When life gives you Lemonade, what do you make next? A margarita will do. “That’s how I ball,” promises Beyoncé on the intro cut to her first full-length, solo, non-soundtrack album in six years. “Cleanse me of my sins / My unAmerican life.” It’s not a stretch to believe she wants to party again. The surprise on her much heralded return to the limelight is how much RENAISSANCE clamours to make you feel as if you’re in the club with her, grazing a booth, knocking a shot back, leaving a trail of male drool in your wake like a silver rug.
This isn’t exactly sensational. Pop has become giddier and more ecstatic of late, heading back to jungle, reggaeton and classic garage to make us forget about The End Times. FKA Twigs has already detonated her po-faced image with CAPRISONGS, another record that bounds joyfully in all-caps through a night on the town with someone you’d never think would hold the cab open for you. Drake’s house about-face should shock precisely no-one. Charli XCX has brought out a collection of poolside bangers, giving Holly Valance a makeover and the ozone layer another hole from hairspray. We are in an age of the careless bop – music that banishes cruelty from the queue. Beyoncé is giving us another reason to live fast and die drunk, a tongue sweeping the tiles.
And honestly, it’s nice to have so much fun with her again. We’re in danger of making Bey everything: megaphone, colossus, one-woman circus. RENAISSANCE finds her in the damn-near approachable guise of a party animal, marshalling the DJ and telling us to flex our bodies until they fold under the glitterball. Is that important enough? Do you want her to be? Just dance, man. On ‘I’M THAT GIRL’, this freer, hedonistic Beyoncé wants you to know how good she looks: “It’s not the diamonds, it’s not the pearls / I’m that girl.” The album is packed with affirmations of self-love. The only message seems to be there aren’t any others that really matter.
‘COZY’ makes the case early, using a quaint adjective to describe feeling lived in, at peace, in your own skin. Mike Dean does some dirty work on the synth deck, making bass stumble with Yeezus energy. It’s a fierce sound that springs playfully off cosiness – something you’d associate more with cottages and blankets than making bartenders spill their sambuca. Trans activist TS Madison turns up in the closing stretch with a few sassy lines – one of several manoeuvres paying homage to queer club culture, such as sampling cult New York drag queen Renee (an originator of the bitch track) on ‘PURE / HONEY’. “Four, three, too fucking busy,” Bey snarls, juddering restlessly with a song that sounds like it’ll blow up any second. A beat switch elevates us almost literally, as if we’re flying up with her in a skyscraper. Queer house finding its feet (and shoes) is another reminder that subcultures – ergo, the repressed amongst us – often sup mojo from the pulse of hidden lights, smoke on a speaker stack, scribbled declarations on a bar’s bathroom walls.
RENAISSANCE is structured like a never-ending party mix, and that can be a little much at times. ‘ENERGY’ loses exactly what it promises from the flat drawl of featured artist Beam, while ‘MOVE’ is equally forgettable, failing at a hook for almost two minutes before giving up. Most tracks segue into the next with hardly a gulp for air. That’s fine when they’re rowdy and wet, but less so when the instrumentals are undercooked or her voice flails for their centre. Occasionally, like Charli’s Crash, these cuts end up sounding too familiar. ‘CUFF IT’ is the most egregious example: a Dua Lipa-lite disco number you can imagine Harry Styles kicking big pink balloons to.
Usually though, Beyoncé demonstrates her notorious perfectionism – not least of which includes her harmonies and skill at releasing tender lines from nowhere. Maybe she’d always have been good at this if it wasn’t for Destiny’s Child, but the experience of working in a girl group seems to have given her a lasting mastery of backing singing. Just listen to ‘AMERICA HAS A PROBLEM’ where text painting claws high on the exact right word, and more Beyoncés go soft as the lead vocal drops to her ‘Haunted’ register. Then there’s the half-balladry of ‘PLASTIC OFF THE SOFA’, blooming with more traditional R&B melodies over double-time drums, madly reminiscent of her sister’s A Seat At The Table. Before hand claps, she leaves an unguarded laugh. It’s a joyful performance that arises later in the so-so ‘HEATED’, which is saved by quirks and badass inflections on an excellent rapped verse. “Drinking my water, minding my bizz / Monday, I’m overrated, Tuesday, on my dick.” She’s better at rapping here than anywhere else in her discography to date. The only point at which her voice lets her down is on the otherwise stellar ‘VIRGO’S GROOVE’, as falsettos pile and pile until they start to waver. The record could’ve been even more celebratory if it had just calmed down a bit, letting the crazier moments stand further apart.
Yet the abiding mood is of an affordable night in a limousine, which is saying something, because we’ve been worshipping Beyoncé Knowles for so long, it was worth asking whether she could ever merely be a VIP again. That – and a monstrous horniness – might be enough to help you embrace this first leg of a planned trilogy of records. RENAISSANCE doesn’t quite hit you with the same sucker punch of Queen B at dinner, preparing cream corn in a hoodie, but it does sound vitally simple, generous with an urge to adore us.