In 2016, Beyonce reaffirmed her pop culture dominance with the eclectic and overcoming Lemonade. Renaissance picks up in the aftermath of personal rediscovery, exhibiting the R&B titan at her most self-assured.
Look, do we really need to sit here and introduce who Beyonce is? She’s worth more than the GDP of nine countries, appeared on more magazine covers than the Radio Times logo and is frequently hailed as the most powerful woman in the world. You already know who she is. We might as well explain to you the existence of bricks. Or the sun.
So let’s contextualise Renaissance instead. The R&B megastar’s seventh solo album drops six years after Lemonade landed with the zeitgeist-shattering force of an atomic bomb. It reaped critical acclaim, then became the best-selling album of the year. Singlehandedly, it reaffirmed its creator as a pop culture juggernaut: in the aftermath, the former child of destiny starred in and soundtracked the Lion King remake and helmed her own multi-Grammy-nodded musical blockbuster called Black Is King.
With Beyonce still riding that wave of high influence more than half a decade later, Renaissance won’t be the expectation-destroying behemoth its predecessor was. She could never out-Lemonade Lemonade in a million years. So, thank God, she doesn’t even try.
Lemonade dabbled in country and Led Zeppelin twang over the course of 45 of modern pop music’s most essential minutes. It also exorcised the turmoil of Beyonce’s marriage to Jay-Z, lamenting adultery and threatening to pack up her bags if he “try that shit again”. Sourcing its name from the old adage about what you should make when life gives you lemons, it had a narrative arc of endurance.
Renaissance exists in stark contrast. Beyonce’s overcome. Now, over an hour of twisted soul- and dance-flecked anthems, she’s relishing in admiration of her own skin, and wants you to do the same.
Unsurprisingly for an album with a cover that hoists Beyonce onto the back of a lightning horse in a teeny metal bikini, every song oozes confidence. “I pull up in these clothes and I look so good” is the first lyric of the entire thing, commencing ‘I’m That Girl’ with an authoritative whisper that lures you in above bubbling beats. Similarly, ‘Pure/Honey repeats, “It should cost a billion to look this good,” annunciating with poise and clarity like there’s no doubt in her mind that she’s the cock of the walk.
You could argue that Renaissance tip-toes dangerously close to the line of braggadocious bullshit – were it not for the fact that Beyonce owns her imperfections just as much as her perceived strengths. Just give ‘Thique’ a spin. In much the same way the song title gives thickness a classy and dignified je ne sais quoi, the lyrics transform the effects of weight gain into the sexiest thing in the world. “Ass getting bigger, rack’s getting bigger,” they admit in the number’s opening bars, before adding with assertiveness: “He thought he was loving me good; I told him, ‘Go harder.’”
All the while, Renaissance plods along with imperious dark pop beats. ‘Cozy’ and ‘Alien Superstar’ are back-to-back heavy dance cuts, while ‘Move’ barks out commands over pounding jungle percussion. It all screams that a Beyonce as self-possessed as this is something we mere mortals should fear and be in awe of. The impact lingers even when she switches to more vibrant soundscapes, like the sumptuous R&B of ‘America Has a Problem’ or the six minutes of summery multi-tracked vocals that make up ‘Virgo’s Groove’.
Long story short, Renaissance is Beyonce’s apotheosis. After overcoming betrayal during Lemonade, she’s positioned herself as an assured goddess proud of even her shortcomings. No doubt, it’s a self-evaluation that will inspire the same from the billions that’ll give this album a go. And that can only ever be a lovely thing.