A little over a year later, I’d like to return to the topic of Black nightlife — motivated by the recent release of Beyoncé’s Renaissance album.
This post isn’t meant to be a contrarian diatribe. I know Beyoncé is a talented musician and I admire her artistic accomplishments — especially her live performances. It’s my admiration of her work that fuels my mild distaste for her latest project. Ultimately, I know Beyoncé can make more transcendent club music than the songs on Renaissance because she’s already done so throughout her career — especially from 2003-2013 (her pre-Lemonade era).
Renaissance is a smart album in theory, from a business mogul’s standpoint — it’s a conversation-starter, and it was a timely release during the first pandemic summer when it seemed socially acceptable (if not safe) to dance amongst throngs of people. Renaissance looks great on paper. But my interest in music is preoccupied by what it inspires within me, not by the claims it makes about itself. In its press coverage, its lyrics and its marketing, Renaissance has announced itself as a rebirth of house music and club bops, but club music’s magic has historically arisen from its connection to specific locales, scenes, and underground circuits. When club music is made into pop music, the rough edges that allow it to enter our bodies are often smoothed out. I think that’s the case with this album.
Club music that truly brings the house down isn’t Madonna’s “Vogue,” which Renaissance is openly in conversation with. It’s crafted by the queer street kids who pop icons are inspired by. How can I adore Renaissance when I’ve listened to Cakes da Killa, Quay Dash, Lagniappe, Abdu Ali, Kaytranada, Zebra Katz and LSDXOXO? It doesn’t compare. Renaissance isn’t erratic or audacious enough to induce rabid -ussy-popping or trance-dancing. It’s pre-gaming music, not dancefloor music. It’s more suitable for instagram reels than electric, had-to-be-there nights. It feels like it should be in a museum, not playing at a basement party.
There are at least a few past Beyoncé songs that have understood the house-music assignment. “Crazy In Love” and “Naughty Girl” (2003), the first songs on Beyoncé’s debut solo album, are well-situated within house and club music traditions — powerhouse vocals mingling with infectious, percussive beats. “Get Me Bodied” (2006), with its undeniable gospel influences and pulsating instrumentals, is also a child of house and club music — a spiritual experience that has inspired many a dance session in my lifetime. “Blow” (2013), too, offers a seductive dancing experience — vocals and instrumentals heightening each other into sonic euphoria.
Renaissance has a fainter pulse than those earlier standouts. “I’M THAT GIRL,” “COZY,” “ALIEN SUPERSTAR,” “PLASTIC OFF THE SOFA” and “AMERICA HAS A PROBLEM” are intriguing tracks, but the singer’s voice and persona overwhelm them. Beyoncé’s vocal performance is the star of the album rather than one of its instruments. The songs’ hypnotic, subversive potentials are muffled by proclamations of material wealth and social mastery. And if house and club music are meant to get us free, what place does a singular, billionaire superstar’s narrative have within it?
My opinion of Renaissance is not as easy as thinking it’s “bad.” I don’t think it’s a bad album. I think it’s a polished album that pales in comparison to its primary source material. I will listen to the future companion projects Beyoncé teased in an Instagram post, because I do care about what she makes. But I understand that I want more from music, and the world, than she alone can provide.
Qweendom music compilation (2016)