Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” Is Exhilarating

BuzzFeed News staffers react to Beyoncé's latest album: "Renaissance is what happens when a Virgo puts on their Leo hat."

Tomi: Initial thoughts on the album?

Estelle: Renaissance is what happens when a Virgo puts on their Leo hat. This is a hyperlush, über-confident dance record. It’s fun embodied. It’s a woman naked on a horse. It has the highly controlled messaging and technical brilliance we expect from Beyoncé, as well as the familiar themes (Get that money! I’m gonna sit on you! I’m that girl! You are too!) and vocal tropes we know so well from her back catalog. But there’s a kind of ferocious joy here, and a little bit of chaos — but again, that’s Virgo chaos: genre-hopping, historical references, quite the dollop of weirdness, but the melange has been precisely planned and executed. It’s just so consummate. It’s a steady drip of exhilaration and winky effervescence. This album feels like your mom told you to take drugs. I feel insane, it’s so good.

Amber: I just keep thinking of the word "rich." Rich in luscious sound, rich in sipping-limoncello-in-yachts-off-Capri opulence, rich in community — so many classic samples, sounds, transitions, rich in making sure no one ever doubts her as the top artist of our generation, and rich in contradictions. Yes, Beyoncé, the good girl from Houston, will have a song called “Church Girl” about how you can go to church in the morning and drop it like a thotty. Nearly a decade ago, she released “Grown Woman,” but Renaissance just oozes grown Beyoncé. She doesn’t need to prove shit, but she’s pushing her artistic self into disco, into house, into ballroom, and she’s giving it to us as a little perfectly curated treat. She’s having so much fun, and I am too.

Zia: I’m not really a nightclub kind of gal, but I would roll up to one in a cute dress and some chunky heels just to dance to Renaissance. Beyoncé’s albums have a way of beautifully capturing the zeitgeist in which they are released, and this one is right on the money. The world has had a very hard two, three years for a number of reasons, and we needed a collective reason to just let go and be free, even if only for just an hour and two minutes. You can hear the amount of work and attention to detail she put into this, and it makes me even more hype for the next two parts of this project.

Alexa: Estelle encapsulates it best: What an exhilarating and full-bodied album. It sounds corny to say, but it really does sound like Beyoncé herself had a blast making this record, and it’s a gorgeous, celebratory departure from the ultra-masterful but heavy message of Lemonade. I’m looking forward to listening to this album as I cake myself in eyeliner ahead of a night out with friends, already sweaty from summer humidity and pleasantly nauseous from an Aperol spritz I drank two hours prior.

Also, sorry to bring Drake’s name into the chat, but while listening to this album I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between Renaissance and Honestly, Nevermind. Both albums move the two artists into a more house-inspired direction. Both are made by industry powerhouses who’ve dominated music history for so long that they no longer have anything to prove to anyone. But one of them used that creative freedom to let loose and create a glowy, innovative new style, and one of them made the song “Texts Go Green.”

Haha, Alexa. What are your initial favorite songs?

Estelle: I first listened to this in full without looking at the tracklist, and the sequencing is so seamless it’s initially difficult to tell when one song ends and another begins — which is to say, I really freaking love the whole thing. The sequencing is perfection. Must throw in a word for “Church Girl,” which feels like throwback Destiny’s Child pop cheekiness. Plus, it’s representation for horny youths who think about boning during Mass.

I love it when Beyoncé goes somewhere unexpected, so when I got to the “All Up in Your Mind” / “America Has a Problem” / “Pure/Honey” run I lost my mind. The A.G. Cook internet pop of it all, the farty, grinding bass — I wanted to be in the club immediately. I also loved seeing her step away from simplistic political messaging. I actually have a huge soft spot for songs like “Run the World” and “Flawless,” but instead of generically inspiring lyrics in this shitty global moment, we have a song called “America Has a Problem,” and the first line is “Heard you got that D for me” … Pulitzer!!!!!!!!

Amber: “Alien Superstar” was the first that made me be like, OK, Ms. Knowles-Carter, new sound unlocked! It feels like three songs in one; we’re vogueing at a ballroom competition, we’re at Kanye’s proposal to Kim Kardashian with a 50-piece orchestra playing Lana del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful,” and we’re soaring through space on a rocket ship to a whole other world. Then it’s straight into “Cuff It” and we’re levitating until we see stars?!? Incredible. “Heated” and “Thique” will both be on heavy rotation in my living room club. Also loved “Cozy,” I know it’s going on when I’m having a bad day and need a bit of “Comfortable in my skin / Cozy with who I am / I love myself, goddamn” energy. Will it replace the video of Beyoncé performing Love on Top while pregnant with Blue Ivy as my personal pick-me-up? TBD.

