The textbook definition of “renaissance” is an artistic resurgence. Generally, it refers to the re-emergence of ancient Greek and Roman culture in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, or the Harlem Renaissance, a revival of African American art and culture in the 1920s and 1930s. The superstar Beyoncé‘s seventh studio album Renaissance taps into both of these legacies. Over the course of her career, Beyoncé has evolved from a centrist pop star who produces radio-friendly hits like “Single Ladies” and “Love on Top” to a pop star who champions her African American heritage and brings experimental beats to mainstream acceptance. “I might just be a black Bill Gates in the making,” she proclaimed on “Formation” from 2016’s critically-acclaimed Lemonade. On Renaissance, Beyoncé continues a resurgence of trap, R&B, hip-hop, and house music, ushering in a new era of dance pop. She also upstages the white connotation of the word renaissance, reminding listeners that shifts in the culture come on her terms.
Beyoncé’s 2014 self-titled album and 2016’s Lemonade not only marked a stylistic shift for the star but a change in how she navigated her life in public. Both albums saw Beyoncé making autobiographical confessions unseen in her previous work. “I’m not feelin’ like myself since the baby / Are we even gonna make it?” she asks on “Mine” from self-titled. However, on Renaissance Beyoncé returns to her signature empowerment anthems, which encourage confidence through triumphing over adversity, an inherent struggle that makes their dance-floor compatibility more rewarding. In “Cozy”, from Renaissance Beyoncé asserts, “Comfortable in my skin / Cozy with who I am / I love myself god damn.” Although this return to form strengthens the album’s titular theme, the tracks of Renaissance serve as their own history of Beyoncé’s career.
Since 2014, Beyoncé has given almost no interviews and made few promotional appearances. Instead, personal confessions come on her albums, ensuring that Beyoncé controls the public perception of her personal life, an enormous feat during the internet era, when paparazzi photos, rumors, and leaked tracks circulate like wildfire. Conversely, Beyoncé released the lead single for Renaissance, “Break My Soul”, over a month before the full 16-song album. This long-lead album release cycle, an anomaly during the streaming era, when short lead times and surprise releases are ordinary, calls attention to the fact that Beyoncé already did a surprise album drop, for her self-titled album in 2014, before it was popular. Now, she can deviate from strategies indicative of the streaming era at her discretion.
However, in another eerie echo of the era of digital and physical album sales, Renaissance leaked in its entirety two days before its release. This throwback made the album feel like a relic of the era it calls back to in an unintentional way that also highlights its intentional branding. “Break My Soul” scans as a traditional pop song in terms of its message and structure. Michelle Obama gave it a politically safe shout-out, saying, “I can’t help but dance and sing along while listening to it.” This acknowledgment proved the song accomplished its purpose of becoming an accessible product that would promote the album.
Although structurally different from her recent music, merely in the sense that it is a traditional verse-chorus-bridge pop song of about three minutes, “Break My Soul” feels predictably Beyoncé, with a cliched empowerment mantra as its chorus. The deceptively uninspired chorus increases the song’s palatability for a massive audience, serving as a necessary commercial anchor for Beyoncé’s first studio album in six years. It quickly became Beyoncé’s first top ten hit since 2016’s “Formation”.
Beyoncé is a capitalist pop star who entered the scene during the heyday of impeccably crafted Max Martin hooks: songs that embraced their raison d’etre as commercial products and encouraged listers to romanticize the grind of their own lives. However, the attitude of “Break My Soul” towards work culture, which birthed this genre of song, feels like a time capsule incompatible with 2022. At the beginning of the song, Big Freedia proclaims, “Release your job / Release your stress,” followed by a verse in which Beyoncé laments, “Damn they work me so damn hard / Work by nine, off by five.” It’s no secret that Beyoncé doesn’t work a nine-to-five job. It’s also no secret that she owns her company, Parkwood Entertainment. Considering that she owns the means of production of her enterprise, her proclamation for others to “release their jobs” feels like a rip in the fabric of the Beyoncé-empowerment continuum.
Amy Wallace of GQ once described Beyoncé’s brand as a “careful melding of the aspirational and the unattainable.” However, “Break My Soul” breaks the fourth wall of her performance, with her encouragement of listeners to liberate themselves from their employers only reminding them of their inability to do so. Although this proclamation feels timely during the Great Resignation, it serves as a reminder that Beyoncé is a multimillionaire whose music has traditionally served as a soundtrack for the grind. That being said, as a whole, Renaissance acts as a timely and astute portrait of a modern woman and succeeds in bolstering Beyoncé’s unattainable brand that also feels relatable and empowering.
In the opener, “I’m That Girl”, Beyoncé proclaims, “I been thuggin’ for that un-American life / Lights in these deep flawless skies.” Calling herself “un-American” is the closest she gets to a political statement on Renaissance, which draws a map for the album thematically. When she says, “Cleanse me of my sins/my un-American life,” she equates sinfulness with un-American-ness, implying that failure to conform to American culture is looked at with disdain. This framing allows each apolitical song on Renaissance to function as a political statement, as a part of Beyoncé’s “un-American life,” while celebrating the self regardless of affiliation.
