Beyonce’s ‘Renaissance’ Is An Electric Escape From Life’s Harsh Realities

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With her seventh studio effort, Renaissance Act I, Beyoncé is uniting us under a groove—several of them, actually—in the name of life, love, and liberation. Nearly 10 years after her surprise self-titled LP rewrote the rules of album rollouts, she rewound her creative clocks back, back into time by revisiting the traditional release approach, and through homages to the music of yesteryear. The past and present of dance-oriented stylings including disco, house, bounce, and afrobeats merge to meet throughout the 16-track effort, which is the first in this era’s trilogy.

Dance has been the heartbeat of music for decades. Renaissance offers sonic appreciation for dance-pop and disco game-changers like Donna Summer (whose monster record “I Feel Love” is the blueprint for the album’s fulfilling finale “Summer Renaissance”), Teena Marie (whose influence is found in the sexy “Cuff It”), and Grace Jones, who provides a rare feature on the dynamic banger “Move” alongside Tems. But more fundamentally, the project honors and reclaims dance’s Black and brown, queer and trans beginnings and attributes.

Since its mainstream rise, dance music has provided a cathartic release in times of trouble, especially for those who are typically “othered” in the eyes of society. Like most things, dance music has been co-opted by whiteness on a level that all but erases the historic Black, brown, and queer contributions to the scene. Beyoncé’s reimagining of the style allows for these legacies to shine through in ways they may not have been able to previously. (In a statement released prior to the album’s release, Beyoncé notes that Renaissance honors the LGBTQ+ “fallen angels” whose musical offerings went unnoticed, and her ever-stylish godmother, Uncle Jonny, who died as a result of AIDS-related complications.)

Queer history is nothing without the Black and brown movers and shakers who laid the foundation for its eventual larger-scale acceptance, and Beyoncé’s tributes to LGBTQ+ culture throughout Renaissance are similarly bold and beautiful. Nightclub superstar Kevin Aviance chants during the ballroom-themed standout “Pure/Honey,” while a drizzle of the 1992 single “Miss Honey” by drag legend Moi Renee brings listeners into the scene from where these figures ascended. Trans icon Ts Madison’s unwavering confidence is sprinkled into the Black-and-proud anthem, “Cozy,” which also features lyrics describing the Pride flag. The thick clack of folding fans—a sound that’s become a unifying staple in queer spaces—ripple through the end of the electric, Drake and Travis Garland-sampling “Heated.”

Personal liberation can also be unapologetically sexy. Given the euphoric sexual revolution associated with dance and disco clubs during their heyday, the flirty foreplay of “Plastic Off The Sofa,” the straightforwardly horny “Thique” (“sit on that, bounce it, bounce it”), and the climactic voyage “Virgo’s Groove” feel most apropos. (“Touch me, touch me, please me, kiss me, boy,” she begs on the latter betwixt impressive melisma and vocal layering.) Even as an artist who is relatively private, Beyoncé is not one to shy away from celebrating the appeal of sex, love, and the power they purvey in her discography. Renaissance is no exception.

The album is largely saturated with messages of love and calls for listeners to ignore societal perceptions in order to be their perfectly imperfect selves. Self-assurance rings throughout the sensual, retrofuturistic “Alien Superstar.” (“I’m one of one…I’m the only one,” she declares.) The dembow-leaning opener “I’m That Girl” also urges us to own our unabashed confidence. (“Please, muthaf*ckas ain’t stoppin’ me,” the voice of late Memphis rap pioneer Princess Loko proclaims throughout the track.)

Acknowledgment of Beyoncé’s Dirty South upbringing should come as no surprise, as the Houston native often recalls her roots. The twerk-ready “Church Girl” ties in the oft-used Triggerman beat and bounce pioneer DJ Jimi’s “Where They At?” The Billboard Top 10 hit “Break My Soul” samples NOLA’s favorite “Queen Diva” Big Freedia. In hindsight, “Break My Soul” is the ideal first single, as it encapsulates every aforementioned attribute of the album.

The timing of Renaissance’s first act is especially pertinent. Throughout American history, many female pop forces have reconfigured the uplifting sounds of dance music as a means of escapism amidst turbulent times. Madonna’s 1990 hit “Vogue” pays homage to the club kids of the then-growing ballroom scene, who experienced violence, the effects of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and politically-driven identity erasure in the post-Reagan US. Janet Jackson’s iconic 1989 album Rhythm Nation 1814 supplies listeners with energetic dance-pop and New Jack Swing tunes aimed at pushing positivity amidst racial tension. Bey’s M.O. for Renaissance was “to create a safe place” where people from all walks of life would be able to find and own the beauty in their uniqueness in lieu of chaos and societal ostracism.

Beyoncé is by no means the first artist to rework dance music for mainstream audiences (nor will she be the last). Yet, her ability to highlight the genre’s unsung heroes and epitomize what the style truly means for so many people allows for marginalized groups, in particular, to feel seen, heard, accepted, and (even if for just one hour), be at peace in their very own rhythm nation. Given the downright dreariness of the world today, there’s no better time than to be living life as out loud and authentically you as possible.

Renaissance is out now via Parkwood/Columbia Records. Get it here.