So Beyoncé’s Renaissance is here and we are reeling.
If anything, Renaissance signals not simply a maximalist turn for Beyoncé, but for wider pop music, finding itself on the other side (more or less) of Covid-pause (fingers crossed). After various lockdowns and portents of doom we are wholly party-deprived, in a terrain as socio-politically transformed since 2020 as a staid nine-to-fiver when their synthetic high drops. And “high” is the word here. Since Lemonade, the focus has shifted from reconciling pain to wholly alchemizing it under the influence of dancehall opulence, with a bombastic kind of optimism which you wouldn’t be far off calling escapist. But this is “pop”, and escapist tendencies proliferate in a canon that’s about a good time and not a long time. It’s a canon which, like horror, is mostly content recycling the past with increasingly glossy packaging, and like horror finds its laurels in seemingly endless bricolage—where other genres aren’t afforded the same leniency. And as with horror (where finesse is measured in innovative homage), so Renaissance grabs from the past with a chrome-fingered greed, scaffolding reggaeton and disco funk with crunchy hyper pop production, deploying this heady mix towards adrenalized physicality over intellectual revisionism.
With party-centric futurism by way of the past as a generic compass, the album ends up sounding as apoplectically restless and steely as a Gorillaz joint, but arguably more satisfying than recent Damon Albarn efforts (Humanz was so meh). This is a carnival, and, beyond afro-futurism, the sensibility is one more aligned with the gushing aesthetic-emancipations of the eighties’ New Romantics, if steeped in disco hip-hop and R&B. And, unlike Gorillaz, Beyonce does a pretty amazing job at soldering sonic adventurousness into a streamlined continuous mix, better capturing “dance party at the end of the world” vibes than Albarn’s own recent thesis, and making the contrasting styles an exhilaration rather than a dissonance. Which isn’t to say it’s perfect. But imperfection from an artist notorious for sometimes infuriating levels of control is thrilling in itself, and watching famously stately Bey let properly loose on the Beyoncé equivalent of a mixtape is tantamount to seeing behind the curtain of an elaborate long-standing performance. Put another way, the emperor’s new clothes are non-existent, but it doesn’t matter because she’s got a rockin’ bod.
It has to be said that maximalism appears to be an emerging response to the world in pop music. This tracks with various iterations of glam and romanticism emerging in and around reforms and austerities, like the punk explosions and baroque ballads of Thatcher-era Britain, contrasted with (bear with me) the drab nineties of Cool Britannia (both Gallaghers, the Spice Girls, and even the largely colourless middle class despairs of grunge). Even the ‘classic rock’ revivals of the two thousands seemed to emanate a post-9/11 escapism, dipping into vaults of artifice and swagger previously outré. Also telling: during the early to mid two thousands was an eighties nostalgia which continues not as something necessarily cyclical but as something with its own peaks and troughs—reliant perhaps on crisis as a default setting of neoliberal resilience against an immunological anti-productive response of apathy. That Beyoncé’s latest comes to us as an explicit statement of Renaissance bears more awareness of pop’s temporal bondage than is usually required from the genre’s more rote exponents. The question remains though: what exactly is this a renaissance of? What’s coming back to us that pandemic struggles and a confluence of global stressors has ineluctably deprived the contemporary moment of? Is it the party, a celebratory mode lost to a normative guilty impotence about social and ecological collapse, and our alleged complicity therein as individuals passively consenting to a flawed economic structure? Furthermore, to what extent is this entirely hypocritical, in the sense that pop frequently buffers the ideological ground of our passive participation? Maybe more crucially, what does a patterned manifestation of maximalist compositions within popular culture point to, when such compositions reflexively accompany concerns of global disorder?
Is there something in Renaissance, perhaps, about Covid-perspective and living, if not more honestly, then more earnestly? Some internet criticism appeared after the release of Renaissance calling out Beyoncé for ‘underground cosplay’, that the album enlists genres and sounds which lesser-known DJs have been spinning and which their scene credentials give them the right to; whereas Beyoncé, à la a gracelessly aging Madonna, has merely adopted the garb of various youth cultures towards reinstating herself in the zeitgeist. I don’t know how accurate this is, really. Pop is a promiscuous commons and anyone complaining about entire genres finding their way into the mainstream is either living on a commune without wifi, or is the most pretentious person you’ve ever met. If anything, Renaissance bears the mark of a pro throwing off the strictures of a cumbersome mantle, actively choosing ‘more is more’ no matter where this takes her, ricocheting off pandemic limitations in a breathless bid for rebirth. Shaking off the tidy and the legible and doing whatever feels good, moment to moment.
Ultimately, this qualified fan sees the maximalism of pop—past and present—as a utopian project (perhaps even a latent manifesto), content to traffic the affective highs of an elsewhere without offering a technical roadmap of how to get there. To this end, Renaissance is an unusually earnest offering, equivalent to the unusual global circumstance in which we find ourselves. It is happy to sell the euphorias of a better world without delineating its dimensions, insinuating the high of desire without crystallizing the desire-object itself. Like the best pop, it’s energising for the sake of energy and leaving the listener to project their own ideal scenarios. This is the radical potential of pop: that it can canvas movement with osmotic prescience, sketching flows of passionate reform before terms are drawn or negotiated. Long may we drink from Her teat.
Samuel Te Kani is a queer critic and author based in Tāmaki Makaurau of Ngāpuhi descent. His critical work centers on the fidgety abandon of sexual malcontents, and the erotic as a utopian pathway—especially in the juncture of sex/pop, where promsicuity is an unreflective historically motivated edict. He writes sexy fiction and moonlights as a tarot reader.