album review

Beyoncé’s Sequined Revolution

Renaissance, a love letter to Black queer innovators, comes at a precarious moment in history.

Photo: Mason Poole
Photo: Mason Poole

Nile Rodgers got a million-dollar inkling in 1979 when he stepped into the bathroom at the Gilded Grape, the legendary mob-owned drag bar on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan beloved by a colorful cast of regulars that included Andy Warhol. The bathroom, Rodgers would later recall in his 2011 autobiography Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny, was packed with Diana Ross impersonators. “Suddenly it dawned on me that Diana was an iconic figure in the gay community,” wrote Rodgers, who had just agreed to write and produce Ross’s next album. He met with his Chic bandmate Bernard Edwards and hatched a plan “to have Diana talk to her gay fans in a slightly coded language.” Nearly a decade into her solo career, the ex-Supreme was searching for a team to tailor songs to her lived experiences after years of vocalizing her songwriters’ stories. Calling Rodgers and Edwards yielded “Upside Down,” her first No. 1 hit in four years, and “I’m Coming Out,” the jam where Ross signals artistic rebirth while blessing the Gilded Grape girls with a message of pride and power that girded the community through death and disenfranchisement, as the AIDS crisis claimed gay men, the U.S. government dragged its feet, and far too many Americans wondered whether this was divine retribution for going against biblical wisdom.

Divas are loved in queer spaces because they exude and inspire magnificence, radiating a confidence that is infectious. We live vicariously through their elegance; our enthusiasm drives them all the more. It’s an electrical circuit, but the current is powering a futuristic sonic architecture. Nile Rodgers liked to pop into the Gilded Grape because he could hear music that hadn’t washed down into the mainstream consciousness yet. It’s a time-tested play. Anyone who needs to push the dials in popular culture knows to come to the bleeding edge, to bask in the richness of the Black queer imagination, where, by nature of a tense relationship with the wider straight world and a fluid experience of gender, sounds and words and fashions take on exciting new forms. Black queer art and its distinctive, sometimes reactive sense of self drives reverberations in the culture at large. This can cut in a few different directions: Dipping into a Gilded Grape can read like the massive machines from The Matrix sucking the life out of humans in service of themselves — shout-out action-movie meatheads who don’t realize trans women revolutionized their favorite shit — but testing the waters can also result in “I’m Coming Out” (or Janet Jackson’s “Together Again”), uniting different demographics in appreciation of the reflexivity of a great lyric. Beyoncé’s Renaissance succeeds exquisitely at the latter endeavor.

The new album — a mélange of energetic dance music and explicit nods to Black queer creative traditions — attempts to unite people by contrasting their struggles and interests the same way the disco divas’ tales of heartbreak and euphoria could inspire both innovators and tastemakers in the arts and stiffs who simply saw Saturday Night Fever and came home craving more hedonism and hissing hi-hats. Simultaneously a dense, impressive DJ set and an intensive musicology lesson, Renaissance revels in its dualities, peppering modern sounds with references to past classics, house music, and techno with trap and funk, spirituality with sensuality, club-night exuberance with cloistered, marital bliss. Its inroads with queer audiences come attached to confident, accomplished excursions into a few different movements in mainstream pop music. Bey’s showing us how much we all have in common, how we all crave the same comforts, while expressing how closely related our musical traditions are. She’s also maneuvering out of the prickly political directness of her late-’10s work, getting good at conveying things without always saying things, giving you spirit without giving you “Spirit.”

“Church Girl” exemplifies Renaissance’s resourceful slipperiness, as we’re dropped into gospel icons the Clark Sisters’ “Center of Thy Will.” Beyoncé fills the sample out with rapturous harmonies that buck when trap drums drop, and we jolt from Sunday morning back to Saturday night as the Clark Sisters’ exaltations pierce through Louisiana bounce beats. (Please watch the video of Twinkie Clark thanking Beyoncé for the nod not just for the short, exquisite performance at the end but also for the care that goes into reinforcing her song’s message.) We’re coming out of a bad place in the second verse — “I’m finally on the other side / I finally found the urge to smile / Swimming through the oceans of tears we cried” — and in uplifting single women doing the best they can with what they’ve got, she touches both the listener whose faith journey is complicated by church stances on same-sex attraction and the Black women in the same spaces who get treated like their worth resides in their usefulness to a future husband. What makes Beyoncé Beyoncé is the knack for lines that make several people in the same room feel she’s speaking to them directly. Renaissance is a high-flying balancing act, full of expensive shit but also calling back to the Beyoncé who sang “Jumpin’, Jumpin’” and “Bills, Bills, Bills.” She’s centering day-to-day desires, not the overarching struggle. She’s leaning into jams like Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid,” Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall,” or William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful for What You Got” — feel-good music that transcends pay brackets. The writing is less macro than “Be Alive,” “Black Parade,” “Brown Skin Girl,” or “Find Your Way Back” (records she made, you would think, to shine a light on the political awakening happening while civil-rights protests swept the nation but whose single-mindedness and urgency ran counter to the effervescent R&B heaters a casual fan comes to Beyoncé for), but the international interests of The Gift and the intergenerational connectedness of Homecoming are still here adding complexity to even the straightforward club bangers.

