Music

Can Beyoncé Go Back to Just Being a Pop Star?

On Renaissance, the pop auteur abandons grand social statements for songs about humping her hubby, but some things never change.

The singer poses in front of a black background and what looks like a horse made out of a disco ball. Her hands are over her head, and she wears a sort of barely-there metal-and-jewels bikini.
Beyoncé / Mason Poole

On “Pure/Honey,” the next-to-last track on Beyoncé’s first solo studio album in six years, Renaissance, the singer offers listeners an arch summary of her formula for world conquest: “Ideas, my dear—that’s my technique.”

What that means in practice was perhaps best conveyed in the rehearsal scenes of her 2019 documentary Homecoming. Beginning startlingly soon after she delivered twins by emergency C-section, Beyoncé conducts four months of intensive band sessions and then four more with her dancers, some 200 people in all, urging each individual on to their fullest. This is all for the sake of a two-time-only performance fulfilling her ambition to represent historically Black collegiate traditions in front of the historically shiny-white and collegiate audience of the Coachella summer music festival. “I wanted a Black orchestra,” she says in the doc. “I wanted the steppers. I needed the vocalists. I wanted different characters. I didn’t want us all doing the same thing.” (Of course, she also got Homecoming itself out of it, which happens to be one of the all-time-great concert movies.)

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As capable as she is as a singer, dancer, songwriter, producer, or anything else, this is arguably the gift that distinguishes Beyoncé most—her ability to mobilize and maximize the efforts of a small army of other talents in order to realize her ideas. On Renaissance, a host of musicians and producers including The-Dream, Mike Dean, Drake, Tems, Grace Jones, Chic’s Nile Rodgers, and dozens more assemble to realize Beyoncé’s concept of a nearly non-stop stream of dance beats. They draw primarily on house music, disco, and hip-hop, but also on techno, ballroom, funk, U.K. bass, drill, and dancehall, as well as contemporary Afrobeats, with a wink in the direction of hyperpop, in many cases by sampling, quoting, or imitating sounds from a decades-deep archive of canonical dance classics.

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The prevailing mood is of an escapist getaway, to relieve the tensions of the last several pandemical and political years, an urge Beyoncé shares with Dua Lipa, Drake, Lizzo, and many others who’ve recently fallen into formation in the ongoing house and disco revival. But because Beyoncé is Beyoncé, the reference points and subtexts pile up. Samples and interpolations and guest appearances trace dotted lines through musical and social history, underlining that electronic dance music is not only fundamentally Black music but specifically queer Black music, an element of inclusivity arguably underplayed in her past articulations of Black feminism.

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In her Instagram post introducing the album, Beyoncé dedicated Renaissance to her gay “Uncle Jonny” (technically a cousin, from what I can tell), the “godmother” who introduced her to many of the sounds and fashions of the gay dance floor when she was growing up, and by extension to other LGBTQ+ “pioneers” and “fallen angels” (he died of AIDS-related illness in the 1990s). That aspect of the album may be subtle at first, but by the time “Pure/Honey” gets around to sampling three different tracks by drag artists—MikeQ’s “Feels Like,” Kevin Aviance’s “Cunty,” and Moi Renee’s “Miss Honey”—a listener would have to willfully deafen themselves to miss it. Which no doubt many will do, for example in the Knowles family’s home state of Texas. But there’s little doubt Beyoncé has Southern queerness particularly in mind, at a moment when many red states are gearing up to claw back the rights of those who don’t fit into conservative hierarchies of sex and gender.

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All that said, compared to the “event” albums that elevated her cultural stature so dramatically in the past decade, 2013’s Beyoncé and 2016’s Lemonade, Renaissance downplays any sense of grand social statement. While I’d say it is as pleasurable a listen as any album she’s ever made, and arguably more consistent than most, that’s less because of any of the individual songs or bravura performative moments from Beyoncé than because of its overall flow—the pacing, the sequencing, the deft transitions from track to track, which carry the listener on their currents like a great club set.

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Beyoncé offers few personal revelations here, and the emotional stakes seem deliberately low, especially after the near-melodrama of much of Lemonade. The most consistent theme is the dance-floor staple of carnal pleasure, mostly, as is her wont, within the bonds of long-term monogamy. But while she certainly gets raunchy on tracks like “Thique,” the lustfulness of these songs comes across as somewhat subdued. Her vocals are often antic and playful, but they aren’t afforded too much edge in the mix, and rarely sound as wild as they have on many sex-jam classics (“Drunk in Love,” “Partition,” etc.) in her past. There are exceptions such as “Move,” where she steps it up a bit to match the unrestrainable vitality of Grace Jones, or the coda of “Heated,” where she takes a turn for the surreal while doing dancehall patois (a debatable choice, though I’m not entirely sure how much of it is Beyoncé herself and how much is Jamaican-American guest vocalist BEAM). But generally, like much of the bass and beats borrowed from more aggressive dance styles here, her vocals assimilate into the smoothness of the album’s overall groove, while guests and samples are permitted to stand out.

