jg review: RANKING RENAISSANCE
A review and ranking of Beyonce's celebrated record...
Cast your mind back to January 2022: Omicron was on the wane, the days were getting longer and Beyonce was topping critics' lists of the year's most anticipated projects. Culturally, the singer-superstar was in a bit of a tricky spot in the build-up to the release of her seventh solo album. Following the cultural domination and critical acclaim that met her sixth project, 'LEMONADE', and her 'HOMECOMING' Coachella stint that followed, it seemed that Queen B had reached a satisfying peak in her career--one which would render anything she did next as a sure disappointment in comparison to those releases. 2018's 'EVERYTHING IS LOVE' from Beyonce and Jay-Z (as 'The Carters') was released to disappointing sales, and was followed by 2019's oft-overlooked soundtrack album 'The Lion King: The Gift'. The latter release made next-to-no impact despite containing some of Beyonce's best work, and was re-packaged in 2020 under the title 'BLACK IS KING' in an attempt to affirm its sonic legacy as a visual album.
Alongside speculation of her waning star-power came a long and hard pandemic, which seemed to trigger a revival of upbeat pop. Surpassing Beyonce's political projects were the likes of Dua Lipa and Megan thee Stallion, whose cheeky, unserious approach proved welcome relief from the political and economic turmoil of 20/21. When Beyonce's collaboration with thee Stallion in the height of the COVID pandemic - the smash-hit 'Savage Remix' which saw Beyonce let down her hair - rose to the very top of music charts worldwide, her way forward was clear: a dance record. Following in a lineage of older female musicians turning to dance music in their 40s (Aretha and Madonna both spring to mind), Beyonce released the maximalist house-track 'Break My Soul' on the first day of summer. The song would become her first solo no.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 since 2008's 'Single Ladies'. It was a taste of what was to follow, as the veteran announced that 'act i: RENAISSANCE' would release in late July--the first of three so-called 'acts', each touted to tackle a different genre.
'RENAISSANCE' turned out to be more than just a house record. With 16 tracks, 107 songwriters and a runtime of just-over 60 minutes, the album is jam-packed with riffs, harmonies and samples which tackle the entire history of black dance music, and herald its black queer origins. This is, to put it crudely, Beyonce's queer album, curated in honour of the singer's late Uncle Johnny who used to make her childhood dresses before losing a slow battle with HIV/AIDS. The album is greater than the sum of its tracks, acting as a continuous, unending DJ set which blurs the boundaries between each song with blood-pumping effect, and has gone on to top multiple Critic's Choice lists while acting as bookie's favourite to win the Grammy for 'Album of the Year'. Now that I've had plenty of time to digest it, then, I thought I'd try and unpack 2022's grandest pop release. It's my first review in over a year--it's time to rank 'RENAISSANCE'.
16. I'M THAT GIRL
Let me start this rundown by affirming that, in my opinion, there are really no bad songs on Beyonce's 'RENAISSANCE'. 'I'm That Girl' finds itself at the bottom of this list simply because it is a fine introduction to a phenomenal body of work. The brilliant sample of Princess Loko's flow from Tommy Wright III's 'Still Pimpin' sets the thematic tone for the rest of the album, her distorted chants of "please, motherfuckers ain't stopping me" acting as a self-affirmation to the star as much as it is a warning to her peers in the industry. The track's jarringly changeable tempo is initially grating, but hindsight reveals it to be a warning; as the album's introduction, 'I'm That Girl' is a caution to expect the unexpected, too.
15. ALL UP IN YOUR MIND
'RENAISSANCE' tackles a variety of dance sub-genres, and 'All Up In Your Mind' is Beyonce's answer to hyperpop (a sentence I'm sure nobody expected to write). One of the album's shortest songs, this heavy, unhinged track echoes the themes of the singer's break-out smash 'Crazy in Love' but with a much darker intensity ("I'll go and do the time if it means I'll make you mine, why don't you take the time to really notice me?"). It's a great gym track with a brilliantly constructed second half, but struggles at first to truly get going. Nonetheless, this is a career highlight for producer A.G. Cook, who you may know from his collaborations with Charli XCX and the late great SOPHIE.
