There’s no such thing as a minor Beyoncé release. Seismic shocks are par for the course for one of the most successful artists in pop music history, and releasing her first solo album in more than six years clocks in at the highest end of the Richter scale.
Filled with joyous, hard-hitting club and house beats, Renaissance is Beyoncé’s antidote to the unending bleakness of modern times. It acknowledges problems from romantic yearning to professional malaise to the anxiety around Covid-19, and posits that the best thing you can do is dance the pain away. “This three act project was recorded over three years during the pandemic,” she wrote on her website. “A time to be still, but also a time I found to be the most creative.”
With a bevy of star collaborators in tow–Drake, Grace Jones, The-Dream, just to name a few–Beyoncé stretches her range as a producer, songwriter, and vocalist. Ferocious raps coexist harmoniously with tender falsetto vocal runs. “Church Girl” blends the sacred and profane through its unique intermingling of gospel and New Orleans bounce. She even goes full disco by sampling and interpolating one of the enduring hits of the 1970s, Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” on the closing cut, “Summer Renaissance.”
But Renaissance release week has also been marred by the kind of drama that Beyoncé usually avoids through unannounced surprise rollouts. The LP leaked two days ahead of its release, prompting her diehard fans to become cybersecurity experts reporting anyone who clicked on or shared links.
Beyoncé addressed the leak in a note on her website, writing, “I can’t thank y’all enough for your love and protection. I appreciate you for calling out anyone that was trying to sneak into the club early. It means the world to me.”
Here are our initial takeaways, including the key role a deceased family member played in the album’s signature sound, Beyoncé’s tender ode to her marriage, and the unforgettable bar about Karens.
The presence of Beyoncé’s uncle Jonny is keenly felt throughout the album.
The liner notes include “A big thank you to my uncle Jonny. He was my godmother and the first person to expose me to a lot of the music and culture that serve as inspiration for this album.” It’s the most recent in a long line of tributes the musician has paid to her late family member, whose presence looms large over the record. Presumably, she’s referring to the house and dance music that really animates Renaissance, which has long been connected to the Black LGBTQ community.
Beyoncé has spoken publicly about Jonny before, perhaps most notably when she and Jay-Z were accepting GLAAD’s Vanguard Award in 2019.
“I want to dedicate this award to my uncle Jonny, the most fabulous gay man I have ever known, who helped raise me and my sister,” she said. “He lived his truth and he was brave and unapologetic during a time when this country wasn’t as accepting. Witnessing his battle with HIV was one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever lived.”
Jonny is also referenced by name on “Heated” (track 11 of Renaissance), when Beyoncé brags about his fashion acumen, rhyming. “Uncle Johnny made my dress / That cheap Spandex, she looks a mess.” Beyoncé has praised Jonny’s talents before, specifically when she accepted a CFDA Award in 2016 and said that Johnny designed many of the early Destiny’s Child costumes because established fashion houses weren’t interested in working with the group “My mother and my Uncle Johnny, God bless his soul, designed all of our first costumes and made each piece by hand…When I wore these clothes on stage I felt like Khaleesi,” she said.
An unapproved Kelis sample is causing serious controversy.
Early Renaissance highlight “Energy” contains a sample of Kelis’ 1999 single “Get Along With You.” The problem is nobody told Kelis. On one of her Instagram fan pages, the R&B singer-turned-chef replied to a post from a fan pointing out the sample: .
“My mind is blown too because the level of disrespect and utter ignorance of all 3 parties involved is astounding. I heard about this the same way everyone else did,” she wrote. “Nothing is ever as it seems, some of the people in this business have no soul or integrity and they have everyone fooled.”
In a 2020 interview with The Guardian, Kelis said she was “blatantly lied to and tricked” by the people who brought her into the industry, specifically The Neptunes, as well as their legal team and management. She said that she didn’t earn anything in sales from her first two LPs–”Get Along With You” was on Kaleidoscope, her debut–and revealed that she did not have control of her own publishing. Theoretically, this means that Beyoncé’s team did not need to formally clear the sample with Kelis herself, but there’s a certain level of decorum in the music industry, particularly among artists who are peers.
Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo are both credited as writers on “Energy.” Pharrell and Beyoncé have a long history of collaborations, including tracks like “Blow,” and “Kitty Kat.”
Responding to a fan, Kelis wrote that the song was “not collaboration, it’s theft,” and hinted at possible long-term tension between the two stars. It’s possible that Beyoncé’s team could extend an olive branch to Kelis in some form, although they may well not, since it seems the issue was not about an uncleared sample, but an uncouth one.
The tension has already become a flashpoint on social media. In a video statement, Kelis explained that she felt Beyoncé should have reached out, but was far more critical of The Neptunes, saying this was part of a pattern of disrespect and that she was deliberately kept in the dark about the record. “This was an on purpose, direct hit, which is very passive-aggressive, it’s very petty, it’s very stupid,” Kelis said.
“Heated,” co-written by Drake, is an irresistible scorcher.
