Beyoncé’s Renaissance Is a Big, Gay Mess

Hell yes!

Beyoncé sings into a microphone as she lays atop a metallic horse in the cover art for "Renaissance"
Carlijn Jacobs / Parkwood Entertainment

Beyoncé herself might admit that her seventh solo album, Renaissance, is a mess. Conventional songwriting rules, polite-taste paradigms, and the best practices for headache avoidance were clearly not priorities here. The songs clatter, wobble, and lurch into one another while Beyoncé wavers between singing and doing silly voices, in multitrack. Listening to her past albums felt like being whisked in a luxury sedan through a landscape of mountains, valleys, and meadows. Listening to this one is like becoming a pinball.

And pinballs have a lot of fun!

How exciting to see chaos from pop’s greatest neat freak (a title fated by astrology, as she now celebrates on the disco-dusted “Virgo’s Groove”). For decades, Beyoncé has worked meticulously to project a near-papal sense of calm and control. But the pandemic coincided with what she calls a “journey of exploration,” resulting in a “three act project,” which Renaissance kicks off. During lockdown, she wanted “a safe place, a place without judgment,” she wrote on her website. “A place to be free of perfectionism and overthinking. A place to scream, release, feel freedom.”

That place turned out to be the same one where lots of people have found release and freedom: the dance floor. The pulsing beat of Renaissance almost never pauses, though it does morph—from the pistonlike pumping of house and techno to the snapping and swaying of Afrobeats to the tick-tick-boom of various dance-rap styles that serve the almighty twerk. Beyoncé has always wanted to get you bodied, of course. But she used to let the listener rest with slow jams—of which the closest thing on Renaissance is “Plastic Off the Sofa,” a bustling ode to rough intimacy. Her next two “acts” may return to pop-R&B balladry, but for now, she’s staying visceral and thumpy.

Beyoncé raises a glass in a mirrored room in album art for "Renaissance"
Mason Poole

Thankfully, she’s also staying innovative. When the single “Break My Soul” polished up some of the most familiar keyboard tones in club music, it invited concerns that Beyoncé’s dance phase would be touristic and retro. Instead, she has re-cemented her status as one of America’s edgiest superstars, a sorcerer of synthesis and excess. Sifting through contributions from dozens of collaborators, she and her team have welded gnarly, sculptural tunes onto gnarly, sculptural beats. On the opener, “I’m That Girl,” fragmented noises cut in and out, accelerating and decelerating in frequency, as if controlled by someone revving an engine. When a steady beat finally arrives on “Cozy,” it’s through a sample that evokes a rowdy rumba band covering Frankie Knuckles.

A few listens might be needed for one’s ears to adjust. The harmonic silkiness and wedding-ready choruses of Beyoncé’s earlier hits are mostly absent, and maybe none of these songs will land in her catalog’s tippy-toppiest tier. But the album’s highlights are more ineffable, and sometimes more exciting, than a mere sing-along. Beyoncé knows that a great melody can arise from competing noises ricocheting off one another, and that a vocal inflection or bit of syncopation can be weirdly catchy (see TikTok). Take the 360-degree aural fireworks happening on the ballroom showstopper “Alien Superstar.” Or the funny way that, on the coolly puttering “America Has a Problem,” she commands “No!” as if to a misbehaving dog.

The national crisis of “America Has a Problem,” by the way, appears to be that Beyoncé's fierceness is too addictive. After spending the 2010s as a lightning-rod political symbol, Beyoncé has made a statement album about not needing to make a statement album. Employing her voice with the I can do anything glee of Robin Williams’s genie, she sings, raps, barks, giggles, drawls, and purrs mostly about hotness and horniness. Conflict arises only in flickering mentions of haters and “Karens” who have “turned into terrorists.” Some boasts are corny; some are instant classics; many are both. “Monday, I’m overrated / Tuesday, on my dick,” she chants on “Heated,” then yips: “Flip-flop, flippy, flip-floppin’-ass bitch!

This silliness is, in a subtle way, serious. Renaissance joins Beyoncé’s archive of tributes to Black history—this time, with a focus on Black partying and joy. Disco and rave legends such as Grace Jones, Nile Rodgers, Donna Summer, Robin S., and Honey Dijon are not just spiritual forebears; they are featured, credited, or sampled. (Though at least one artist, Kelis, says she wasn’t informed beforehand.) Pointedly, Beyoncé looks beyond the halls of fame, emphasizing under-celebrated and now-departed figures such as the Memphis rapper Princess Loko (whose shit talk opens the album) and the New York drag artist Moi Renee (whose exuberance closes the astonishing vogue epic of “Pure/Honey”).

Many of these influences are queer, which Beyoncé canonically isn’t—though she does sound pretty bisexual on the undulating “Thique” (the implied caveat: “I don’t do this usually”). Liner notes and lyrics also invoke her uncle Jonny, a victim of AIDS, who Beyoncé says served as her “godmother.” Some listeners will understandably still ask whether she has a right to imitate LGBTQ pioneers the way she does across Renaissance. Black queer culture gets exploited constantly, flagrantly, by the entertainment industry. But Beyoncé can at least say this: Not all borrowers show the reverence, or generative creativity, that she does.

Besides, the affinity between this album and the lineage it channels is not just cosmetic. Renaissance will play, to many, as exhausting, as indulgent, as ridiculous, as childish, as oversexed, as too much. But committing oneself to pleasure as fully as Beyoncé has here takes defiance and guts—and, more deeply, faith in the preciousness of one’s own experience. Somehow she has found a way to make messages of individual empowerment, which can be so trite in pop, jolt again. “No one else in this world can think like me,” she says, a brag that is true for all of us, whether we embrace it or not, as we cut a trail in this world.