And so drops the latest instalment in the world’s most popular and bling-ridden sonic soap opera. Last time on The Carters, 2016’s celebrated Lemonade album found the previously drunk/crazy in love Queen Bey processing her husband Jay-Z’s high-profile infidelity through the stages of discovery, denial, anger, retribution, acceptance and reunion, a journey told in tandem with that of the emancipation and empowerment of black women. Jay’s 2017 response, 4:44, acted as a bow-scraping mea culpa, paving the way for a joint tour and surprise album Everything is Love – a renewal of vows that smacked heavily of the scowling, post-scandal “I’m standing by him” press interview.
If the cover of Lemonade – Beyoncé head down and hiding from the world behind luxuriant furs – spoke to her broken mindset in the wake of discovering the existence of Becky with the good hair, the title and sleeve of her seventh album, Renaissance, suggests a proud comeback for the empress of self-worth. Clad only in the zip of an invisible diamond onesie, she sits astride a cosmic crystal horse like Xanadu’s Godiva; audaciously back in the (presumably pre-warmed) saddle. After nine years and two albums of revered art-pop progress, lead single “Break My Soul” declares a fresh desire for airplay too; a brazen house banger (sampling Robin S’s “Show Me Love”) that suggests we “release ya wiggle” even as it advocates breaking free from capitalist wage slavery.
The image is representative, the single deceptive. Renaissance – the first of a trilogy of as-yet-undefined projects that helped Beyoncé “feel free and adventurous” during the pandemic, we’re told – is a continuation record of sorts. It’s more dancefloor-friendly than Lemonade but still ensconced in its experimental cocoon. It represents the light at the end of a dark emotional tunnel for Bey, but not one she struts into with the pout and power of 2008. Nile Rodgers is involved, yes, but with no greater sway than Skrillex.
Opener “I’m That Girl” finds Beyoncé reviving her pre-affair mentality: she doesn’t need drugs, she’s “tweaking” on love – but to the sound of glitchy, hallucinogenic ambient dance. “Cozy” is an anthem of self-love and black pride (“comfortable in my skin, cozy with who I am… still a 10”) that nods to traumas past, but in the style of muted future R&B. There’s a wariness and restraint to the celebrations here. When singing about “kicking vintage Cristal off the bar” in a clubland rampage on “Alien Superstar”, it’s with a deadpan insouciance, despite its strong fem-power attitude, its pounding Afrobeats, and a chorus nobbled off Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy”.
In a catch-all spirit of musical modernism, trap, house, glitchtronica, disco, ragga, South African gqom and future funk are all lobbed into a heady mix, with songs blending into each other and shifting course mid-flow. Often this makes for a head-spinning experience. “All Up in Your Mind” twists from crepuscular electronic beginnings towards a cosmic crescendo. “Thique” gradually rouses itself from narcoleptic rap to cheerleading pop. The pulsing trap of “Pure/Honey” – featuring After Life levels of swearing thanks to sampling Kevin Aviance’s “C***y (Wave Mix)” – takes in a disco dream sequence en route to its Madonna-like second half. At times, though, it can smack of too many cooks, particularly during a mid-album lull when “Plastic Off the Sofa” turns from twinkling soul to cruise ship samba, or when “Energy” seems to stagger aimlessly between Beam’s dancehall raps and Skrillex’s wonky beats.
Given the global events of the years since Lemonade, it’s somewhat surprising that Renaissance’s politics largely give way to the principles of post-pandemic pleasure. On tracks such as “Heated”, featuring a writing credit for Drake, high-living consumerism is flouted as flagrantly and tiresomely as ever, while the world burns. “America Has a Problem” pretty much dodges America’s many problems, taking its title from a Kilo Ali track about the drug trade but using it as an unopinionated metaphor for sex: “I’m supplying my man, I’m in demand soon as I land.” Likewise, the James Brown-sampling, deviant gospel of “Church Girl” hints at themes of religious suppression, control and irrepressible individuality, but buries them beneath a song essentially about dropping everything and partying away the heartache.
It’s here, in the lyric “I’m finally on the other side, I finally found the extra smiles, swimming through the oceans of tears we cried” – referencing both the personal and the pandemic – that fans of The Carters will find their brief glimmer of fresh plotline. Otherwise, the only insight we’re granted is that things remain superhuman in the bedroom, thanks very much. Long stretches of the record feel as intrusive as watching CCTV footage from Matt Hancock’s office. “Summer Renaissance”, for instance, reworks Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” into an ode to boudoir role-play so passionate it’s liable to leave someone permanently maimed. “Cuff It”, built on a classic Nile Rodgers disco groove, appears to detail a night of wild chem-sex that might shed an intriguing light on lockdown evenings chez Carter.
That there are spots of filler on the first hour of Beyonce’s new trilogy suggests we’re in for indulgence, but that there are brisk bangers and Lemonade-like leaps of genre too bodes well for Beyonce’s defiant emotional renaissance.