Beyoncé has once again reinvented herself. Instead of a mere pop star, she has now become a club icon. Her new pivot falls in line with what has been orbiting the pop wheelhouse for some time now, with Gaga, Dua Lipa, Drake and Doja Cat having all flirted with house and dance music at-large for inspiration. But this is Beyoncé. The queen herself.
So now, we have countless screeds saying how Beyoncé has saved house music, how she’s engaging in this long, varied history of Black music in house and techno and disco and bringing it to the masses, et cetera et cetera. It all feels so contrived, lavish praise from people who have never been to a rave or actually gone deep on any sort of dance music rabbit hole. Baby’s first club bops for people who’ve never listened to cuts from Paradise Garage or Nervous Records or R&S.
Look at the lead single, “BREAK MY SOUL.” It sounds like it was designed for a Peloton commercial. You could almost imagine loading up GarageBand and hearing this in its preset section under “Modern Club.” And people think this is somehow the “liberatory power of the club floor?” Stock David Guetta synths and piano runs do not make a hot track.
There’s some sort of stereotypical club music en vogue that clouds minds to say, “This is what the 90s sounded like!” that lacks the dynamics and range of the actual tunes of the time. It infected both Dua Lipa and Kylie Minogue’s last albums, which were widely lauded yet sound so pale compared to true disco classics. Disco wasn’t great because of its pop appeal, it was great because it excellently straddled how instrumentation and vocals could co-mix to create dance music, and none of the above artists walked that line.
There’s a busyness in RENAISSANCE that especially peeves me. None of these tracks breathe and grow into themselves, which is damning for an album that’s labelled as dance music. “VIRGO’S GROOVE” is the designated centerpiece, a longer disco track smack dab in the middle. The song is highly manufactured and synthetic, a stark contrast to the free-spirited, tasteful sound of the genre’s roots; the harmonies sound like they were ripped from the Trollz 2 soundtrack. You’re telling me that the album’s opus is almost a knockoff of Dua Lipa’s “Levitating?”
So much nu-disco feels laundered from templates, rote exercises that try to prove this music can work in 2022. It suffers from the same problem that Drake’s most recent album ran into–so concentrated on shoehorning megastars into certain genres that it misses why the music works in the first place.
The best parts of RENAISSANCE are either cribbed from other artists or recall Beyoncé’s past. The chaotic Big Freedia chants of “BREAK MY SOUL,” the “Still Pimpin’” interpolation on “I’M THAT GIRL,” and the Kilo Ali rip on “AMERICA HAS A PROBLEM” just make me want to listen to those artists instead. Their raw authenticity is so much more engaging without the edges shaved off. And “ALL UP IN YOUR MIND” feels like a Beyoncé B-side in the best way, showing how her comfort zone is still capital P pop and not weird facsimiles of club music. Similarly, the Drake cosplay of “HEATED” and the RuPaul cosplay of “ALIEN SUPERSTAR” ring hollow, yet “CHURCH GIRL” runs parallel to “In My Feelings” and Beyoncé’s Coachella performance and never sounds stilted or forced.
I’m sure Beyoncé went into this with the best intentions but, like Drake, so much here feels like a fashion statement instead of the true paradigm shift many fans and critics expect of her. The best house and techno was made by people who had something vital and important to say and no other way to say it. Juan Atkins and Frankie Knuckles and Larry Heard and all the icons who made it possible transcended expectations by crafting sounds that blew in the face of previous musical form. I’m not sure if it’s the digital recording structures or compositions, but something akin to “Clear” or “Mystery of Love” just isn’t here; those classics contain verve and marked flaws, in contrast to the nostalgia-bait that is far more contrived and facile than actual 80s/90s singles.
And of course, every article about the album has included how Beyoncé has made a love letter to the Black queer community that inspired disco, house, and techno. It’s all well and good to pay homage to these elders and their identity, but simple lip service doesn’t cut it! Black queer DJ ADAB lambasted it on a Facebook thread, saying ”RENAISSANCE is by absolutely no means comparable to dance music or ballroom history nor is it a continuation of that legacy. At no point does this album even sound remotely as crisp, warm, and meticulously produced as anything Disco wise that was coming out then nor does it have the dusty free spirit of the early house that followed…”
To quote my friend and producer Yakui: “The entire mainstream narrative of music is that all the artists you see who are rich and popular are the most innovative and important. Everyone else doesn’t matter and entire scenes of music don’t exist in-between popular exposure. It’s why I fucking despise the culture lol.”
I like Beyoncé on the whole, on god, but if you truly love this culture and imbibe it readily, this is a fraudulent album. RENAISSANCE is well-produced, predicated on important social and cultural touchstones, snappy and relevant, brimming with great Instagram captions and utterly soulless. Your mom will probably enjoy it though.