Zia: The way “Cuff It” faded into “Energy” and then into “Break My Soul”? Sensational. My soul ASCENDED. I’m already a sucker for songs that fade into each other but this was something special. At one point I didn’t even realize the song had changed because the transitions were that smooth. And given the album’s strong house vibes, it was a perfect way to pay homage to the genre.

Alexa: “Cuff It.” “CUFF IT”!!!!!!!!!

Any obvious clunkers?

Amber: “Plastic Off the Sofa.” The only thing going for this track is that it gives you a breather in between the bangers, time to sip water and get back to the dance floor.

Alexa: Gonna respectfully disagree with Amber and say that the hook on “Alien Superstar” sounds identical to that song that goes, “I’m too sexy for my shirt,” so much so that I looked up whether Beyoncé was forced to give Right Said Fred a songwriting credit. Also, I adore “Plastic Off the Sofa,” so I guess that Amber and I are simply nemeses.

Zia: “Move” didn’t do too much for me. It felt like a standard track thrown into the DJ’s mix that you step-touch in the club to. Not to say it’s a bad song, but it didn’t bring what the other songs brought.

Estelle: I respectfully decline to answer this question.

This album has a lot of guest writers, from Drake on “Heated” to Syd from the Internet on “Plastic Off the Sofa” to Jay-Z of course. Who do you think brings the most to the album here? I’d be remiss to also not mention the controversy over Beyoncé and co. sampling Kelis’s 2003 megahit “Milkshake” without Kelis’s permission on “Energy,” one of my favorite songs on the album.

Alexa: For me, the accusations by Kelis are a fascinating reminder that the Beyoncé we see and celebrate is not always the same person calling the shots in the studio about her creative work. (This, by the way, is fine! People aren’t their public images! Is your Instagram profile the realest version of yourself? Unlikely!) Beyoncé’s gone to great lengths in the past to emphasize her magnanimous relationship with her collaborators, which makes this tension with “Milkshake” feel less like an oversight on Beyoncé’s part and more like a legal decision made out of overconfidence. I’ll be interested to see how Beyoncé and her team react to these accusations, if they do at all.

Separately, I try not to acknowledge Jay-Z on principle, but I do have to say I appreciate his contributions on Renaissance as a songwriter rather than as a featured artist. After his public thrashing on Lemonade, it feels intentional that he didn’t have an opportunity to quip about how hard it is to be a husband and a father on an album clearly made for women to dance their ass off to in the club.

But I feel like the real collab stars of this album are the producers: Honey Dijon’s house and electronic fingerprints feel like they’re all over this record, and “All Up in Your Mind” doesn’t feel like it would be possible without A.G. Cook’s iconic pulsing synths. Introducing these producers into Beyoncé’s roster of collaborators pushes her sound into new, really refreshing territory.

Estelle: It’s difficult for me to think of writers as opposed to other collaborators, like the musicians she’s sampled here, because this record is so obviously in conversation with classic tracks and other genres and even an era in full. But I think Beyoncé and Big Freedia are a match made in heaven; I’m always delighted to hear the NOLA legend’s incredible voice add that bounce texture to Bey’s silky pop. Renaissance proves how great a fit The-Dream is for her in this moment — he cowrote a good chunk of these songs, and that’s part of why it just feels like such a sensual, velvety, dance floor mirage.

The controversy over the Kelis interpolation is an unfolding news story that we’ll be watching but at the very least it’s a sobering reminder of how hawkish the music industry is and how hard fought publishing rights and ownership can be.

Where do you rank this album compared to her others?

Estelle: I respectfully decline to answer this question too, except to say that I always feel like I’m in good hands with a Beyoncé solo joint. Every album changes your idea of what she’s capable of while retaining an ironclad sense of her identity and skill. Narrative, control, and progression drive her musical output, so I always trust that we’re going somewhere new. And we really did! Renaissance is so full of cool shit. I feel like I haven’t heard her do some of these things with her voice before. I feel like we haven’t heard some of these melodies or sounds or flourishes from her before.

