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Beyoncé: Renaissance review – a breathtaking, maximalist tour de force

About an aeon ago in pop years – in reality, 2008 – Beyoncé released I Am… Sasha Fierce, an album that sought to unleash the uptight, upstanding R&B singer’s more adventurous side. It’s very hard to conceive of this long-ago Beyoncé, a figure who smiled and said very little in public, who had yet to make an explicitly political statement during a Super Bowl half-time, call herself a feminist or reveal her most vulnerable inner workings in public, as she did on 2016’s instant classic Lemonade. That record tackled her husband’s infidelity and that of her own father, pinpointing the roots of both experiences in the rupture of Black life caused by slavery.

Renaissance – her seventh solo outing – finds Beyoncé at her very Sasha Fiercest, dropping F-bombs like loose change, straddling lovers like a dominatrix, strutting around a loud, bass-filled space carved out in great part by queer music-makers of colour, an arena explicitly dedicated to Black joy and sensual pleasure. Her stated intent is to draw a line under recent pandemic strictures and cut loose in “a place without judgment”, all the while foregrounding the freedom from prejudice created on dancefloors from Chicago to Detroit, Berlin to Jamaica, Miami to New Orleans. If courage calls to courage everywhere, Beyoncé’s flexing – about her sexual prowess, the Basquiats on her wall – elides into a celebration of Black pride and female agency. “Comfortable in my skin,” she sings on Cozy. “Cozy with who I am.”

The first taste of Renaissance, Break My Soul, remains an ecstatic house music anthem of our times, an instant classic that unites the vibe of Robin S’s 1993 hit Show Me Love with a sample of Big Freedia’s Explode, a track credited with taking the subculture of New Orleans bounce overground in 2014. But the album’s other totem is Church Girl, a seductive trap-bass-soul hybrid in which Beyoncé details the fun had by “church girls acting loose” – an autobiography in four words. The song starts with a gospel sample – the Clark Sisters – and plays out as a primer on how to move from restriction to abandon, a Beyoncé skillset. “Twirl that ass like you came up out the south, girl,” huffs the Texan transplant.

Over 16 tracks mixed like a DJ set, with segues so good they deserve their own Grammy category, Renaissance is a banging tour de force that has no time for ballads – a first in Beyoncé’s often overunctuous discography. The closest she comes to saccharine is the loved-up Plastic Off the Sofa, a scintillating soul cut produced by Syd (from the band the Internet) alongside Leven Kali that harks back to Stevie Wonder but feels contemporary and pin-sharp, with Beyoncé undersinging delicately, her butterfly vocals bolstered by multitracking. The closest this kaleidoscopic record comes to coasting, meanwhile, is Virgo’s Groove, where Beyoncé’s disco and funk inspirations remain merely true to source without incursions from left field.

That’s because the rest of Renaissance is full of breathtaking extraness. There are chants of “cunty, cunty, cunty”, genre handbrake turns, gasps as political as they are erotic (“I can breathe again!”) and titanium-hard beats drawn from dancehall, Miami bounce and, perhaps most unexpected of all, hyperpop. AG Cook, Charli XCX’s go-to producer, is the mad scientist maxing out the channels on All Up in Your Mind, a cut that frames Beyoncé’s vocal with mischievous digital interference.

It’s the most extreme example of an album that pounds all resistance into submission from the off, a trend-exceeding sound clash of samples, interpolations and juxtapositions, all somehow corralled into cohesion despite the approximately 100,000 credits in songwriting and production. The recent vogue for recycling old hits wholesale reaches a kind of masterful apotheosis with the album closer, Summer Renaissance, which rewrites Donna Summer’s I Feel Love with a dazzling array of new beats, doubling down on the disco classic’s sexual frisson with inflections from the ballroom scene.

Two notable hiccups are worth a moment’s pause: Energy nods to Milkshake, a Kelis hit from 2003 which credits producers the Neptunes (Pharrell and Chad Hugo) but not Kelis herself. Following the singer’s intervention – Kelis alleges her contract with the Neptunes was exploitative – Beyoncé will now remove the sample. The track itself is one of the album’s most explicitly political, with references to “votin’ out 45” (that’s Donald Trump, the 45th president) and “Karens” turning into “terrorists”. There has been an outcry, too, around Beyoncé’s use of an ableist slur (on Heated). It’s a lapse that seems incomprehensible given the many eyes with oversight on this project – and the fact that as recently as June, Lizzo apologised profusely for her use of the same word on her song Grrrls. (Beyoncé has since said she will rerecord the track.)

These sour notes aside, Renaissance is the feelgood manifesto that puts all the other post-pandemic party albums in the shade, a song cycle crammed full of homages to the historic continuum of Black dancefloor therapy. It’s dedicated to Beyoncé’s uncle Jonny, who made her early costumes and died of an Aids-related illness. And although the title nods to Beyoncé’s love of all things rococo and maximalist, it’s hard to hear Renaissance without thinking of the Harlem renaissance of the early 20th century, a time and place where activism and intellectual activity came with an outpouring of progressive partying, too.

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