We’ve come a long way from the “Disco Sucks” movement of the 1970s. Back then that reactionary position was pretty commonplace, amongst white music consumers anyway. Now we can easily see the ugliness of the phrase’s implications: it implies straight-up racism and homophobia no less (for disco was initially a predominantly black gay subculture), albeit given a thin veneer of “respectability” by the excuse of it being mere musical snobbishness. So disco didn’t have white dudes playing guitars? Disco had Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, who were infinitely better.
We understand now that disco was actually a much more musically rich genre than punk was at the time (nobody would seriously argue any more that The Sex Pistols were a better band than Chic). Its wedding of the rhythmic funk of James Brown, Sly Stone and George Clinton to the more accessible pop accoutrements of sweetly sung melodies and tasteful strings helped pave the way for much of the chart music and many of the best musical innovations of the last 40 years.
Most of these musical innovations are represented in some shape or form on Beyoncé’s latest triumph, RENAISSANCE. This is an album which works not only as an escapist bit of fun to get away from the troubles and isolation of the Covid era, but also as a thrilling tour through the history of dance music from disco to the present day. Already the various subgenres of dance music she explores across the album have been catalogued extensively – check out this New York Times piece for the most comprehensive and informative reporting on it. Many all-time dance classics are sampled, interpolated or otherwise woven into the fabric of the album, such as “I’m Too Sexy” and “I Feel Love”, and it’s a lot of fun to pick them out. What’s more, many of the all-time heroes of dance music actually appear as guests, including Grace Jones and Nile Rodgers himself.
And you better believe that Beyoncé is aware that the music has its origins in LGBTQ+ quarters. Bey references house and ballroom throughout with calls of “The category is…” (it seems likely that she watched a lot of Pose in lockdown) and dedicates the album to her late Uncle Jonny, who was her “godmother and the first person to expose me to a lot of the music and culture that serve as inspiration for this album”. Most encouragingly of all, she openly embraces the trans and drag communities who have always been an integral part of the genre, with important guest spots reserved for Big Freedia, Ts Madison, and the late Moi Renee, plus two co-writes with Honey Dijon. That makes Beyoncé the second major commercial artist this year to show solidarity with the trans community in their music (after Kendrick Lamar), at the time when it’s needed most of all. This is a very encouraging sign for world culture.
What the album demonstrates overall is that “Disco Sucks” only for the unimaginative – for omnivorous artists like Beyoncé it’s a rich well to draw from, of bottomless potential. As such, RENAISSANCE is an unstoppable celebration of the form that proves how detailed and varied its various subgenres can be.
But these variations come over only gradually and subtly, once your ears have grown accustomed to the groove. At first, RENAISSANCE strikes you simply as the most unified work she’s done so far, a consistently upbeat hour of music that never strays for a second from the dancefloor. It’s all hip-charming rhythms, supple basslines, outrageously stacked multi-tracked vocals, and raps delivered at exactly the right time to inject a little more energy. As many have pointed out, there are no ballads, which most have expressed relief about (not me – I think the ballads on Beyoncé and Lemonade are excellent and add deeper hues and textures to those albums, missing here). Even more universally, though, people have declared the music on RENAISSANCE a constant up. It’s a great mood enhancer, the kind that should work fine both as antidepressant or aphrodisiac, depending on your needs.
More impressive than the consistency of tone, though, is the consistency of quality. If you’re in the mood for its good-time dancey vibe, there’s not a single bad song on RENAISSANCE. In fact, there’s a good case to be made for this being Beyoncé’s most consistently exciting album (though B’Day slaps start-to-finish as well).
That doesn’t mean it’s her best. Beyoncé and Lemonade were a lot stronger lyrically, as concept albums that kept on getting deeper the more you dug into the words. RENAISSANCE is mostly surface-level pleasure, following in the footsteps of dance music’s tendency to opt for easy-to-chant mantras about things like positivity and universal love.
However, she does return to Beyoncé’s insistence of carnal pleasure as a conduit for increasing one’s personal sense of self-worth, on such risqué tracks as “PLASTIC OFF THE SOFA” and “ALL UP IN YOUR MIND” (“You give me that real good feeling that I need/Be careful what you ask for ’cause I just might comply”). And on “COZY”, she builds on Lemonade’s “Show me your scars and I won’t walk away” with “Dancin’ in the mirror, kiss my scars/Because I love what they made” – probably a reference to the emergency caesarean that birthed her twins.
There are a lot of fun one-liners, coming so thick and fast on highlights such as the gospel inversion of “CHURCH GIRL” as to be overwhelming (anyone for some “tig ol’ bitties”?). But overall, the lyrics have less resonance than on her previous two albums, less sense of the grandiose link between the personal and the political in Beyoncé’s life, and consequently is of less relevance to our own.
Which is excusable, because the musical vision is just so forceful. The adrenaline surge induced by each dance anthem has a cumulative effect, building up and up like a party that keeps on peaking well into the night. She remains very much an album artist, so that RENAISSANCE works best when listened to straight through in one sitting (or one standing and dancing). Heard just on their own, individual tracks might not exhilarate to the same extent, which is certainly true of the lead single “BREAK MY SOUL”. Alone, it sounded a little humdrum, perhaps too reliant on the obvious Robin S. sample. But coming in sequence on the album, “BREAK MY SOUL” is magically transformed into a highlight, not just by its familiarity, but also due to its perfect placement after “ENERGY”. The segue between the two, linked by a, well, explosive sample of Big Freedia’s “Explode” (with or without the Kelis interpolation backing it), is one of the very biggest ups on an album packed with them. On the receiving end of that segue, “BREAK MY SOUL” suddenly comes into focus, suddenly makes perfect sense as a musical accomplishment. That’s as sure an example of Beyoncé’s incredibly astute sense of album sequencing as I can think of.
That care and album-length consistency actually sets Beyoncé apart from most of the forebears she references. Because whilst disco greats such as Chic, Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor etc. released countless monumental singles that astonish to this day, their non-compilation albums were all marred by multiple weak tracks and bizarre lapses of judgment. It’s hard to think of a classic disco album. Whereas, in reverse, RENAISSANCE works brilliantly as a whole album, but it doesn’t really have an all-time great single on it to compete with “Le Freak”, “We Are Family”, “I Will Survive” etc. The fact that Donna Summer’s seminal “I Feel Love” is sampled on RENAISSANCE’s last track, “SUMMER RENAISSANCE”, is both a curse and a blessing: a reminder that Beyoncé hasn’t released anything to match it this time around, but also a fitting climax with its appearance being like that of a DJ playing one of your favourite songs just as the night is ending and the lights in the club turn on.
This ending to the album, with its culmination-of-disco sample, also raises the inevitable question: what’s next? RENAISSANCE has been announced as only “Act One” of a trilogy. A trilogy of… we know not what, though it seems likely that the dance-music chapter has been closed. Has her revelling in the retro finished, or is the nostalgic exploration to continue amidst different genres? Is her star about to blaze into brave new futures with Acts Two and Three? Time will tell. But until then, RENAISSANCE will continue to make time stop every time it’s played.