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‘Renaissance’: Beyoncé on the dance floor

Beyoncé’s seventh studio album, ‘Renaissance’, is a joyous ode to underground club culture

Her new record is a love letter to the best black dance music scenes.
Her new record is a love letter to the best black dance music scenes.

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It’s nice to know that I am not the only one who spent much of the pandemic pining for the dance floor, chasing that very specific dopamine hit that comes from being in the middle of a crowd of sweaty bodies, rolling faces and strobe-lit clouds of dry-ice fog. Beyoncé missed it so much that her latest record, Renaissance—her seventh studio album, and the first since 2016’s internet-breaking Lemonade—is a love letter to the best black dance music scenes from the last quarter of the 20th century.

Deploying the same curatorial powers that made Lemonade an art-pop tour de force about black womanhood and the aftermath of slavery, Beyoncé pulls together strands from disco, Chicago house, Detroit techno, New Orleans bounce and trap music to craft a joyous ode to the dance halls, ballrooms and kiki-houses of underground club culture.

The club is not a new arena for Beyoncé, whose reign on the dance floor dates back to her Destiny’s Child days (remember Bootylicious?) and who introduced us to edgy, club-ready alter ego Sasha Fierce all the way back in 2008. On Renaissance, she goes all-in. There are no ballads—even its most relaxed soul cut, Plastic Off The Sofa, bounces along at a solidly upbeat tempo—and the 16 songs are connected by neat little interstitial segues, more like a DJ set than a collection of discrete tracks. And despite the painstaking attention to detail attested to by the record’s 170-odd songwriting credits, Renaissance never loses its sense of ecstatic spontaneity as it barrels through decades of dance-music subcultures, propelled by a jet fuel mixture of left-field beats and black joy.

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“My intention was to create a safe place, a place without judgment (sic),” Beyoncé wrote in a little note accompanying the album on her website. “A place to be free of perfectionism and overthinking. A place to scream, release, feel freedom.” And every second of the record’s 62 minutes is a playful exploration of that release in its many manifestations—whether it’s the 1990s-house euphoria of lead single Break My Soul, the Sunday stomp of Church Girls or the f***-you strut of Right Said Fred-interpolating cosmic ballroom anthem Alien Superstar. After two records that focused on the cerebral—issues of race, gender, contemporary politics—Beyoncé turns her attention back to the body with an almost lascivious hunger (or as Pitchfork’s Julianna Escobedo Shepherd put it, Bey has never been this horny in public).

But just because Renaissance isn’t a sociopolitical record in the same vein as Lemonade or “Beyoncé” doesn’t mean it isn’t a political record. It is one, in the same way that the dance floor is a politically charged space: a historical safe space where marginalised and vulnerable people can build community, express themselves without judgement and just feel good for a few hours. In particular, Beyoncé and her team of songwriters and producers—which includes mainstream mainstays like The-Dream and Mike Dean and left-field hookups like AG Cook and Skrillex—align themselves with black queer and trans dance artists, through the sounds they sample and celebrate and the artists they collaborate with.

So Cozy—a grimy, propulsive house track about feeling comfortable in your skin—samples its bassline from Chicago DJ Lidel Townsell and hip hop group M.T.F.’s 1992 cut Get With U, and features contributions by two black trans artists: Chicago house producer Honey Dijon and actor Ts Madison. Alien Superstar not only successfully interpolates lyrics from Right Said Fred’s 1991 Europop cult hit I’m Too Sexy but also samples deep house proto-pioneer Foremost Poets and references vogueing and queer ballroom culture (which pops up often elsewhere too). And the Afrobeat-meets-house cut Move even features a rare spoken-word cameo by Studio 54 and new-wave icon Grace Jones.

Elsewhere, A.G. Cook and Lady Gaga producer BloodPop cook up a glitchy deconstructed techno soundscape for Beyoncé to strut her stuff, her voice rough with playful desire as she promises to “make you mine”. And then there’s the glorious Pure/Honey, with its opening invocations of “Cunt to the feminine, what!” (a vocal sample by ball commentator and musician Kevin Jz Prodigy) and generous sampling of iconic club tracks by drag icons like Kevin Aviance and Moi Renee. With its sublimely swelling synths and hindbrain-attack rhythm, the song combines the illicit thrills of house and vogue with the cinematic melodies and shiny glamour of disco.

The album ends with Summer Renaissance, a nod to one of the most iconic club tracks of all time—Donna Summer and Giorgo Moroder’s disco-synth phenomenon I Feel Love. With its lyrics about dance-floor romance and the power of the club, the song feels like the apotheosis of Beyoncé’s creative renaissance—dance music’s past, present and future brought together in a conversation that finally centres its transgressive, trail-blazing pioneers. With label promotions and a leaked online store blurb describing the album as the “Act I” of a supposed trilogy, it appears that at 40, Beyoncé is embarking on her most ambitious, edgy and fun album cycle yet.

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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