions of joy and delight were acts of resistance. It’s a principle rooted in the politics of pleasure expressed decades earlier by feminist writer and anarchist activist Emma Goldman, who said: “I do not believe that a cause which stood for a beautiful ideal… for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy… Our cause should not be turned into a cloister. I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.”
This is what Renaissance embodies: It’s a call to move, and come together.
Following in the footsteps of her first solo track “Work It Out” which is funk, the cautionary track “Don’t Hurt Yourself” which is rock, 2016’s “Daddy Lessons” which—although rejected by the Grammy Country Committee—is widely labeled as a country track, plus a dip into dancehall on “Baby Boy,” “Break My Soul,” signaled a new endeavor, a dive into her own cocktail mix of a lavish strain of house. Conjoined with the rest of Act I, these tracks are a refreshing deep dive into the genre’s Black roots, a now-inescapable part of the soundtrack to our hottest summer yet.
Beyoncé, as she says on “Summer Renaissance,” is in her bag and experimenting effortlessly. So, why not take that energy a step further?
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When Beyoncé untethered from Destiny’s Child and began her solo career, the year was 2003—the second warmest summer on record at the time (an attempt at an early and timely resounding alarm that’s now not even in the top 10). It was also the year during which former President George Bush, in partnership with the United Nations, announced a series of initiatives and incentives to address global climate change 12 years ahead of the Paris Agreement.
As the UN was figuring out how to rally troops to serve the exceedingly critical task of preserving life on Earth, Bey was laying down the groundwork for her glorious career. A righteously selfish endeavor—and I don’t mean that negatively.
Now, nearly 20 years into Beyoncé’s introduction in the music sphere, a young, politically-aware, rightfully-activist generation expects more from leaders in all fields, including music, and what they do with their platforms. Celebrities are expected to have a level of civic consciousness and be active and vocal on crucial issues like social and racial injustice, reproductive rights, gun control, and climate injustice.
In other words, the politicization of celebrities and artists isn’t a matter of if but when. For Beyoncé, that moment began about a decade ago. And although Renaissance has been overwhelmingly described as a move away from the overt politics of previous albums, there is a radicality to championing pleasure in apocalyptic times. (It’s worth noting that the album is, in part, an homage to Beyoncé’s uncle, Johnny, who died from HIV-related complications.)
Renaissance is the perfect moment for the artist to expand on the scope of her activism with greater intentionality. When we return from the album’s rush of diversion, what do we come home to?
Living, acting and performing—on and off her LPs—as a Black woman who is now also a mother to Black children, her priorities are reflected in the themes that thread her work: namely, to elevate and center the Black experience (or at least concoct her version of its ideal). She does this by proudly honoring her roots and exploring her layered identities through projects like her 2016 Superbowl performance, her assessment of infidelity and reclaiming of one’s time and power via her first visual album Lemonade, as well as her second dip into the format with the elegant Black is King film. Renaissance celebrates the Black diaspora’s legacy and joy through sound with references and samples from the likes of Donna Summer, James Brown, and Kelis. The result is a sonic safe haven that, like much of her previous work, is loud and proud. Time and time again, Bey’s work exhibits an artist with a keen understanding of the zeitgeist—though not always risqué in depicting it in its totality.
She, like many others, is an artist who benefits from the role capitalism plays in our society and, consequently, in the ongoing, slow demise of the planet. It is that duality of being both aware of the system’s flaws—sung hypnotically on repeat throughout “Break My Soul” from the perspective of a character who is overworked and burnt out—and a beneficiary of that same system, which can sometimes make the art come across as out-of-touch. This juxtaposition is perhaps most evident in 2020’s Black Is King, which prompted African feminist Judicaelle Irakoze to write, “Black capitalism, Black imperialism, Black monarchies were never our freedom. And they won’t be even if we add Black faces to these systems. They will still oppress the Black community since they are rooted in anti-Blackness.”
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On the other hand, Renaissance is the perfect moment for the artist to expand on the scope of her activism with greater intentionality. When we return from the album’s rush of diversion, what do we come home to?
Beyoncé has singularly improved our spelling skills with the release of this album, so it doesn’t feel too far-fetched to say she can help lead movements of change that promise hope for the future of not only children like Blue, Sir and Rumi but all Brown and Black children of the Earth. Leading by example—with added mindfulness to how she invests and donates her money, runs her tours, portrays her community (there’s freedom in facing our truths), and educates her community—Bey can be the anti-capitalist, activist queen she plays the part of, and so clearly aspires to be.
Yes, Renaissance promises the revival of art, but also of joy, of freedom, and of community. After two years spent apart in isolation—and as she sings in “Cuff It”—these are the tools we need to “fuck somethin’ up.”