14. CHURCH GIRL
I'm not sure if this is going to be controversial, but as much as I enjoy 'Church Girl' I do think it is the one song on the album that could be erased without weakening 'RENAISSANCE's overall musical impact. This bombastic ode to the southern woman attempts to disguise its high energy with a sombre opening sample from Gospel royalty 'The Clark Sisters', before plummeting into a 'Get Me Bodied' esque sound-wall in which the church girl's are called to release themselves on the dance floor. Despite sounding a little dated, it probably boasts some of the record's most earnest lyrics; "Finally on the other side, finally found the urge to smile, swimming through oceans of tears we cried, you know you got church in the morning but you're doin' God's work, you're goin' in. She ain't tryna hurt nobody, she's just tryna do the best she can. Happy on her own, with her friends, without a man."
To call a spade a spade, 'Energy' is a glorified interlude. But it's so clever. The song has three distinct sections; in its first, 'Energy' adopts 'Cuff It's irresistibly funky bassline and BEAM, the Jamaican-American star, glides onto the record ("come let's tell a drop lazy, none of that 'maybe' energy"). Beyonce mirrors his flow with a dig at Donald Trump ("votin' out 45, don't get out of line,") as vuvuzelas take the listener from disco to dancehall. The song becomes an atmospheric sweatbox as Bey chimes "I'm crazy, I'm swearing, I'm daring, your man's staring". In less then a minute the song makes another shift, as the vuvuzelas part in awe of Big Freedia's signature growl, and the club's bpm is primed for a seamless transition into 'Break My Soul'. 'Energy' isn't topping any year-end song charts like 'Break My Soul', 'Heated' and 'Virgo's Groove' have done, but this song serves as the glue to a ten minute track run on 'RENAISSANCE' that covers a vast breadth of black dance music. It's the mid-point in a sonic rollercoaster that is one of 'RENAISSANCE's highlights.
'Thique' acts as the grand opening of 'RENAISSANCE's third act, one defined by bombastic, synthetic arrangements that pay homage to hyperpop, techno, trap and early electro. The first half of this song sounds like a hold-over from Yonce's 2013 Self Titled project but, halfway through the song, the singer's voice begins to contort. Her pitch enjoyably wibbles in and out of the highest and lowest pitch until it's sped up, Tinashe style, into a stacked, histrionic chorus celebrating the female body; "you gotta make a fold-out to fit the magazine". In the right setting (try this one in the gym), 'Thique' is exquisite.
11. PLASTIC OFF THE SOFA
The Sabrina Claudio-penned 'Plastic Off The Sofa' is the closest 'RENAISSANCE' comes to a ballad, and feels like truly classic Beyonce. The singer is as vocally playful here as she was in her Destiny's Child days (at the time she was parodied, repeatedly, for her excessive vocal acrobatics on stage). Her incredible runs at the end of the song became a viral TikTok challenge in wake of the album's release (a challenge won, undoubtedly, by rapper Cardi B). The song follows 'Church Girl' in the setlist, allowing everyone to cool off before the tempo ramps back up; 'Plastic Off The Sofa' is your water break in a set-list otherwise made up of patron, sambuca and fizz, and boy is it refreshing.
'Cozy' is the first melodic song on 'RENAISSANCE' coming after 'I'm That Girl', and it's a brilliant mid-tempo groove. The song interpolates the viral 'Bitch, I'm Black' monologue by trans icon T.S. Madison, setting the scene for an album which goes on to uplift the voices of many queer and black creatives, and a cleverly written third verse goes on to paint the colours of the Pride Progress Flag. It's a shorter song, but a fantastic earworm calling for sisterhood, body positivity and self-empowerment. There's also a cute nod to the ferocity of Solange, the singer's sister who famously fought with Jay-Z at the 2014 Met Gala; "might I suggest you don't fuck with my sis, 'cos she's comfortable."
9. SUMMER RENAISSANCE
'Summer Renaissance', the album's final track, is quite the grand finale. It's a re-imagining, of sorts, of Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder's iconic 'I Feel Love'--a song many consider as the pinnacle of 70's Disco. Beyonce's vocal ability allows her to have a lot of fun here, with my favourite part of the track consisting of a multi-scale run which sees her shift from her Summer-esque head voice ("I wanna take you all the way") into a deep staccato yawp ("you sexy motherfucker, boy you growin' on me."). This light-hearted, playful approach to the revered Disco classic allows Beyonce to make it fresh; it's a great dance track even though the Summer sample has already been done to death. The track seems to be one of the singer's own favourites from the project, too--not only does this song give 'RENAISSANCE' it's name, but it's also been heavily featured in Beyonce's recent Tiffany Campaign. This is significant, I suppose, because the ad is now the closest Beyonce has gotten to releasing a music video for the album so far...