Beyoncé and Drake only worked together a handful of times, but they’ve always been linked due to their large number of shared collaborators and hallowed status as two of the 21st century’s biggest pop stars. That connection only deepened when Drake released his house music-inflected Honestly, Nevermind just a few days before Beyoncé ventured out on the dance floor herself with “Break My Soul.”
While their foray into similar genre spaces has naturally pitted some hardcore fans against one another, the artists’ own relationship is healthy enough to keep making music. And “Heated” is one of the best tracks on Renaissance, a preposterously catchy song with propulsive Afrobeat percussion and cascading vocals.
Some social media users have pointed to a rumored Drake demo that may have been the springboard for the Renaissance record. The demo is certainly catchy—it recalls the infectious “Madiba Riddim”—but it lacks the IMAX-sized undeniability that only Beyoncé can bring to a track.
The track’s closing verse, which sees most of the instrumentation drop out so it’s just vocals and syncopated drums, is an absolute blast. With light distortion over her voice, Beyoncé raps gleefully and sounds almost unhinged, recalling the stylings of Nicki Minaj or Missy Elliott. “Drinking my water, minding my biz / Monday I’m overrated, Tuesday on my dick,” she says, sounding more amused than annoyed.
“America Has a Problem” is a banger, but not a political one like the title suggests.
When the Renaissance tracklist was announced, most people assumed that the song “America Has a Problem” would be about America and its CVS-receipt-length list of issues. In actuality, the song is mostly about the intoxication of infatuation, with Beyoncé rapping and singing with superstar bravado. (For what it’s worth, the sample that gives the track its name, Kilo Ali’s “America Has A Problem,” is a harrowing record about the damage cocaine has done to America’s Black communities.)
But that doesn’t mean that Beyoncé, who has been one of our most outspoken musicians, is shying away from touching on some of today’s urgent issues. “Cozy” is a song about self-love and confidence in the face of racism and oppression: The line “I’m probably one of the blackest motherfuckers walking around here” appears twice during the last verse.
As we’ve heard countless times since its release, “Break My Soul” has become the de facto anthem for “the Great Resignation.” “Now, I just fell in love / And I just quit my job / I’m gonna find new drive / Damn, they work me so damn hard,” Beyoncé sings on the first verse, which is extremely timely given the staggering rates of burnout we’re seeing across virtually all professions.
But what’s sure to be the most quoted political line comes towards the end of “Energy,” as Beyoncé raps about staying vigilant against can-I-speak-to-the-manager types. “I just entered the country with derringers / ‘Cause them Karens just turned into terrorists,” she raps.
There are three Jay-Z collaborations, but not how you might expect. .
Beyoncé and Jay-Z collaborations are undeniable moments, from the rapturous “Drunk in Love” all the way back to her debut single “Crazy in Love.” There’s not a song that hits quite at those levels on Renaissance, in part because Jay’s contributions are all behind the scenes. He’s credited as a writer on “Alien Superstar,” “Break My Soul,” and “America Has a Problem.” (The former of which features some great negative-space rapping by Beyoncé and an interpolation of Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” that is even catchier than Drake’s from last year.) Renaissance marks the first time Jay’s been listed as a co-writer and nothing more on a Bey project, but all three songs he’s credited on are also co-written by The-Dream. The trio also co-wrote Bey’s contributions to 2020’s Grammy-winning “Savage (Remix),” so clearly Bey and Jay have unlocked a new collaborative zone in recent years that goes beyond him merely adding a verse.
In the album’s liner notes, Beyoncé thanked her children, and made a point of acknowledging Jay, too. “…and a special thanks to my beautiful husband and muse, who held me down during those late nights in the studio,” she wrote. Speaking of…
“Plastic Off the Sofa” is a snapshot of marital bliss.
The last time we got a Beyoncé solo album, she spent much of it pulling the curtain back on her and Jay’s marital turmoil. Their relationship seemed to get back on track, even resulting in a joint LP that saw the pair in creative and romantic lockstep on songs that were joyful and intimate.
Renaissance covers a lot of ground beyond just Beyoncé’s marriage, but she does dedicate the simmering “Plastic Off the Sofa ”—co-produced by The Internet’s Syd and written with R&B fan favorite Sabrina Claudio—to the 20-plus year relationship she’s had with rap’s foremost mogul.
“It’s the way you wear your emotions on both of your sleeves / To the face you make when I tell you that I have to leave,” she sings in a delicate coo over the song’s galloping bass line. Other lines, like “We don’t need the world’s acceptance, they’re too hard on me, they’re too hard on you, boy,” point to the extreme scrutiny they both face as celebrities, and that us-vs.-everybody attitude recalls their first- ever collaboration, “‘03 Bonnie & Clyde.”
Though other Renaissance songs like “All Up in Your Mind ” and “Cuff It ” have a sexual edge, “Plastic Off the Sofa” is the one most clearly about the current state of Beyoncé’s relationship. It’s a sweet song, filled with little details gleaned over two decades of love…and a few flirtatious putdowns, just for good measure.
On the track’s bridge, she sings, “I think you’re so cool, even though I’m cooler than you,” followed by a knowing laugh.