/ 3 September 2022

One Album, Two Takes: ‘Renaissance’


Renaissance is Beyoncé’s first album without music videos for each song, since her self-titled offering 10 years ago. It’s also her most experimental, with sounds created by generations of black culture “originators”, as the artist said on her website, prior to dropping the 16-track, hour long project — her first since Lemonade in 2016.

The lack of visuals means the same artist who pioneered a hypervisual era in music is the same one commanding us to listen. 

“I’ll probably like it better when I see the visuals,” someone said on Twitter just a few hours after the first single, Break My Soul, dropped in June. 

Have we become incapable of enjoying music, and Beyoncé, specifically, sans the aid of visuals? Turns out, no. 

Drake took an attack against his experimentations with dance music so ill that he responded on social media, accusing everyone who wasn’t bopping to his latest offering of just not getting it. 

“It’s all good if you don’t get it yet. That’s what we do. We wait for you to catch up,” he said.

Beyoncé, on the other hand, had a few disapprovals that quickly disappeared after the 1990s house-meets-bounce inspired Break My Soul dropped. 

It sounds so dated, her critics said. 

And yet she remained a chart fixture, the same song rising to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 seven weeks after its debut, and staying there for a second week. 

I hate using numbers in any argument about music, because a lot of horrible music tops charts. The numbers thing is for people who mistake their obsession with popular culture with a love for music. 

But numbers are important to note here, because this is an artist who has remained at her peak for two decades, recalibrating taste and causing mass hysteria with a single drop. 

Artists try all the time to introduce people to something new, and change the course of music, and with this, Beyoncé is quite clearly telling everyone that dance music-drenched pop music is back.

But if you’ve been deterred by all the talk of how she switched up the sound, you can rest assured that it’s blown out of proportion. 

The R&B Yoncé we all know and love is very much present here, especially on tracks Cuf f It, Plastic Of f the Sofa and Virgo’s Groove

The cathartic, refreshing Break My Soul — unmistakably inspired by queer ballroom culture — was just an introduction to a Beyoncé who is “on a new vibration, building my own foundation”, as she sings. What it heralded is an album that is a feast of imagination, self-love and adulation. 

It’s a sprawling tapestry of sounds that positions Beyoncé as an unequalled and fearless archivist of black music. — Sandiso Ngubane 

Because of how fast social media and the news cycle churns, the Covid-19 pandemic feels like a distant memory. Although we’re seeing fewer deaths, masks and retrenchments, if we’re being honest with ourselves, the lethargy of the worst health crisis in our lifetime still lives with us.

When Beyoncé titled her seventh studio album Renaissance in July this year, she asked us to take stock and realise something that that lethargy was concealing from us: we made it. 

As soon as you hit play on this record, the first words you hear are, “These motherfuckers ain’t stopping me.” 

Renaissance isn’t a call to action or manifesto. Its second track, Cozy, spells out what we’re working with: “This a reminder,” a voice says, kicking off the track. Specifically, we’re being reminded that “You’re a god, you’re a hero/ You’ve survived all you been through.”

You can break the album up into three acts. I’m That Girl to Break My Soul is the first act. The second is bookended by Church Girl and All Up In Your Mind. It all wraps up in an encore of three tracks beginning with America Has a Problem and ending with Summer Renaissance.

The first act is to remind you about all the things that you still have to celebrate and live for. There’s falling in love (Cuf f It), finding your purpose (Break My Soul), and feeling yourself (Alien Superstar).

In many ways, we’re being asked to accept this first act as the music made for us, the fans. But by the second act, Yoncé lets us into her mansion in Bel-Air, California, where she’s been trapped with a husband and children cooking this album. She’s never been more in love (Plastic Of f the Sofa and Virgo’s Groove). She’s been wondering why the church treats embracing your sexuality as impure (Church Girl), and she’s ready to get back out there with her girls (Move), which now include superstar Tems and the great Grace Jones.

By the time the encore kicks off with America Has a Problem and Pure/Honey, this is Beyoncé at her rawest. She’s not afraid to remind us of the level of protection her husband affords her or that she’s among the baddest, flyest and richest girls on the planet, and that that makes her the blueprint.

Whether this or that track was made for us or herself, the truth is we’ve been living vicariously through Beyoncé since Destiny’s Child dropped No, No, No. The difference this time is that she’s giving us permission to do so. She’s offering us the opportunity to shake off the heaviness, to hit the club, to be as queer as possible, to enjoy life.There are many other reviews unpacking the various samples and every supposed cryptic message. But it’s simpler than that. It’s time to just have a good time. This is the kind of record where you don’t need to listen to the lyrics. Just hit play and release the wiggle and you should find that you’ll feel freer on the other side. — Rifumo Mdaka