7. BREAK MY SOUL
If you can trust Beyonce to do anything, it's to release a memorable lead single. 'Break My Soul' sits comfortably, then, alongside the anthemic 'Crazy in Love' and 'Run the World (Girls)' in it's call for the listener to release their pain on the dancefloor. This collaboration with queer icon Big Freedia (who also contributed to the 'Formation' video in 2016) responds directly to the baggage of the pandemic; "and we back outside, with the mask outside, in case you forgot how we act outside." The song caused division online in it's criticism of the 9-to-5, given Beyonce has been a musician since she was a teen, but if multi-millionaire Dolly Parton can critique the daily grind then I'll let Beyonce do the same--especially when the song is this good. The song's crescendo ("we go round in circles searching for love, up and down, lost and found, searching for love, looking for something that lives inside me,") is overwhelming in its optimism, and the song definitely deserves its spot as one of 2022's most impactful pop anthems.
'Pure/Honey' feels like 'RENAISSANCE's thesis statement. Produced by trans extraordinaire Honey Dijon, the song is a two-part anthem which plunges the listener deep into the American queer underground. It's a Ballroom anthem, and Beyonce is the Mother of the Haus; "all the pretty boys to the floor!" This is perhaps the first time Beyonce has explicitly celebrated her expansive gay fanbase with her lyrics, and the thundering, vogue-friendly bassline which underpins 'Pure' is glorious. The song opens with the sample of a queer deep-cut, Kevin Aviance's 'Cunty' (which, in queer slang, has long been reclaimed as a positive exclamation); Aviance had no idea he was sampled on the album, and admitted he fainted during his first listen.
One of my favourite aspects of this song is the way it uses samples to replicate the feeling of wading through a club crowd. Peppered throughout 'Pure' are various, echoey, queer voices adding humour and atmosphere to the sound; "I can't get through! Should I go left? Should I go right?" and the obnoxious "Beep beep!" always make me laugh. Halfway through, the song transitions into 'Honey' which heavily samples Beyonce's favourite Prince deep-cut 'Nasty Girl' (Vanity 6). The song's two-act structure is reminiscent of 'Bow Down/Flawless' and 'Yonce/Partition', and here excels in its success at merging two distinct styles of queer dance music. The euphoric disco funk fades out into a final queer deep-cut - Moi Renee's 'Miss Honey' - which not only mythologises the Queen Bee herself but serves to eulogise yet another queer black icon in an album intent on archiving their contributions to the canon of western music.
6. AMERICA HAS A PROBLEM
It's common knowledge that Michael Jackson has been one of Beyonce's biggest influences, but outside of 'Love On Top' (a clear homage to the Jackson 5) and 'HOMECOMING's sample of 'Can You Feel It' (also by the band), the singer's musical style has been distinct from the King's. Then came 'America Has A Problem'. This incredible track feels like it's emerged directly from an 80's time capsule, with an electro-swagger that wouldn't find itself out of place in the track-list of Jackson's 'Bad'; Beyonce herself seems to acknowledge this with her purrs of "I'm bad...I'm bad!" throughout the chorus. The song has become a fan favourite from the project, not least because of how funny the track can be in it's scolding tone; "know you can't get no higher than this...NO! NO!"
When the 'RENAISSANCE' track-list was revealed before the project's release, many suspected 'America Has A Problem' would be the singer's response to the racial turmoil which has heightened in America throughout the recent years. After all, Beyonce's projects in the 2010s were inseparable from contemporary U.S. politics. The song's name, though, comes from its recurring sample of Kilo's 'America Has a Problem (Cocaine)', in which the rapper laments America's opioid epidemic. But Beyonce's remix takes the message one step further, and away from political discourse entirely. Instead, the 'Problem' in question is Beyonce herself, with the singer positioning herself as inescapably addictive. In all of its trolling, one message rings loud and clear: if you can't hype up yourself, how the hell are you gonna hype up somebody else?
5. ALIEN SUPERSTAR
In case you hadn't already noticed, 'RENAISSANCE' is a record heavily-laden with samples, and 'Alien Superstar' (with 24 song-writing credits) contains some of the best use of samples in Beyonce's 25-year career. The song opens with the Foremost Poet's 'Moonraker', hauntingly declaring the listener "remain calm" as 'Cozy's beat fades and a new, threatening rhythm permeates the dancefloor like a UFO descending through the clouds. Beyonce's spoken word commentary blasts from the speaker, talking her shit ("don't even waste your time trying to compete with me...") and the prismatic chime of "unique" - now immortalised as a meme - makes its first appearance on the record. This is another sample - this time of Danube Dance and Kim Cooper's 'UNIQUE' - which Beyonce goes on to layer masterfully over the top of 'Superstar's choral melody, itself being a sample of Right Said Fred.
