Graeme Thomson

She’s pop’s Damien Hirst: Beyoncé’s Renaissance reviewed

On her first solo album in more than 6 years, a lot of people, some very famous, are toiling in the service of her vision

She’s pop’s Damien Hirst: Beyoncé’s Renaissance reviewed
On the cover of Renaissance, Beyoncé is seated atop a glowing glass horse, naked but for an elaborate metallic bikini. Credit: Carlijn Jacobs
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You feel a little sorry for Renaissance, the first solo album by Beyoncé in more than six years. It just wants to dance, but will anybody let it? Such are the claims made for the singer as a cultural figure – superwoman, warrior queen, saviour of Black America – that everything she does carries a weight of expectation which would crush granite, let alone a pop record.

The songs on her last album, Lemonade, released in 2016, spun out from the infidelity of her husband, Jay-Z, linking a personal breach of trust to fissures in her family history and racial divides in the United States, past and present. It was impressive but stern. That summer, I saw Beyoncé perform in a football stadium in Sunderland, drilled to the max in the drizzle, and the effect was positively brutalist.

Lemonade came with an entire audio-visual accompaniment. Film soundtracks and a so-so collaboration with her husband have followed. These multimedia mission statements severed, at least partially, a direct connection to the mainstream. The music began to feel subordinate to the message. You wonder whether in the past few years some brave soul took Beyoncé aside and made the point that even an icon needs hit singles – and she hadn’t had any of those for a while. No Beyoncé album will ever have a problem garnering attention, but in the age of TikTok she has to work a little harder than before for people to actively listen to the damn thing.

Thus, Renaissance is less concerned about telling us the time of day than urging us to make good use of the hours. The aim is post-pandemic positivity – personal and communal – rather than empowerment. There is no visual concept, no faff. It is just an album, in as much as any Beyoncé album is ‘just’ an album – because, of course, the fact that there is no strategy is the strategy. The looseness and apparent imperfections will have been meticulously shaped to seem so.

Still, it’s welcome news that Renaissance comes over as less buckled up, less in thrall to control freakery. (Which is not to suggest that it is a modest affair; on the cover Beyoncé is seated atop a glowing glass horse, naked but for an elaborate metallic bikini). The mood is retro, more eager to please, less hellbent on appearing to break new ground. Key touchstones include Donna Summer, Nile Rodgers, Grace Jones and, the good Lord preserve us, Right Said Fred.

Renaissance rolls like an hour-long club mix, the aural equivalent of spread betting. 1970s disco, ’80s pop, ’90s house and tinges of old-school country and gospel blend with a tasting menu of contemporary club sounds. Like most of the best music made in the past 70 years, much of it is simply designed to be a motor for movement. The lyrics throughout certainly don’t add up to much: sex and escapism, and how rich, powerful and alluring the singer is.

In terms of pop songs strong enough to stick, ‘Cuff It’ – propelled by a classic Nile Rodgers groove – is a peach. ‘Break My Soul’ is unremarkable, the kind of throwback house tune that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Jess Glynne album, but it does the job. ‘Church Girl’ is a thrilling and oddly beautiful blend of devotional gospel and raw rap. ‘Virgo’s Groove’ is languid nu-disco. ‘Alien Superstar’ nods to Prince and ‘Vogue’-era Madonna, both of whom would surely be delighted that mainstream pop music in the 2020s defaults so thoroughly to explicit sex and profanity.

Some of the rest feels generic, and none of it is especially ground-breaking. This is upbeat, summery dance music. What really sets Beyoncé apart is her voice, which has always been the best of her generation and, at 40, is only getting better. On Renaissance she has a voice for every decade, from 1970s smooth on the feathery ‘Plastic Off the Sofa’ to the cutting-edge rasp of ‘Thique’. It’s a thrill to hear her sing.

All this fun takes hard work. It somehow took 15 people to write ‘Pure/Honey’, which is a pastiche of one Prince song from the 1980s and another from the 1990s. Renaissance exemplifies the compartmentalised nature of pop. It’s a magpie game, synthesising sounds, ideas, beats and styles from across the culture and fashioning them into something new – or, at least, something else. A lot of people, some very famous, are toiling in the service of Beyoncé’s vision. Think of her as pop’s Damien Hirst, mustering her minions to paint those musical dots in order to create the whole to her own exact specifications. This time, their accumulated labours make for an enjoyably escapist pop album. Is that enough?

Renaissance is out now on Parkwood Entertainment and Columbia Records