On her seventh solo album – and first proper release since 2016’s critically revered “Lemonade” – Queen Bey mixes hip-hop, soul, trap, dancehall and a well-placed Donna Summer sample across 16 tracks aimed to stimulate and provoke.
Sometimes she’s sultry, other times explicitly raunchy. At 40, Beyoncé knows there is no need to make apologies. Not that she ever felt that way, but now, she is completely unfettered.
The cover for the new release – featuring the scantily clad singer regally posed atop a silver, glowing horse – indicated that she might bare more than a well-toned thigh with “Renaissance.”
Beyoncé also intentionally shunned a visual component – integral elements of “Lemonade” and 2020’s “Black Is King” project – to allow listeners to conjure their own musical journey with the songs she’s worked on for nearly three years.
When “Break My Soul,” the inaugural single from “Renaissance,” arrived in June, fans were thrilled with its dance-floor vibe provided largely by a glorious sample of Robin S.’s 1993 club anthem, “Show Me Love,” and anticipated the full album containing a similar thrust of house music.
Most follow the blueprint, anchored by heavy percussion, disorienting beats and intriguing segues, with Beyoncé delving her deepest into hip-hop and salacious come-ons.
Here are some of the highlights from the album, subtitled “Act 1,” with two more planned. Because as her disciples know, Beyoncé always has her next act ready to roll:
Synthesizers creep in the background of this futuristic romp that is lyrically rich and musically zigzagging. “I’m the only one / Don’t even waste your time trying to compete with me,” Beyoncé declares over the stomping beat that eventually gets to its thesis: Celebrate being unique.
A soulful bop that finds Beyoncé, “in the mood to (expletive) something up.” It might sound like an Yvonne Elliman throwback, but Beyoncé has something racier in mind for her extracurricular activities. Dabbles of trombones, the signature guitar-funk sound of co-writer Nile Rodgers and percussion courtesy of Sheila E. equate to a pulsing head-nodder. “Have you ever had fun like this?” Beyoncé would like to know.
Thick, layered shuffles and an intoxicating rhythm drive her theme of acceptance. “I’m comfortable in my skin, cozy with who I am … I love myself, goddamn,” she intones over heavy percussion. She also reminds anyone silly enough to question her Beyoncé-ness, “Still a 10, still here.”
With guests Grace Jones and Nigerian singer Tems backing her, Beyoncé is strident and fierce. With Jones, she informs, “Move out the way, I’m with my girls and we all need space / When the queens come through, don’t try like the rest say.”
A split-personality song with ricocheting synth-bass leading the track and Beyoncé directing “bad (expletives) to the left, money (expletives) to the right” before sharing in a knowing tone, “It should cost a billion to look this good.” Shades of Madonna’s “MDNA” phase also brush its edges. The second, less-explicit section of the song detours into pop, with a sashaying melody that is as carefree as a roller rink spinner.
‘America Has a Problem’
The most intriguingly titled song on the album includes production from The-Dream, a co-write by husband Jay-Z and a jittery hi-hat powering the production. Beyoncé tears into a liquid rap sandwiched between a heavenly refrain: “You can get no higher than this … love don’t get no higher than this.” Just in case things get too lovey-dovey, she also reminds, “the booty gonna do what it want to.”
A spicy banger that features Jamaican rapper Beam and samples Kelis’ 1999 song “Get Along With You,” which has incited some controversy. On Wednesday, Kelis responded to a fan’s Instagram comment about the song – following a leak of “Renaissance” after an early European arrival – saying, “the level of disrespect and utter ignorance of all 3 parties involved is astounding.” (The song was written by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo under their Neptunes moniker.) But conflict aside, it’s a quick, adept prelude to “Break My Soul,” melding into the track with the precision of an old-school club DJ.
‘Plastic Off the Sofa’
Beyoncé’s tremendous vocals are showcased in this pretty package of soulful nostalgia that cools down the tempo with woozy guitar strains and angelic backing vocals. It’s a straight-up love song that finds Beyoncé playing cute. “I think you’re so cool, even though I’m cooler than you,” she sings with a wink and a laugh.
The longest song on the album (just over six minutes) is a flawless complement to “Plastic Off the Sofa” – assuming the album is consumed in the order it was intended – with its spongy groove and Beyoncé’s declarations of affection (“You are the love of my life,” she repeats throughout the song) that veer into explicit territory. In case you were wondering, yes, Beyoncé is a Virgo.
Beyoncé wraps her ambitious opus with a nod to Donna Summer as a sample of “I Feel Love” swirls in the background. The pop leanings of the song and its loping gait are countered by her unsubtle teases: “Know you love when I role play, who am I now? / I’m a doc, I’m a nurse, I’m a teacher / Dominate is the best way to beat ya.” A fitting coda to an album gripped by desires.