The 'I'm Too Sexy' sample has been used by Taylor Swift, Doja Cat and Drake, but 'Alien Superstar's unorthodox production (thank you, Honey Dijon) gives it a brand new lease of life. This ethereal dance track acts as the culmination of 'RENAISSANCE's opening act, and its bold production and lyricism sets the scene for a different, more reckless, more alien version of the singer to take centre stage on the dancefloor. Beyonce has always been known for her perfectionism, but with 'Alien Superstar' (and 'RENAISSANCE' as a whole) it's clear something has shifted; maybe it's the benefit of her age and her experience, maybe it's the fact she has nothing left to prove, but since her debut in 1997 I don't think the singer has ever sounded this cool.
It's not often I see 'Move' so high up in a 'RENAISSANCE' ranking, but this track is insane to me. And I'm not the only one who thinks so--it got the legendary Grace Jones out of hiding, after all. The song, produced by Ghana's GuiltyBeatz and Nigerian-Brit P2J, thrusts Afrobeat into 'RENAISSANCE's generous spotlight. In the background of the track, synthetic horns mimic bird calls and dogs bark beneath Jones' flow; "brukup, it's brukup, it's brukup, it's brukup, humble like we pon the come up, don't make it turn into trouble, 'cos we coming straight out the jungle." Under Jones' verse Beyonce whispers her name, hyping up the elusive legend as if in disbelief she secured a feature. You can hear the care that went into this thickly layered track--Beyonce's stacked harmonies sound like double cream, while her deep post-motherhood voice excels as she jeers; "Move out the way! I'm with my girls and we all need space! How many times I'ma say? When the Queen comes through part like the Red Sea!"
Like warring cliques of flamingos, 'Move' demands each group on the dance floor migrate to another spot in the club, each flock taunting the other as they shuffle along to Yonce's provocations. In true 'RENAISSANCE' style, the song takes a sonic turn halfway into the record. As Tems, the track's other feature, begins to rap over the beat, the song shifts gear; "Find me. I don't need to call him. I don't need no phone. I don't need to fall. You know me, I'm vibing." Wistfully sung, 'Move's second half contrasts gorgeously with the tumult of it's first, and as guitar strings speckle the closing verse ("this is how we move, this is how we move,") the song becomes sexy, reflective and refined. It's a masterpiece of a song, in my humble opinion, and I'm glad that the singer's command of Afrobeat is finally being celebrated within her solo studio-album canon.
3. CUFF IT
Even if you haven't listened to 'RENAISSANCE', you've heard 'Cuff It'. The song is now the project's most played track on Spotify, thanks in part to it's viral TikTok dance challenge which has seen everybody from Nene Leakes to Nicole Sherzinger groove to this soulful track. An instant feel-good classic, 'Cuff It' combines R&B, Funk, Disco and Pop with an array of legends contributing to the instrumental; Nile Rodgers lends his signature chicken-scratch guitar skills, Honey Dijon is on the drums, Raphael Saadiq is on bass and Sheila E. is on percussion. The result of this quasi-supergroup is a modernised, Chic-like record which flew into the UK Top 10 without a speck of label promotion.
Beyonce has ventured into this musical territory before, and with great success; 'Schoolin' Life', 'Love On Top' and 'Work It Out' were all solid tracks, but what the singer accomplishes with this record blows all of those out the water. This is the singer's new wedding classic, her new good-mood groove, and is sure to live on as long as she does in the cultural consciousness. When all is said and done, I do believe that this will be the song that 'RENAISSANCE' is remembered for, and while there are better songs on the album (two to be precise) it seems the album's legacy is in safe hands with 'Cuff It'.
