Renaissance, the new album from Beyoncé, had me cackling with glee from it’s first moments. The opening track “I’m That Girl” springs to life with an electronically manipulated intonation of “Please, motherfuckers ain’t stop–, please, motherfuckers” and variations on the same finessed into an irresistibly audacious rhythm track. To that, Beyoncé brings her trademark I-woke-up-like-this radiant confidence: “I pull up in these clothes, look so good/ ‘Cause I’m in that, hoe/ You know all these songs sound good/ ‘Cause I’m on that, hoe.” It’s the sort of fearless braggadocio that only a born superstar can pull off. Every boast — whether explicit in the lyrics or implied in the sonic stridency — is less an expression of aspiration than a casual statement of self-evident truth.
I’m a relatively latecomer to the cathedral of Beyoncé, but I brandish Lemonade like a holy tome of unassailable perfection. When it came out, I was certain it was the best album of that year. Although I don’t create decade-assessing lists for albums as I do for movies, I’ve no doubt Lemonade would top that personal tally, too. When I’m most thoroughly under its thrall, I’m inclined to imagine it higher on an all-time ranking than most would expect. This paragraph of exhausting context is meant to convey the simple truth that I’m destined to come to Renaissance still blinded by the afterglow of Beyoncé’s previous proper solo studio album (with, among other efforts, a live album, a soundtrack, and a collaboration with her husband in between), however those ghostly starbursts in my vision might affect me. What it comes down to, I think, is that I hear Renaissance as a fine pop album without the elevation that came from the channeled fury in its predecessor.
That’s not to say I can’t sense the ambition that animates Renaissance. I could be about the zillionth person to laud Beyoncé for the album’s wide-ranging exploration of different styles of dance music, and I can appreciate her continuing effort to make empowerment anthems that feel genuinely relevant to the moment rather than mere girl-power boilerplate, with advance single “Break My Soul” standing as the pinnacle of that. Those assertions would be accurate, but they also feel like they’re better made by those with more developed expertise than me, either in dance music and hip hop or in the emotionally fertile field of Beyoncé studies. I am better suited to reacting than analysis.
For instance, I can pile on descriptors that somehow get at what I hear. I can type that:
- “Alien Superstar” is dense, delirious, and expansive enough that having twenty-four credited songwriters is almost understandable.
- “Cuff It” smushes all of Janet Jackson’s disparate instincts from the nineteen-nineties into one gorgeous blast of sound.
- “Church Girl” is itchy soul crashed by slyly assertive hip hop.
- “Move” is pinging, punching, and potent.
- “Thique” is crisp and funky.
- “Pure/honey” is the sweetest-sounding version of raunchiness I’ve encountered in a long time, reaching back to Betty Davis with maybe a stopover with Beck in his “Sexx Laws” mode.
Those sorts of grasping explanations and comparisons aren’t all that different than what I always do when I write about music, I suppose. I just formatted it differently, pretending I was innovating to compensate for my own perceived shortcomings in writing about Renaissance. I feel humbler than usual in wrapping my response into words, sentences, and paragraphs. It might be beyond me. I’m still glad I tried.