Amber: Lemonade remains to me her opus, but this album is such a light to that shade — both in that it’s not a literal examination of her cheating husband, but also musically it seems more like she’s just searching for the sounds that get her wiggling. In so many ways this feels like the inevitable next step after The Lion King: The Gift, the 2019 soundtrack Beyoncé produced and curated, which was a group project of artists led by the queen yet was about a Disney movie. She’s still got the collective of artists, but now she’s in charge of the story.

Zia: Any ranking I give will inevitably lead to ~discourse~, so I respectfully decline to do so. But I will say that Beyoncé is at her best when she has the space to be creative, experiment, and just have fun. The fun element, I think, is the most important here. I feel like in the music industry, artists sometimes get caught up in trying to make the perfect album that checks all of these predetermined boxes and the real freedom and artistry of music gets lost in the sauce. That is not the case here. You can hear the joy and release coming off of Bey in waves and it all just works. So while I won’t rank her albums, I do think Renaissance is one of her best projects. It holds up to its predecessors and is definitely going to be in rotation for years to come.

What do you think Beyoncé was trying to accomplish with this album in particular?

Estelle: She wanted us to “release the wiggle.” Yeah, I’m wiggling. To return to her sense of purpose as an artist, it’s clear she tried to push herself while invoking the familiarity of the past — both in terms of musical history and her own aesthetic. Overall, the approach is different from Lemonade, which was such a personal album: so full of fury, with lyrics and vocals that were sometimes spotlit and intimate, and other times high-flying and showy. This feels more like a collective experience, both in how it was made and how it’s supposed to be experienced. It’s also pure escapism, highly (but not explicitly) calibrated with the devastation of our moment — sure, we had the “release your job” moment with “Break My Soul,” but Renaissance is not an attempt at social commentary. It’s relentless, undeniable vibes designed to gas your serotonin receptors.

Amber: Renaissance feels like such a reflection of the times though — we’re in year three of a horrific pandemic that has killed over 1 million people in this country alone, laws against LGBTQ people are being introduced across the country daily, and Beyoncé is like, "We need some fucking joy in here, let’s pay tribute to Black gay elders and get dancing." — “liberated, living like we ain’t got time,” as she sings in “Heated.” I mean yes, she also wants to remind us that no one else is on her level — opening the album with “These motherfuckers ain’t stopping me” is a choice! — but it also feels like a collective call to action to find joy as an act of resistance, even if you can’t ever forget that she is the one leading it.

Alexa: I think I’m going to need to listen to this album 40 or so more times before I have a coherent answer to this question. However, I will say that in terms of Beyoncé’s branding and public image, this album feels like the final destination for yearslong buildup she’s been doing to solidify her status as an untouchable, godlike fixture in pop culture. I think back to the stretch of releases, from Beyoncé to Lemonade to Homecoming, and the gradual increase in imagery and lyrics asserting herself as not just that bitch, but the bitch. Renaissance feels like the natural next step in her openly marking her territory as the defining artist of our era.

Zia: I’ve recently been diving deep into stories about Frankie Knuckles, Loleatta Holloway, and the other pioneering singers and DJs of house back in the ’70s and ’80s. I am consistently blown away with what they were able to create back then at such a tumultuous time for Black Americans and LGBTQ people. The influences of house music can be found in so many different genres of music, so it’s fitting Beyoncé would pay respect to the foundation of what so much of her music is based upon. Plus, as the genre grew in popularity, house’s Black roots were largely forgotten and never properly attributed, and I think it’s so important that someone on her level is putting the genre back in the spotlight, this time with strong reference to its style, origin, founders, and its newest generation.

Which song do you most want to see a music video for?

Estelle: “Move.” The song is a really clear directive. I need Beyoncé to spiritually top me. There’s so little of the summer left.

Alexa: Beyoncé, do the brave thing and make a short film for “Virgo’s Groove.” Bring back the roller skates from “Blow,” add a group choreography scene involving at least 70 people, include a slow-motion shot of someone applying lipstick at an ornate Jazz Age–esque gala.

Zia: “Cuff It” for sure. As soon as I heard this song, I knew this was gonna be an instant classic. It makes me nostalgic for early 2000s pop Beyoncé but still keeps the sexy adult energy. To me, “Cuff It” is like the hot older sister to “Blow” from Beyoncé. And ever since she posted her drop-day Insta post, I am CRAVING some Donna Summer–esque disco visuals.

Amber: “Thique”! I want thick thighs on yachts.●

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