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Though she’s indisputably the album’s lead performer, she often seems more like its host—somewhat the way she was on the 2019 companion record she curated for the Lion King remake. Or, more fittingly for the Reniassance spirit, you might call her its DJ-in-chief, spinning and mixing the contributions of collaborator after collaborator until they form an audio mosaic. As another critic friend suggested this weekend, you could compare her to a TV showrunner, or to an orchestra conductor-composer such as Duke Ellington, whose decisions about whom to hire for his big bands were at least as important as any choices about specific materials. Alternatively, you could snipe cynically that the entertainer from (with husband Jay-Z) the billion-dollar household is more like a musical CEO.

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Certainly, Beyoncé’s creative method requires a lot of capital, both financial and cultural. It’s a conspicuous luxury to be able to hire the finest craftspeople and plumb the resources of all the world’s recorded creativity to collage into your own works of art. Even when approached with social conscience and an exquisitely developed sense of taste, it risks becoming a form of extraction or appropriation—as witness the current complaints from singer Kelis that she wasn’t consulted on Beyoncé’s use, on the track “Energy,” of a song that she helped create. Some queer listeners might also question whether so many cherished artifacts of their musical heritage belong on a record by this very avowed heterosexual—though others will cheer her contribution to that music’s preservation and propagation, including to young people in far-flung locations who might never otherwise have discovered it.

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[Read: Beyoncé Planned Her New Album Meticulously—Except for One Perilous Mistake.]

Personally, aside from wincing at occasional moments of ordinary-folks playacting like the line on “Break My Soul” about quitting her job (um, what job was that?), I’m usually content to live with the inevitable artistic paradoxes and hypocrisies that arise when pop stars become disproportionately rich. I don’t take it as disqualifying them from offering a social perspective. I can admire the music and the cultural awareness while remaining critical of Mr. and Mrs. Carter’s environmentally destructive jets and yachts, or involvement with sweatshop labor or blood diamonds. While there are the conventional boasts and namechecks for high-end products, there is much less self-justifying propaganda for Black capitalism on Renaissance than there was on the couple’s 2018 album Everything Is Love, which is a relief. There’s a decent case to be made for the alignment of that kind of aspiration with some amount of racial uplift, but the widening inequality made more visible by the pandemic renders it an increasingly unconvincing substitute for, I don’t know, maybe a national program of reparations.

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It’s highly dodgy for Beyoncé and Jay-Z to be much more frequently the object of such critiques than, say, Taylor Swift or Bruce Springsteen. Yet it’s also somewhat inevitable because of the burden of significance that’s been heaped upon her, particularly since Lemonade. On that album and especially in its visual incarnation, as well as Homecoming and Black Is King, she mustered such rich resources to trace links between the personal, political, and historical that it’s now a bell she can’t unring. On Renaissance opening track “I’m That Girl,” she protests, “I didn’t want this power.” Believe that or not, some of the underdifferentiated and distanced smoothness of this album seems like a gambit to sidestep expectations and resist the culture’s collective will to elevate her to secular sainthood. Once she was frequently underestimated as just another pop star; now, she’s asking to be allowed simply to put out a party record. Even if it’s partially a smart homage to queer groundbreakers, a lot of it’s also just jams about humping her hubby.

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Beyoncé of course has an enormous safety net for whatever risks she takes—even the risk of low risks—in the form of the online stan culture that will receive her every act, no matter how modest, as a revelation from a goddess queen who supposedly remakes American society every time she sneezes. She can have her cake and also let them eat cake, as needed. These traps are really not of her own making; they’re syndromes that pervade today’s popular culture.

Still, they might provide the conditions for an intriguing experiment in the coming months. For years, it’s seemed as if Beyoncé’s days as a hit-maker in the strict pop-chart sense were over, which partly explained her pivot to being a conceptual auteur. It’s a standard situation for pop stars who’ve been at it for more than two decades like Beyoncé, who has her 41st b’day next month. But the low-stakes, on-trend grooves of Renaissance could result in “Break My Soul” or another song improbably reaching the summit of the Hot 100, giving the seven-time chart-topper her first solo No. 1 in 14 years. How would that alter her trajectory?

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This album is also only “Act One” of an announced three, and we don’t know what the other two will be—I would guess Act Two would be a visual component, but perhaps there’s also a flip side of slow jams and ballads on its way, the I Am… to this record’s Sasha Fierce. Or maybe it will be a comedy heist movie, who knows? She doesn’t need to do anything in particular at this stage in her career, much less save everyone and change everything. Whatever it is, though, we can rest assured that she will come with ideas, because “That Girl” simply can’t help her overachieving self. In that, she remains a model worth emulating, and it doesn’t take millions of dollars to do it.

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