‘Renaissance’ Review: America Has a Problem and Beyoncé Ain’t It

It’s too much, this being alive. Too heavy, too uncertain, too chronically cataclysmic, too bellicose, too unwell, too freighted with a possibility of the perception of error. The word of the last few years — in American activist and academic circles, anyway — has been “precarity.” Which gets at ideas of endangerment, neglect, contingency, risk. Basically: We’re worried. And: We’re worried you’re not worried enough. Like I said: It’s too much.

If I were a globally famous musician whose every blink gets inspected for Meaning, now might be the time to discover how it feels to mean something else, to seem lighter, to float, to bob, splash, writhe and grind, to sashay-shanté. To find “new salvation” in building her “own foundation.”

Were I that musician, now might be the time to call my freestyle jam “America Has a Problem” and not say what the problem is because A) Psyche! B) What I’ma say you don’t already know? And C) The person actually performing this song knows “that booty gon’ do what it want to.” Now’s the time to work your body in lieu of losing more of your mind. “America” is one of the closing tracks on “Renaissance,” Beyoncé’s seventh solo studio album, the one where she surveys the stakes and concludes they’re too damn high. Now’s the time to remind yourself — to be “telling everybody,” as she sings on the first single, “Break My Soul” — that there’s no discourse without disco.

What a good time this thing is. All 16 songs hail from someplace with a dance floor — night clubs, strip clubs, ballrooms, basements, Tatooine. Most of them are steeped in or conducted entirely with Black queer bravado. And on nearly every one, Beyoncé sounds like she’s experiencing something personally new and privately glorious: unmitigated ecstasy. It takes different forms: bliss, obviously; but a sexy sternness, too. The exercise of control is as entertaining on this album as the exorcism of stress.

As expensive, production-wise, as “Renaissance” sounds (one song credits two dozen writers, including samples and interpolations), Beyoncé’s singing here transcends any price tag. The range of her voice nears the galactic; the imagination powering it qualifies as cinema. She coos, she growls, she snarls, she doubles and triples herself. Butter, mustard, foie gras, the perfect ratio of icing to cupcake.

At about the halfway point, something arrives called “Plastic Off the Sofa.” Now, part of me wept because those are words she doesn’t even bother to sing. Plastic off the sofa? Got you again! The rest of me wept because the singing she does do — in waves of rhapsodically long, Olympic-level emissions — seems to emanate from somewhere way beyond a human throat: The ocean? The oven? But this is one of the few songs that sound recorded with live instruments — plinking guitar and some pitter-pat percussion. (The musical plastic comes off the album’s sofa.) The bass line keeps swelling and curving and blooming till it outgrows its flower bed, and Beyoncé’s voice does, too. It surfs the swells. It smells the roses. “Renaissance” turns to gospel here and there — on “Church Girl,” most brazenly. This is the only one that sounds like it was recorded in Eden.

It takes a minute for all the rapture on “Renaissance” to kick in. First comes a mission statement (“I’m That Girl”) wherein Beyoncé warns that love is her drug. Then it’s on to “Cozy,” an in-the-making anthem about Black femmes luxuriating in their skin. This one has a bottom as heavy as a cast-iron skillet and a bounce the Richter scale couldn’t ignore. “Cozy” is about comfort but sounds like an oncoming army. The first true exhalation is “Cuff It,” a roller-skate jam held aloft by Nile Rodgers’s signature guitar flutter while a fleet of horns offer afterburn. Here, Beyoncé wants to go out and have an unprintably good time. And it’s contagious enough to overthink a throwaway line like “I wanna go missing” later, when I’m sober.

Comedy abounds. Thank the sampled contributions of Big Freedia and Ts Madison for that. “Dark skin, light skin, beige” — Madison drawls on “Cozy” — “fluorescent beige.” Thank the tabloid-TV keyboard blasts on “America Has a Problem.” But Beyoncé herself has never been funnier than she is here. The sternness she applies to the word “No” on “America” alone would be enough. But there’s her impersonation of Grace Jones’s imperiousness on “Move,” some sharp-elbowed dancehall refraction in which the two of them command the plebes to “part like the Red Sea” when the queen comes through. (Here’s me not touching who the queen is in that scenario.) Pop music has been tattooed with Jones’s influence for 45 years. This is one of the few mainstream acknowledgments of her bounteous musical might. There’s also Beyoncé’s vamp at the end of “Heated,” which she recites to the crack of a splayed hand fan. It’s one of those round-table freestyles that go down at some balls. A fraction of hers includes: “Unnncle Jonny made my dress/That cheap spandex/She looks a mess.”

This is an album whose big idea is house. And its sense of house is enormous. It’s mansion music. “Renaissance” is adjacent to where pop’s been: pulsing and throbbing. Its muscles are larger, its limbs flexier, its ego secure. I don’t hear marketplace concerns. Its sense of adventure is off the genre’s map, yet very much aware of every coordinate. It’s an achievement of synthesis that never sounds slavish or synthetic. These songs are testing this music, celebrating how capacious it is, how pliable. That might be why I like “Break My Soul” so much. It’s Track 6, but it feels like the album’s thematic spine. It’s got tenderness, resolve and ideas — Beyoncé brokering two different approaches to church.

On “Pure/Honey” Beyoncé breaks though wall after wall until she gets to the chamber that holds all the cousins of her 2013 sizzler “Blow.” It ends with her lilting next to a sample of the drag artist Moi Renee bellowing, “Miss Honey? Miss Honey!” And it’s as close to the B-52’s as a Beyoncé song might ever come. (But Kate, Cindy, Fred, Keith: Call her anyway!)

The album’s embrace of house and not, say, trap unambiguously aligns Beyoncé with queer Black folks. On the one hand, that means she’s simply an elite pop star with particularly avid support. But “Renaissance” is more than fan service. It’s oriented toward certain histories. The knotty symbiosis between cis women and gay men is one. The doors of impersonation and tribute revolve with centrifugal force.

With Beyoncé, her drag seems liberating rather than obfuscating. It’s not just these lesser-known gay and trans artists and personalities her music has absorbed. It’s other artists. On “Blow,” Beyoncé wondered how it felt for her partner when he made love to her. Now the wonder is: How does it feel for her to make love — and art — sometimes as somebody else? The album’s final song is “Summer Renaissance,” and it opens with the thrum of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” It’s not the first time she’s quoted La Donna. But the nod is not only there, where the reference is explicit. It’s in the album’s rich middle, which includes that sofa song and “Virgo’s Groove,” maybe the most luscious track Beyoncé’s ever recorded. This is to say that “Renaissance” is an album about performance — of other pop’s past, but ultimately of Beyoncé, a star who’s now 40, an age when the real risk is in acting like you’ve got nothing to lose.

Another history is right there in the album’s title: 100 years ago, when things were also too much for Black Americans — lynchings, “race riots” all over the country — and flight north from the South seemed like a sound alternative to murder, up in Harlem, Alain Locke and Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes and Aaron Douglas and Jessie Fauset, to pick five figures, were at the center of an explosion of art that could be as frivolous, party-hearty and vulgar as some of what’s on this album. Its artists were gay and straight and whatever was in between. The point is they called that a renaissance, too. It sustained and delivered delight and provocation in spite of the surrounding crisis, it gave people looking for a house something that approximates home. New salvation, old foundation.

Beyoncé
“Renaissance”
(Parkwood Entertainment/Columbia)