In “America Has a Problem”, Beyoncé continues to avoid making an overtly political statement, instead, letting the listener draw their own conclusions based on the song’s circumstances. The song sampled at the beginning of this track, “America Has a Problem (Cocaine)” by Kilo Ali, lets Beyoncé juxtapose her lyrics alongside the specter of a larger issue. She says, “Your ex-dealer dope but he ain’t crack enough / I’m supplyin’ my man / I’m in demand as soon as I land.” Her lyrics take the presence of drugs in America for granted, using them as a backdrop for self-empowerment.
Renaissance argues that living your own life is the best form of protest, especially when doing so inevitably exposes existing inequalities. But this clash occurs naturally- it’s not the goal of the song’s narrator. Spending too much time engaging with oppression, even in protest, can become an inescapable burden. Instead, the central narrative of “America Has a Problem” focuses on Beyoncé’s sensuality, saying, “Know that booty gon’ do what it wants to do / Can’t hit it once hit it multiple.” Similarly, throughout the album, Beyoncé flaunts luxury brands and other signs of wealth, which, when employed by her, serve as symbols of empowerment.
Wealthy individuals in pop culture often show off designer brands as a symbol of prestige and accomplishment. However, Beyoncé benefits from luxury brands not because they endorse her, but because she endorses them. By showing that even the most powerful brands have something to gain from affiliating with her, Beyoncé boosts her already stratospheric profile. “Ivy P on my bag, double G’s on my dash,” she flaunts on “America Has a Problem”, referencing her own fashion brand, Ivy Park, alongside Gucci. Beyoncé’s ability to upstage establishment brands is the real indication of America’s problem, and she triumphed over it. Beyoncé challenges not only the gatekeepers of the music industry but of wealth itself. Elsewhere on the album, Beyoncé redefines empowerment on her own terms.
In “Church Girl”, Beyoncé recasts religious rhetoric as empowering instead of obligatory, conveying that devotion to religion and having fun are not mutually exclusive. She proclaims, “You know you got church in the morning / But you’re doin’ God’s work / She ain’t trying to hurt nobody.” “Church Girl” also continues the album’s streak of upbeat songs, which have the relentless catchiness, strong hooks, and seductive beats of any pop album that intends to dominate the Billboard Hot 100.
However, Renaissance doesn’t have strictly commercial ambitions. Beyoncé proves that, after two experimental albums, she can make a cohesive album of dance songs that isn’t beholden to market requirements. The seamless listening experience in which one song blends into the next implies the album is meant to be consumed as a whole, rejecting the streaming era status quo of singles dominance. “[People] just try to sell a bunch of quick little singles and they burn out,” Beyoncé famously said in her HBO documentary, “People don’t even listen to a body of work anymore.”
Renaissance is an artistic exploration on par with its title, however, the album also peels back the layer of media spectacle that surrounds Beyoncé. Through its apparent ambivalence to protest, the album doesn’t feel like a cultural statement. Beyoncé’s newfound disinclination to comment on culture signifies that she now is the culture. She doesn’t need to protest a status quo when she has so much sway over the status quo both musically and socially. Beyoncé has gobbled up genres over the years and regurgitated them in her own way, with her pop sensibilities becoming their new foundation, and her fame allowing her to control the narrative around them.
In “Alien Superstar” she interpolates Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy”, saying, “I’m too classy for this world / Forever I’m that girl.” Her repurposing of this song is an analogy for the influences of the entire album, which she incorporates and redefines in a mutually beneficial way- the artists sampled on Renaissance are sure to find their inclusion lucrative, introduced to a new pop market through Beyoncé’s reach.
In “Plastic Off the Sofa”, Beyoncé keeps up the album’s continuous flow while pausing for a moment of reflection. The intimate ballad addressed to a lover has a fast tempo, but sung over a muted electric guitar, it maintains a relaxed vibe. Beyoncé confesses, “I know you had it rough growin’ up / But that’s OK / I like it rough.” This autobiographical confession grounds the album while keeping her signature edge. Beyoncé is not only the vehicle for Renaissance but its chief influence.
Even though it maintains a fast pace, Renaissance remains above the fray of albums competing for the public’s attention. It can feature an upbeat track like “Cuff It”, which centers around a catchy, beat-driven chorus with soaring vocals that transitions into a foot-stomping bridge, but still accommodate a solitary listen through headphones just as well as radio play or other communal listening.
This versatility melds qualities of the streaming era, where individual preferences define the market and the era of Beyoncé’s emergence when radio play and dance songs defined popularity. Renaissance derives its meaning through its diverse soundscape, which, due to Beyoncé’s astute curation, becomes a statement about letting the music speak for itself. In an era of celebrity media oversaturation and political upheaval, Beyoncé focused on shedding light on a wide variety of influences, creating a revival of 1990s sounds in a refreshing cultural artifact. It looks like she didn’t release her job after all.
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