Beyoncé’s ‘Renaissance’ Is a Radical Tribute to Black and Queer Dance Music

With each new incarnation, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter bends the world to her will. Since she emerged from Houston onto the national stage as a sixteen-year-old phenom, her work has continually metamorphosed to meet the cultural and sociopolitical moment. In its wake, it has disrupted the trajectory of pop music. As part of Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé shifted the sound of Y2K pop with empowerment-themed, futuristic R&B. Her early solo stuff sashayed from funk-forward soul to arena-ready Top 40 bait to eighties-styled synth-pop. With each release, she reoriented the boundaries of commercially viable music. The radicalism of her latest solo albums, Beyoncé and Lemonade, elevated her from pop superstar to generational icon, from chart-topping vocalist to critically lauded auteur. These albums took huge risks—personally and artistically—and established Beyoncé as pop’s most influential post-genre tastemaker. Over the past decade she’s collaborated with artists such as Jack White, James Blake, and Frank Ocean while experimenting with styles as disparate as Jamaican dance hall, New Orleans jazz, and new-wave R&B. She loves finding new sandboxes to play in, then turning those sandboxes into skyscrapers. 

Beyoncé’s seventh studio album, Renaissance, marks another paradigm shift. Throughout the record she threads variants of dance music to make one of the most invigorating pop albums of the year. She tries her hand at Afrobeats, Miami bass, and New Orleans bounce—styles and subgenres that together work to celebrate the totality of dance music across the Black diaspora. Given how proudly Beyoncé reps her Southern heritage, and how intentionally she’s woven her Creole and “Texas bama” roots into her music, you’d expect Renaissance to also pay tribute to Texas’s club and house scenes. Though not necessarily regarded as a dance-music hot spot, Texas boasts a rich and dynamic history of house and electro, and Beyoncé is likely familiar with this legacy. But even in the absence of a direct tribute to any Texas artists or styles, Renaissance remains grounded in a broader Southern cultural and creative lineage, wherein Beyoncé pulls from a handful of distinct communities and in turn makes something whole and singular, offering a unified vision for what Black joy and freedom feels like—especially on the dance floor.  

The recorded history of dance music in Texas is, shall we say, sparse. For a state with such an illustrious musical history, the lack of documented details for its dance-music scene is a bit confounding. How does Texas not have its own distinctive species of house or electronic? It turns out it does, it just happens to thrive in the shadows of warehouses and DIY clubs, local DJ mixes and alternative radio stations. In a feature for Resident Advisor, Andrew Ryce investigated why Dallas, “the South’s hotspot for underground dance music,” has “often [gone] ignored” and been “under-appreciated.” DJs like Cygnus, DJ Red Eye, and Gerard Hanson (a.k.a. E.R.P. and Convextion), among countless others, have made the state a force within the electro world. Before Dallas’s iconic Starck Club closed in 1989, it was home to ecstasy-laden raves and parties where DJs like Rick Squillante and Mike DuPriest played house, techno, and electro. Outside of the club, electro spread mostly through Dallas’s DIY scene and in communities of color. “Electro was just on Black radio here in [the nineties] and was very popular,” recalled Blixaboy, a producer and DJ. “The influence of that can be felt throughout the industrial, hip-hop, and techno DJ vets of the city.”

Apart from Dallas’s thriving electro scene, Texas is also known for sharing a bloodline with New Orleans bounce, a genre that mashes together hip-hop and dance music in ecstatic bursts. Bounce defined the sound of early Cash Money Records releases—check out any number of late-nineties albums by Lil Wayne, Juvenile, and Master P, for reference—and pioneers like Big Freedia helped bring bounce’s signature call-and-response chants and hyper-speed beats to mainstream hip-hop production. Freedia is even credited with creating the term “twerk,” which, I mean: come on. And anyone familiar with Beyoncé’s music knows how indebted her sound is to both Texas and Louisiana; as sociologist Zandria Robinson puts it, “Beyoncé rides a southern genealogy that traverses the Deep South from Alabama to Louisiana to Texas, back and through, with stops in between.” This amalgamation of cultures epitomizes Beyoncé’s longstanding mission of synthesizing and exalting the global, diasporic reach of Black art. It’s no wonder she samples Freedia on Renaissance’s lead single, “Break My Soul”—more than most dance-music subgenres, New Orleans bounce succeeds in pairing house and hip-hop in an unbreakable bond.

The global house-music boom originated in the late seventies, when DJs in Chicago and New York began reimagining disco songs with four-on-the-floor kicks, pulsating synths, and tinkly stock piano. In these communities, producers weren’t able to replicate disco’s expensive, sweeping instrumentation, so a more mechanical, electronic sound sufficed. Made mostly for and by Black and queer people, house music eventually evolved from an underground subculture to an international phenomenon thanks to a handful of pop crossover songs that charted in the U.K. By the early nineties, American artists such as C+C Music Factory, Janet Jackson, and Madonna began incorporating house production into their music, bringing a once countercultural scene to a mainstream audience.

