014 :: RENAISSANCEListen to "014 :: RENAISSANCE" on Spreaker.
What more can be said about Beyoncé? What more can be said about this record? So much has already been said. I mean, when the world's greatest pop star releases their long-awaited seventh album, people tend to notice. And the fact is, everyone would be talking about this record regardless of whether it were good or bad. It's enough simply that it's Beyoncé, because you can't not talk about Beyoncé. She's at that level. She's "that girl".
But as it turns out, this record is good, and not just good – it's fantastic. This record is indeed something to talk about, and it's not just people who are talking, but critics, too, and maybe, I should say, critics especially, since the record is so amenable to critical exegesis. It's the kind of record that is so densely layered with musical references and allusions that one would seem to need footnotes to follow everything that is going on. For this record, through its many samples, quotations, and interpolations, is weaving a tapestry of musical history and serving as tribute and testament to the Black queer imprint on late twentieth-century dance music, tracing its movements through house, disco, ballroom, dancehall, and beyond. You could write a dissertation about this record, and given that it's Beyoncé, someone someday probably will.
Or perhaps we've already said enough. Perhaps we've even said too much. For even though I myself am in the act of talking about this record, at the end of the day I feel like the most important thing to say about it is just that it slaps. This music hits you at an almost instinctual level, putting your body into motion without you even realizing it. Every single beat is a banger, impeccably punctuated to keep you on your toes. This is dance music at its purest and most aggressive. These songs don't just want you to dance; they demand it.
The vocals, meanwhile, swirl above the low-end like sirens. At times they feel more rhythmic than melodic, playing off the drums and the bass and further accentuating the propulsive heartbeat of these songs. More frequently, though, the vocals seem to be playing off of themselves. Beyoncé is constantly switching between different voices and vocal textures on this record, going from sultry to soft to spoken to snarl, often all within the same song. Never has her voice felt so much like an instrument that she is playing with, exploring all its possibilities and putting its full polyphonic range on display.
Plus, this record never keeps you in one place for too long. As soon as we're feeling settled into one groove, the groove is switched up on us, and we're set down in another. And not just a groove in another tempo and key, but a groove in a whole other genre and style. The sheer number of ideas here is astonishing, and a feast for the ears. It's a consistently surprising soundscape, yet also one that, for all its variety, is utterly seamless. It's like the tightest DJ set you could ever imagine, unwavering in its commitment to keep you guessing, and unrelenting in its imperative to make you move.
And here's where I could just mute the microphone and let this record speak for itself. For this record doesn't need anyone to explain its appeal. The music itself tells you everything you need to know, viscerally, in how it's been made to make you feel. This is music that wants to be listened to, not talked about, and the more we talk about this record, the more we risk taking attention away from that basic fact.
But with that caveat in place, let me say something further, about what I really love about this record. Because this record isn't just sonically surprising. It's artistically surprising, too. It's not the record I expected from Beyoncé. It's not the record I'd expect from any star at this stage in their career. For although Beyoncé is singing in the first person throughout, she's not really singing about herself.
What I expected, I suppose, was much more narcissism. And I don't mean that derisively. It just seems like what comes with pop stardom these days. When you reach a pop star's level of fame, it is legitimately hard to relate to the rest of the world, and this threatens your ability to connect with your fans – and what's a pop star without their fans? And so, when such artists go to record new music, they typically turn inwards. Their songs become confessionals, moments of honesty, intimacy, and authenticity. They don't just give us more music; they give us more of themselves.
But that's not what I hear on this record. Yes, there are flashes of braggadocio; yes, Beyoncé does not hesitate to remind us of how rich and unrivalled she is. But we're not getting a window into her thoughts or experiences. Instead, she's giving expression to a more universal set of feelings: those of empowerment, desire, and liberation. And granted, Beyoncé can give voice to these feelings like no one else can. Her artistic identity is practically built upon her being the embodiment of these feelings. But still, when she expresses them here, it feels like she isn't just flexing, isn't just doing so to establish her preeminence and superiority; it feels like she's singing them for us, so that we can feel them too.
And sure, it's kind of ludicrous to hear Beyoncé of all people sing "I just quit my job". But it's also kind of amazing. Who else's voice do you want to hear in your head when you quit your job? Who else can make that act of resignation actually feel freeing instead of terrifying? And that's the marvellous trick of this record: it's not concerned with bringing us closer to Beyoncé, but with bringing Beyoncé closer to us.
This relates to another marvellous trick of this record: how it manages to avoid being appropriative while borrowing so heavily from queer dance music traditions, despite the fact that Beyoncé herself is about the furthest thing from queer you can imagine. You might think that it's just about giving credit where credit is due, and this record certainly does that, not just by citing all the artists it's sampled or even just been influenced by, but also by literally cutting them into the songs' royalties. Yet more deeply, this record just doesn't appropriate these artists' music, because while Beyoncé is drawing from their sounds and their styles, she's not taking them for her own. This record is not about what Beyoncé can do with this music; it's not even about what this music has meant to Beyoncé. It's about what Beyoncé can be for this music. If anything, the music is appropriating her.
What all this amounts to is a record where Beyoncé is fully inhabiting the artist she's become. Because her appeal has never been about who she as a person is; it's always been about what she as an artist represents. That's literally just what it means to be an icon. You're not an individual; you're a symbol. And this record is Beyoncé at her most symbolic. It's Beyoncé allowing herself to be what she's always been to her fans – a totem of power, of sex, of freedom. And it's Beyoncé recognizing that she can be all these things without detailing her own personal experiences of them. It's Beyoncé at her least egotistic, which is to say, at her most universal. It's a Beyoncé for the people. It's the Beyoncé that exists within all of us. And that's this record's greatest gift: by leaving her self behind, Beyoncé has given us the truest, purest expression of the artist that she is.