Okay, I'll be honest with you. Writing all of this about 'RENAISSANCE' has been a little exhausting. It takes hours and hours to write a post like this, and I've had to listen to these tracks a lot during this time. But 'Heated'? Oh, I will never bore of 'Heated'. This is one of the best songs Beyonce has ever released, but it started its life as a discarded and lacklustre Drake demo. I can't quite wrap my head around what makes Beyonce's re-imagining just so good, but I'm not alone in my thesis; 'The Hollywood Reporter' just named 'Heated' 2022's best song. The song opens with a gorgeous Travis Garland sample, whose guitar riff plays throughout, and captures a kind of romantic resentment I haven't quite heard in music before, wherein Beyonce finds herself in an emotional tug-of-war between rage and self-affirmation; "Oh now you wanna have conversations? See how you testing my patience. Got a lot of style, got a lot of Tiffany on me. I gotta fan myself off, I gotta cool it down, you got me heated. Keep playing with my heart, I'm just as petty as you are. Only a real man can take me, only the radio can play me..."
It's a great double entendre--yes I'm hot, but there's fire in my eyes, too. While Beyonce is no stranger to aggressive rapping (see-'Move'), something about the delicacy of her head voice throughout this song adds a level of tension and sexiness to the conflict in question--that is, until it devolves into an absolutely unhinged rant on her own self-worth. The rant in question is delivered in the style of Ballroom commentary, as Beyonce steps into the role of MC and channels underground queer legends. She takes this opportunity to shout-out her Uncle Johnny and to release angst that has clearly been long suppressed, angst regarding criticism of her post-motherhood body changes, her star-power and the quality of her work; "Fan me off, my wrist goes 'click', dimples on my hips, stretch marks on my tits, drinking my water, minding my biz, Monday I'm overrated, Tuesday you're on my dick, flip-flop, flippy, flip-flopping ass bitch," and so on... It's Beyonce at her most petty, her most unfiltered and, frankly, at her sloppiest. This deviation from her pristine self-construction is not just a welcome change of pace, but is the most formidable persona adopted by the singer thus far--how exciting for an artist who has so long been in the game.
1. VIRGO'S GROOVE
And here we are, but did you expect a different verdict? 'Virgo's Groove' is an absolute masterclass in musicality, harmony and genre work. Never has a Beyonce track sounded so rich, and I don't just mean in terms of quality. 'Virgo's Groove' sounds expensive, like every instrument, synth and vocal stack has been doused in Champagne that's fermented in a disco ball. Okay, I might be going too far here with the metaphors, but this 6-minute magnum-opus invites every iteration of Beyonce we've known so far to step up to the plate; the 'Dangerously in Love' vocal virtuouso shows up here in full-force, as does the sex-crazed Yonce of Self Titled. Sasha Fierce's glittered swag underpins the sonic showmanship, while the Beyonce of '4' takes centre stage amidst the echoey funk and groove. And clouded within the neon-lit dry-ice stands the young Beyonce of Destiny's Child, whose ear for vocal harmonies propelled that group to success and still allows the singer to create vocal stacks with herself that prove hypnotic on the dancefloor. Beyonce herself said of Renaissance "It makes you wanna move, it makes you wanna dance, it makes you wanna fall in love and be with your man or with your woman, [...] the vocal arrangements are my favourite. Sometimes it can be thousands of vocals. You have to look at my sessions - it's unbelievable the amount of [vocal] tracks." No where is this attention to detail more evident than in 'Virgo's Groove'--a star sign known for perfectionism.
Every time the track feels like it's losing steam, it switches up and gains an extra pair of legs; it's a never ending tour-de-force that stands out in such a fast paced album, aside songs that contain songs within other songs. And that transition into this from 'Plastic Off The Sofa'? It's cinematic stuff--I'm practically rabid for the singer to drop her accompanying visual project for the film, teased 'Everything Everywhere All At Once'-style earlier this year. 'Virgo's Groove', named in honour of the singer's star sign which Michael Jackson shared, does indeed sound like a lost treasure from the era of 'Off The Wall', but this is also probably the most Beyonce record on the album (I can't elaborate on that, unfortunately, words fail me). This Grammy-nominated track (for Best R&B Performance), hailed by The Guardian and Uproxx as one of 2022's best releases, is not just my favourite song on 'RENAISSANCE'--this might be her best song yet.
Okay, if you're still reading this, thanks for enjoying my (not so) comprehensive breakdown and ranking of Beyonce's 'RENAISSANCE'. I'm sure most people that follow my blog won't be interested in this at all, but if you stayed for the whole article then I thank you kindly and wish you extra-well. This was inspired in part by my favourite podcast of 2022, DJ Louie XIV's 'Pop Pantheon', so be sure to check out his content if you enjoyed this thorough of an analysis. I hope you're all having a great and safe winter season, and I can't wait to write some more in 2023! Happy New Year guys--
Lov from James x