Renaissance feels like a guided tour of Black dance-music history, particularly in “Pure/Honey” and “Alien Superstar,” where Beyoncé presides over productions juxtaposing the plastic sheen of ’80s radio pop, the brash beats and braggadocious commentation of ballroom competitions, and the rhythmic gymnastics of New York rap. “Thique” counterbalances menacing, downtempo southern trap with zesty four-on-the-floor drums; “Move” and “Heated” luxuriate in the low-register flirtations of Drake jams (the latter getting assists from Actual Drake and “Best I Ever Had” and “God’s Plan” producer Boi-1da), queering his tough-loverboy bit as Bey, in raucous commentator mode, pays tribute to her Uncle Jonny. Renaissance isn’t just noting key moments in the development of dance music, mirroring the flowering of house, techno, electro, Miami bass, freestyle, hip-hop, and post-disco from the corpse of ’70s disco. It’s also putting on a virtuosic show of rifling through popular sounds. “Cuff It” is, at once, an ostentatious spin through that lean funk-pop you hear in Doja Cat and Calvin Harris hits, a subtle salute to the big-band love songs of Teena Marie, and a sister to “Get Lucky,” an anthem about wanting to get swept off your feet in the club. “Plastic Off the Sofa” coaxes an exquisite quiet storm tune out of Syd and Patrick of the Internet. “Virgo’s Groove,” a muscular update on the plush post-disco grooves Rod Temperton and Quincy Jones regaled on Michael Jackson, feels equally indebted to the Pharrell and Daft Punk records that pull from Mike and the chunky, airy Tame Impala songs the powerhouse grooves in Daft Punk records created space for. Like the robots’ 1997 song “Teachers,” where Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo delivered an extensive list of their inspirations, Renaissance leaves a breadcrumb trail, luring you into a finer understanding of music.

Beyoncé also pulls from aspects of her own back catalogue. Renaissance shares 4’s almost carnal intimacy. The songs about going out with your husband and leaving early for inebriated hijinks plant us firmly in Beyoncé territory, awash in a shockingly X-rated marital fidelity. “Church Girl” and “Break My Soul” share the enthusiasm for a funk vamp and a dance instructional informing earlier hits like the Austin Powers in Goldmember heat rock “Work It Out” or B’day’s “Get Me Bodied.” The trek from house to Afrobeat to trap and back that happens in two minutes during “Energy” feels like The Gift in miniature. (Also, instead of dragging Kelis for venting about the “Milkshake” shard in “Energy,” what if you put your energy behind calling for better deals for singers?) Elsewhere, we’re revisiting the showy vocal gymnastics that helped to prove Bey’s mettle as a solo artist across 2003’s Dangerously in Love. The runs just before the turn in “Move” overachieve the same way “Naughty Girl” does, swooping up and whirring dizzyingly, like planes in aerobatic competitions.

The vocals here are often stunning and always full of surprises, and the production honors every note. The halo of “ooh”s floating over the verse in opener “I’m That Girl” conjures the Old Hollywood elegance and drama of the pool scene from The Great Muppet Caper. Skipping alongside Patrick Paige II’s bass in “Plastic Off the Sofa,” Bey leans into the flutelike high notes Joni Mitchell excels at. In “Heated,” she delivers the octave-skipping audacity Honestly, Nevermind lacked. The reserved and relaxed flow in “Thique” gives you Valee, and the bridge in “Cuff It” gives you J.J. Fad, and the “block, block, block” / “shot, shot, shot” lines in “Energy” give you rackety rack-rack-racks like Nav, and the verse from “Alien Superstar” where “haute couture” rhymes with “so obscure” gives you Shawn Corey Carter. The joy she gets from these chameleonic vocal exercises is especially apparent in “All Up in Your Mind,” the kind of performance you only arrive at after you’ve developed close personal relationships with Culture Beat’s “Mr. Vain,” La Bouche’s “Be My Lover,” or SNAP!’s “Rhythm Is a Dancer,” the kind of heat this artist used to strand on remix collections. She knows this stuff. You don’t come around cartwheeling over “Show Me Love” and “I Feel Love” without doing your homework. Renaissance is a master class in Black music studies, in nonstop vocal excellence, and in catering to an underappreciated corner of your fandom without bewildering or abandoning the others. It’s both a savvy follow-up to Lemonade (which felt like a career peak but may be dethroned when the dust settles) and a giant bear hug in a tough year for the Black queer community.

While accepting the Vanguard Award at the 2019 GLAAD Media Awards, Beyoncé spoke about the value of “connecting people who, at first glance, seem to be worlds apart” and honored the Black gay uncle she lost to AIDS-related illness, who taught her and her sister about music and fashion. The win drew criticism from people questioning Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s history on queer issues, but her pledge to help steer “Black families towards accepting queer Black and brown men and women around the world” is newly relevant in the wake of Renaissance’s glitzy, sequined revolution. This album taps the richness of expression of artists who had to build a new confidence for themselves in a country where every inch of respect is a fight. The confidence driving Renaissance is descended from a scrappy, defensive glamour. When Beyoncé mentions “stolen Chanel” in “Heated,” she conjures unhoused queer youth fighting to get by. “Cozy” and “Alien Superstar” take us inside ballroom competitions whose wide range of categories recognize the beauty and talent in people otherwise dismissed as derelicts outside the venues. Beyoncé’s love letter to queer innovators arrives at a precarious time for the communities whose creative contributions are lifted up throughout Renaissance. Homophobia and transphobia are on the march. The U.S. government is once again taking a gamble on the health and safety of men who have sex with men; the wave of anti-trans legislation preys upon the same misinformed fears the community faced in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Angry men are showing up outside drag shows; the bars that host them are hurting. Renaissance is offering valuable exposure — and, one would think, coin — to artists who deserve a boost. Collaborating with Syd, Honey Dijon, and Big Freedia, and sampling TS Madison, Moi Renee, MikeQ, and Kevin Aviance pushes the point: Build bridges. Don’t just grab a CD and shirt or sequined pasty set or crystal-embellished durag, sprinkle “cuntie”s and “huntie”s into your vernacular, and call it a day. Defend somebody. Give money to somebody. Love on somebody.

Beyoncé’s Sequined Revolution