Beyoncé’s ‘Renaissance’: If You Don’t Dance, You Might Fall Off the Planet’s Edge
The artist’s ballroom and dance music-inspired new album is a rebirth necessitated by ruin
The artist’s ballroom and dance music-inspired new album is a rebirth necessitated by ruin
Beyoncé’s Renaissance (2022) begins with a chant – ‘Please, motherfuckers ain’t stoppin’ me’ – and, if you overlook its confrontational dawning, you might be the motherfuckers in question. The track is ‘I’m That Girl’, which samples and nearly resurrects slain Memphis underground rapper Princess Loko, while Beyoncé makes her entrance as the ‘that girl’ archetype, so keenly aware of how irresistible she is that the status has grown monotonous. She uses the space of this invocation to re-examine why and cajole you into vetting her rebirth as an amplified version of ‘that girl’. The chant is a relentless acapella war cry.
For a couple of verses, Beyoncé’s vocals soften and spiral fantasies of her ego ideal over the chant before raspy, self-aggrandizing raps intercede. She’s mid-rebellion and catching us up on a personal transformation from a girl ago. By the end of the track, she’s repentant for her own brazen leap, singing ‘cleanse me of my sins, my un-American life’. The chant has the final say, returning to close the song in its trench, except this time, trailing off, the inflection of her ‘please’ changes from bravado to supplication, as if she almost wishes these motherfuckers would intervene and deliver her from her own relentless power. The renaissance is coyly un-American and inspired by the dissolution of our collective dream into the glorious ruins of now. Her specific mastery of erotics, an ability to combine pre-emptive vengeance with unconditional romance, helps make a rebirth necessitated by ruin palatable.
The influence of Black Ballroom culture and dance music is apparent right away. ‘I’m That Girl’s’ pulse has a narcotic insistence. The body is at its mercy from the first beat forward, lassoed into a Beyoncé-curated version of Studio 54 complete with the Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings she ‘rips off the wall’ to remind us of her casual opulence and her complicity in a cycle of destruction that makes way for re-creation. But there’s also the cackling echo of the ephemeral digital halls of TikTok, a chaotic infinite high school online, where every once-marginalized clique gets some kind of justice, even if it’s the self-selecting kind.
The ‘that girl’ trend began in one of TikTok’s desperate neighbourhoods, in part because the platform forces those who use it to distil substance into somewhere from one to ten minutes, with the average seeming closer to one. Urgent monotony is often the result. ‘That girls’ sprang up everywhere like clones in The Matrix (1999), euphoric with their microdosed achievements. Beyoncé upgrades the banal desire to prove worth by declaring it instead of exuding it, because she has a lifetime of evidence of her own. Her value is incontestable and almost grotesquely apparent – not just artistically but also commercially. Many ‘that girls’ lean into material luxury to compensate for any thatness they lack. Beyoncé deflects or complicates her access to luxury with dismissiveness because she wants to remind us that, even without all her assets, she is superior. She wants us to take that on and come to her renaissance feeling that way about ourselves, coaxed into self-recognition by the forgiving gaze of a superstar in whose eyes any lack we’ve internalized is trivial.
The translucent horse she mounts on the cover of Renaissance, as if she’s riding in like one of the four horses of the apocalypse, is the portal through which you might access her vantage and grow deluded into grandeur alongside it. The horse is uncanny while she is nearly naked and candid. It’s her foil. It looks to be made of aluminium and lightning. She is Helen of Troy riding her Trojan Horse into armistice and she is Armageddon coming to start the next world.
The tracks that follow, ‘Cozy’ and ‘Alien Superstar’, continue to remind us of the singer’s renewed enchantment with herself, her mannerisms, her life as it is unedited by the psychic tensions that blurred that self-assertion with torment on Lemonade (2016). This settledness, speckled with restlessness, wells up as a seething joy that is militant about itself, and these characterizations of the self are a part of its jubilance. The album’s commitment to joie de vivre must be louder than the ongoing global condition: abjection in such denial that it’s almost decadence.