Then came Robin S.’s “Show Me Love,” a song that Jason King, chair of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, said was the “moment in which house music and pop music really [came] together.” After its initial recording in 1990, Swedish producer StoneBridge remixed the song, adding a Korg M1 synth and a rhythmic propulsion to Robin S.’s fiery, cascading vocals. The remix soared to number five on the Billboard Hot 100 and soon became, according to Larry Flick, the former dance editor of Billboard, “the most ubiquitous dance song in modern history.” Here was a Black vocalist and a Swedish producer joining forces to make a song perfectly suited for underground clubs in Chicago, Detroit, London, and New York, or anywhere where people could move their hips and let loose amid a slew of sweaty bodies. Dance music’s inclusive, borderless ethos had officially transcended its grassroots origins; “Show Me Love” proved to be a prototype for how dance music could translate to the masses, and its influence is still heard across EDM, hip-hop, pop, and R&B

Despite its rapid rise in popularity and boundless sonic evolutions, house and club scenes around the world have maintained their role as underground, countercultural safe havens and spaces dedicated to uplifting and celebrating people of color and LGBTQ+ folks. Yet the genre’s fealty to local aesthetics is not as definitive as it was in the late eighties and early nineties. A DJ in Berlin can remix a song by an artist in Baltimore; a Jersey City producer can repurpose a synth pluck heard in a U.K. garage mix; everyone can use the Korg Organ 2 preset that “Show Me Love” popularized. While dance-music subgenres form and proliferate within certain geographical confines, the globalized appeal of house and club music has blurred the lines between standard genre conventions and idiosyncratic regionalisms. Perhaps this is why Texas can’t claim ownership over any individual strain of dance music—at some point, minor advancements or refinements in a genre can lack the totalizing innovation needed to create a new scene from scratch.

Renaissance doesn’t exclusively devote itself to any one scene or sound. Beyoncé runs the gamut of dance-music history as a way to both celebrate and reinvent within the genre. Songs here range from baby-making funk (“Plastic Off the Sofa”) to disco (“Cuff It,” which is what Daft Punk’s 2013 “Get Lucky” wanted to be) to electro-house (“Alien Superstar”) to techno-meets-trap hybrids (“Thique”). Even when they’re sampling Donna Summer and Danube Dance, the results feel fresh. The interpolations are inspired fusions between eras, genres, and subcultures. Renaissance nails the sweet spot between nostalgia and new wave, paying tribute to past trendsetters while also blazing a new path forward for pop music. It’s almost as if Beyoncé, before making the record, scrolled through the Spotify charts, scoffed, and sought to incinerate the algorithm with trunk-busting bass and Berlin-bred modular synths. If so, she called up the right people to accomplish her vision: A.G. Cook, Grace Jones, Honey Dijon, and Mike Dean, some of the most forward-thinking sound designers of the past thirty years. 

For all of its homage-paying and experimentation, Renaissance has plenty of nods to Beyoncé’s hometown-adjacent sounds: Dallas electro and New Orleans bounce. The first half of “Pure/Honey,” for instance, with its wide-angle kick drum and shuddering synth bass, could slot seamlessly into a Dallas electro mix, while closer “Summer Renaissance” pulls its melodic core from the city’s vibrant techno scene. And the influence of bounce isn’t just limited to “Break My Soul.” “Church Girl” features a soul sample, crisp drums, and a call-and-response section where Beyoncé repeats the line “drop it like a thottie.” But even when working outside of these two distinct stylistic modes, she finds ways to incorporate her heritage into the album’s DNA. On “America Has a Problem,” she raps some of the hardest bars of her career over a classic Miami bass sample: “Just know I roll with them goons, in case you start acting familiar/This kind of love, big business, whole slab, I kill for.” Her cadence and rhythm reeks of her Houston and New Orleans influences, a bluster indebted to the cities’ indelible swagger.  

No matter where you’re from or how you get there, Renaissance wants to bring you to the dance floor. It’s beautiful, really, how dance music, from EDM to Afro house, can compel you to move your body and bask in the momentary sensation of somatic freedom. But though Renaissance is undoubtedly an inclusive record, Beyoncé’s mission here seems more targeted. For decades, the dance-music community was built by and for queer people and people of color, existing on the fringes of society and often disregarded as an unserious, frivolous scene—a critique clearly grounded in homophobia and racism. This marginalization occurred in Texas, sure, but it’s a prejudiced phenomenon without borders. Now that bounce, electro, and house have woven their way more consequentially into the mainstream, it’s increasingly important to honor the communities who created and grew the scene. On Renaissance, Beyoncé does just that, managing to make something new amid a web of interconnectivity. 

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