Beyoncé Knowles-Carter has been a pop star for a quarter century.
Twenty-five years at or near the center of the cultural conversation is awe-inspiring. Pop music can be cruel to women artists, especially to Black women artists. Throw age in the mix, and Beyoncé is a marvel. So, after a quarter century in the spotlight – a career spanning the CD, digital download, and streaming eras – who is Beyoncé to popular music today?
Identity is a recurring theme throughout Beyoncé’s work. I Am…Sasha Fierce split her into two distinct personae: passionate pop songstress and carnivorous stage siren. Her two landmark albums, Beyoncé and Lemonade, explored her experiences as a new mother, scorned wife, and an unabashedly Black celebrant. The Gift, accompanying Disney’s live-action The Lion King, wears its Pan-African influences with reverence, as Lemonade did the Southern Gothic. She largely eschews the rigamarole that social media requires of her late contemporaries, so we only know what her music tells us. We know that Beyoncé is in a constant state of metamorphosis. She absorbs her life experiences to create the most perfect and authentic version of her public self.
RENAISSANCE feels like the completion of that continuous evolution. To borrow language from Akira Toriyama’s seminal Dragon Ball Z, RENAISSANCE is “final form” Beyoncé. I’ll admit the reference is strange: what do Beyoncé and superpowered aliens have in common?
Quite a bit.
Beyoncé’s seventh studio album follows a very Saiyan approach, building upon her past work to achieve a new, unique, astonishing power. “Alien Superstar” is an effective thesis statement of the album’s sonic intent. The song is a sultry, sweaty throb of heavy beats and boasts that advances the mysterious erotic charge of Beyoncé’s “Haunted.” “Move,” “Energy,” and “Cozy” could fit comfortably between “Find Your Way Back” and Tekno’s “Don’t Jealous Me” on The Gift. Donna Summer references are old hat for Beyoncé, but “Summer Renaissance” exceeds “Naughty Girl” by injecting a cocktail of harmony and ferocity into its sample of Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s masterpiece “I Feel Love.” The breezy ‘70s funk of “Plastic Off the Sofa” pulls at some of Dangerously in Love’s musical strings but fills it out with less yearning and more conviction.
The album’s external references are just as intentional. Beyoncé shared that RENAISSANCE’s guiding inspiration was her uncle Johnny, a gay man who helped raise her and her sister Solange. She cites him for introducing her to the music that informed the album’s soundscape. The album indeed embraces art and culture by Black queer creators. The lead single “Break My Soul” features New Orleans bounce artist Big Freedia in its joyous rejection of life’s troubles. “Pure/Honey” also samples queer performers Kevin Aviance, the late Moi Renee, and MikeQ. Legendary club icon Grace Jones lends her spoken word to “Move,” joining Nigerian artist Tems, while queer alt-R&B singer Syd co-wrote “Plastic Off the Sofa.”
Beyoncé reveres and respects but filters the samples through her distinct framework. She doesn’t let complex arrangements overwhelm her and doesn’t sound uncomfortable or false. She is so assured in her soundscape that she structures the album as a continuous suite, reminiscent of Donna Summer’s On the Radio greatest hits album or Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor. Still, the songs stand on their own and reject the TikTok-friendly lengths that reshaped pop music.
(I would be remiss not to acknowledge how “Energy” samples Kelis’ “Milkshake.” Kelis revealed on social media that neither Beyoncé, the Neptunes, nor their respective teams reached out to clear the sample. Kelis’ contract allowed them to use the song without permission. It is disappointing that no one at least made an overture to her.)
So, what is “final form” Beyoncé trying to say? At the core of RENAISSANCE’s Pan-African ballroom disco fantasia is a woman who knows she’s at the peak of her powers. Confidence is not new territory for Beyoncé, but its unbound, unbridled manifestation is. She doesn’t allow a song to pass without reminding the listener that she is the alpha, the beta, and the omega. Beyoncé is every woman; it’s all in her. She sings and raps on “Alien Superstar” with a dangerous, enticing smirk while warning her challengers not to try her. In past songs like “Flawless,” Beyoncé ferociously proclaimed her excellence. Here, on “I’m That Girl” or “Cozy,” she’s almost casual with it. She knows she’s winning, so why stress? She is pop’s Super Saiyan after all, having fun on the battlefield.
The relaxed, atmospheric conviction permeates every planet in Beyoncé’s pocket galaxy. “Plastic Off the Sofa” and “All Up In Your Mind” take her to the bedroom, where she indulges her fantasies and designs on her lover with abandon. “Cuff It” puts Beyoncé on a never-ending galactic roller rink, where she and her friends are determined to simply “fuck things up.” Ironically, in the six-minute long “Virgo’s Groove,” there’s no time to distinguish between the bedroom and the dance floor. Her fantasies supersede space, time, and reality, as does her self-love (“Thique,” “Church Girl”). No matter the lyrical, musical, or thematic circumstance, she’s in control.
Again, control is nothing new for Beyoncé; it informs every aspect of her art and public identity. With RENAISSANCE, she’s enjoying her hard-forged control. Her work still operates with intent, but there is a plush fluidity to everything, from her vocals to her productions. She unbounded herself from the music industry rules long ago, but now she’s testing how high she can reach. The cosmic, extraterrestrial themes that recur throughout the album are not coincidental. Beyoncé has conquered the world; quite frankly, the world is awful. With her resources and abilities, why not stake your claim amongst the stars?