The last time the world was in such sprawling disrepair, dance, techno and house intervened to help anaesthetize and synthesize and rationalize war, inflation and recession by encouraging the formation of communities who revelled in the intimacy and agency that only a dance floor at the club offers. Insistently lighthearted dance music, and the drugs that make it easy to dance all night, is what America turns to when its problem becomes too vast to solve.
Renaissance is about this retaliatory glee. The album is at its best once the self is so affirmed that we can move on to other subjects. ‘Church Girl’ enters confessional: ‘I’m warning everybody, soon as I get in this party, I’m gon’ let go of this body.’ ‘Move’, with the help of Grace Jones and Tems, aggressively holds her to that release. There’s no room to pause for overthinking: if you don’t dance, you might fall off the planet’s edge, is the message – a warning that endures for the whole second half of the 16-track album. We’ve shaken off our demons and now must ‘fend ourselves off’. The glaring unbotheredness of Beyoncé on Renaissance, her ability to weave between strict affirmation and carefree softness, is a tender tribute to her late Uncle Jonny, who she tells us unequivocally on her website is the work’s muse. Making herself her own muse after lovelornness dismantled that option on Lemonade, is an act of love and honour for her uncle and the culture he shared with her, which she now carries, and which appears to us as the bright phantasmagoric horse we all want to ride to the endless party at the end of this endless war.
Beyoncé is eerily keen, enough to notice that rebirth is the only option here. Her discernment is on the level of Sun Ra’s when he admonished in a poem Your Only Hope Now Is a Lie (1982). A renaissance isn’t common or practical, or even moral. A renaissance is a ruthless reclamation of one’s own energy and insight, no matter who it might offend. The last Black renaissance etched in the collective memory was the Harlem Renaissance, which took place about 100 years ago, when Black people realized that modern urban life would have gladly erased their sensibilities and encouraged them to assimilate into oblivion. Black people rebelled by telling their own stories and re-entering their preferred cadences, improvising a way into a version of modernism that included Blackness. A renaissance is also a well-timed artistic upheaval, a manifesto of refusal to go the familiar way, and the fantasy of a more cohesive origin story. In Beyoncé’s case, that story includes people whose joy is often dismissed as crude or over-indulgent, and whose healing is seen as a gimmick or a party game or a fetish you can purchase or borrow for the night.
Despite the openness of this album and its ingratiating, dancefloor-centred egoism, it’s clear that not everybody can get into the new world it portends. Beneath its celebration of renewal is a spell that brings back the ghosts of heroes and banishes sycophants and tormentors, aware that the only way to avenge a difficult past and frenzied present is by accessing and rejoicing in true self-acceptance. Somewhere between the florid Edens that Minnie Riperton invented with her searingly high pitches, and the low-end, where we shake and gyrate our way free, this renaissance enjoys the mass appeal of anything so versatile and the imperviousness of anything so intent on its vision. Elegy becomes autobiography becomes inverted forensics of an old world and an old version of the singer who didn’t quite know herself and her kin as well as she does now, and didn’t quite recognize the power of only trying to please herself and those she loves most.
Renaissance is what we do when we’ve been appeased and gutted and can’t make a hobby of commiserating any longer. Enjoyment is the final frontier. The instruction to release that austerity addiction has never been clearer or more popular. Our only hope now is rebirth. This album is finally an exorcism of the stale and defunct hopes that might have deterred us from this one viable option. The new protest music isn’t overtly political; it’s violently social, so that we return to one another with the fruits of this inevitable renewal, unburdened, unbothered, rife with traumatic amnesia and selective remembrance, and free. In 1976, poet Amiri Baraka reprimanded on the The Advanced Workers’s track: ‘You Was Dancin’ Need to Be Marchin’. Glib, didactic, punishing slogans were in vogue then. If he were with us today, I believe that even he might flip it and remix the indictment: ‘You were arguing, you should have been dancing offerings to your ancestors.’ You should have been reborn in this life like the true legends: Beyoncé, her Uncle Jonny, anyone brave enough to have the kind of fun that immortalizes the soul on the dancefloor.
Main image: Beyoncé, 2022. Photograph: Carlijn Jacobs