Oh, to be an “un-American girl” in the year of grace 2022. One of the biggest pop stars of all time knows she has the juice, the genius and the audacity to grab that finger. ‘honor. – aerial nickname on I’m That Girl, the “still pimpin'”, mystical prologue of Beyoncé’s latest masterpiece, Renaissance. The track immediately makes us reconnect with the versions of Beyoncé we encountered on her 2016 lemonade: Beyoncé the outlaw, the bandit, the ballerina; an “indecent”, “so pagan”, “thug” sister for her “un-American life”. But while Lemonade has boldly and alludingly traced the fuel of her wandering (armed with a baseball bat, no less) back to the historical nightmare of slavery and its enduring systemic problems – broken black intimacies, alienated lovers, fractured families and generations of black women left to clean up the mess – her seventh studio album portrays a dancefloor rebel with a cause whose joyful disconnect with what it means to be “American” at present demands that we completely redefine this word.
To be “un-American” in Beyoncé’s Renaissance era is to be “good about myself,” as she sings on Chicago’s slinky house banger, Cosy. The song features trans icon Ts Madison’s soundbite “Black as I want to be” and a verse that aims to not only “paint the world pink” but also drench it in the colors of the vast rainbow flag. Rainbow Progress Pride by Daniel Quasar. If, in other words, being “American” in 2022 means living daily physical, social, political and existential perils as black and brown people, as women, trans and queer people – and especially as black and brown queer people – so count her out. Beyoncé knows, like the rest of us on the fringes, that curating a radical life is a “litany for survival,” as the late black feminist poet and essayist Audre Lorde put it. Conceptually, Renaissance builds on that tradition of queer color thought forged by scholars influenced by Lorde and his generation of thinkers (Rod Ferguson, Kara Keeling, Tavia Nyong’o, Marlon Ross, Jafari Allen, Madison Moore, to name a few). less than them): people who have searched and defended alternative sites of wholeness and pleasure in the face of intersectional violence and exclusion. As Pop Empress Donna Summer’s Keeling (who Beyoncé references on Renaissance’s closing track) and I Feel Love notes, this music of queer freedom is rooted in ecstasy, “the root of which comes from the Greek ekstasis , which means “to stand outside oneself”. It transforms one into more than one, somebody who is many. They.”
Beyoncé’s summertime soundtrack is a welcome antidote to our present times: a season in which six unelected United States Supreme Court jurists told women and people with wombs that our bodies don’t did not belong. This is the third year of a pandemic in which we continue to struggle to keep our bodies healthy and gradually learn to reconnect with other bodies. There is no end in sight to the ever-fresh and brutal anti-Black, anti-Brown, anti-queer, anti-trans and anti-woman pandemic. In this environment, Beyoncé triggered a recovery of the pleasure found in our own flesh. “She knew how badly we needed to dance,” is how my colleague Kathryn Lofton, a Yale religious studies scholar, put it when she texted me the night the first single Renaissance’s heady Break My Soul arrived like a spiritual meteor from the sky – a week before the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down constitutional abortion rights. The Yoncé on this record is still well aware that the world is on fire: despite “votin’ out 45”, it is better to keep your “energy” by any means necessary “because the Karens have become terrorists”. We’re in the mix with her as each track resonates with layers of lyrical, musical and thematic calls and responses across the album’s expanse. Relying again and again on the baptismal magic of the beat and the insistence on “looking for something that lives in me”, she offers one escape strategy after another to resist and reject the American habit of trying to break minority peoples.
Nearly a decade after Beyoncé explicitly placed black feminism at the center of her repertoire (on her masterful 2013 self-titled album “surprise”), Renaissance continues to deepen that resolve by blending cutting-edge pop experimentation with principles of liberation. black feminist who talk about our pervasive precariousness. As the devastating body camera footage of black lives being devalued, mismanaged and brutalized by the state continues to roll across the United States – Georgia last week and god knows where next – Beyoncé’s latest album opens the way to another plane out of the American carnage and into a cosmos of dark ecstatic wonder and eroticism, drama and exploration, libidinal role-playing and fierce funky acting. Our heroine’s physical body is a serious force to be reckoned with here – like a vision of adornment draped in a bedazzled, bare-bones number on the Lady Godiva-meets-Josephine Baker album cover; as a “hypersonic, sexually erotic” as she sings on the delightful Cuff It, a seductive reboot of Get Lucky starring Nile Rodgers back home alongside Raphael Saadiq and Sheila E; as a conductor of heat capable of “letting[ing] you in a trance”; a radiant goddess of light so powerful that “everything beside me lights up too”.
Such brilliance is the required calling card for any great dance diva aiming to rule the night. Certainly, the canonicals know that scintillation and hope are the key ingredients of the last half century of contemporary dance music. And Renaissance is inundated with everything from Chicago house and the hugely influential 70s sound of Rodgers to Jamaican dancehall (inaugurated by Grace Jones on Move, a gripping cameo steeped in her trademark bravado), Detroit techno, lush 80s R&B pop from Quincy Jones, 90s pop house from Robin S; to the 21st century EDM of Skrillex, the rebound of Nola from Big Freedia and nods to Miami dubstep, electro and bass. The astonishing versatility and fearless invention of Beyoncé’s voice ties it all together as her voice moves across the map of registers: flirting with angelic soprano trills and races of soul angels such as Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams, reveling in the bumps and grunts of androgynous Jones, gliding coolly through the new-wave android pop of Gary Numan and Janelle Monáe and dominating with his imperious flow as an MC. It’s a voice that holds multitudes, evoking the scale, depths and diversity of Blackness itself.
Each sound is a dense building block in a continuous, exuberant sonic story of how to live a free life in our black bodies despite persistent attempts to annihilate them. Black music (and black art more broadly) has encapsulated this powerful and prodigious pursuit across the centuries in America, tracing back to the exquisitely complex sacred music we composed in connection with the equally sophisticated and ” profane” blues, pioneered by post-emancipated African Americans seizing the will to articulate a full spectrum of human desires, fears, sorrows and dreams.
On the extraordinary Church Girl, at the heart of the Renaissance, Beyoncé sings us through this division ever narrower than it seems between sacred salvation and sexual salvation, leaving a sample of the great names of gospel, the Clark Sisters, we sink into a thick, dirty groove, a decidedly raunchy twerking anthem for the ages steeped in catharsis and hard-earned self-love. “I’m gonna let go of this body / I’m gonna love myself / No one can judge me / But me,” she sings. “I was born free.” Armed with clapbacks on hip-hop misogyny and heaps of virtuoso rap swagger, she delivers a critical sermon to her fans of black girls and women: Let go of your inhibitions and abandon the politics of respectability originally devised by the black church. from the turn of the century. women as armor to resist racism and sexism suffered regularly. Such politics, as many black feminists have since noted, quickly turned into a straitjacket. “Swim through the oceans of tears we cried”, Beyoncé, the healer, sings as she comes out of the water and assures us: “I ain’t tryna hurt no one / I’m trying to bring life back to your body…”
Renaissance is an irresistible invitation to head into the thrilling, glorious and sensual unknown, to fantasize and “levitate” and move passionately alongside each other. “We fly over bullshit,” says Beyoncé on Honey Dijon’s futuristic, choppy track Alien Superstar — especially since this giveaway of an album insists on taking us “higher,” pushing us to imagine going “where nobody went”, to an America of our “wild girl” dreams. Her luminous design brings you closer to her on the luxurious finale, Summer Rebirth interpolated by Donna Summer, as she asks us, “Can you see my brain wide open now?” Yes, and the view is breathtaking.