Renaissance

Beyoncé

Parkwood Entertainment/Columbia Records, 2022

http://www.beyonce.com

REVIEW BY: Scott Hill

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/22/2022

So a lot of ink has been spilled about how Beyoncé altered this album after it was released, which is a digital age phenomenon that would have been unthinkable back in the physical era of CDs, tapes or records. And while there may yet be more meat on that bone to chew on, my plan is to instead dine on the rest of the meal. And what a meal it is, a full buffet of manufactured sounds and succulent, fabricated rhymes. It's prepared with the fervor of a veteran chef who has something to prove against the upstart cooks who are attempting to claim supremacy. After all, Beyoncé is no mere peasant. Nay, she is a Q U E E N, and her subjects will remember that it is by her hand that their musical tastes are fed, dammit! With 16 tracks and clocking in at two minutes over an hour, Renaissance offers a whole smorgasbord of music to fill the dining hall. The stomachs will be filled.

That said, though, uh... how is the quality of the food that Queen B's so-claimed zenith of an album dishes up? Well, it kind of depends on what flavor dimension your appetite is craving.

Those looking for something to simply just turn on and let roll while they be doin' what they otherwise be doin' (which, based off of the subject matter, is probably grindin’)? Yeah, they'll have a lot to enjoy. The tracks bump with a confidence befitting a by-now-two-decades-plus pro, the beats always propulsive, always engaging. By the time it switches from opening track “I’m That Girl” to “Cozy,” your head will be bobbing in time as if manipulated by a master, because it kind of was. Nowhere is this danceability more apparent than in “Cuff It,” which grooves like it was a Weeknd song produced by Quincy Jones. This level of craft in rhythm-making is the record's biggest strength. Were I just grading according to listenability alone, this would be an easy A-grade because this album is listenable AF. Truly, in the skyline of pleasing background noise, this album is the Burj Khalifa; it towers over any other tunes that might register in the periphery.

Now, if that sounds like a back-handed compliment toward Beyoncé's music here, it is. And if my explaining that it's a back-handed compliment feels like I'm talking down to you, dear reader, then I think I've successfully conveyed how little this album seems to care about subtlety or depth.

Because that's just it: there's more to music than the gross movement of Deft Wordplay or A Beat That Slaps. There's also the fine motor skills of lyrical resonance, conceptual creativity, or even just a memorable melody. Sure, you can craft flawless rhapsodies which compel dancing, but can you provide a tune that we'll be humming even when the song isn't on? You can find a way to rhyme disparate words in a sentence structure that's unexpectedly coherent, but can you imbue those lyrics with a meaningfulness that lingers? We know from albums past that Beyoncé can do this, but when it comes to this album, this Empress has no clothes. And not, like... not in the "Well, yeah. She's purposefully taken them off in order to seduce the listener, duh" kind of sense, but in a "I'm not sure insightful reflection is a garment she's bothered to keep in her wardrobe" sort of way. As a means to dance or propel yourself while getting work done (wink), it's all aces, but if you want to enjoy the album in a way that requires giving full attention to it, there's no my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 there there. It's just boastful posturing and flippant attempts at arousal.

See, someone like Janelle Monáe's got catchy, danceable songs, but at the same time, there's a depth of conceptualism to her work. If you wanted to go deeper and sink into music's ability to tell a story or immerse the listener into a tangible scene, Janelle walks that tightrope with grace. But with songs like "Thique" or "Break My Soul" recapping little more than noticing that Beyoncé's ass is getting bigger, or that she's feeling ready to leave work for fun in the sack, respectively, there's not even an echo of compelling narrative value. Here, Beyoncé is no Janelle Monáe.

Childish Gambino has a way with boastful rhyme, but he also has a strength of catching you off-guard with some genuine sincerity. Singing one moment about how a woman should leave her boy for him, Gambino will suddenly switch into agonizing over how he says the wrong thing and just might be the source of his own misery. No such self-awareness here. Beyoncé is too busy singing about “Ain’t I so damn fine?” and only about that, over and over. Why, yes, Beyoncé, it’s undeniable, but we don’t need you to repeat it constantly to convince us. It’s supposed to be a given. After a while, you stop feeling like a listener she’s trying to hypothetically seduce and instead wonder if you’re just a skin cream she’s applying to herself. And on the rare times when Ms. B does wax introspective on something other than attraction, we get lyrics like "We ain't got time like we used to / But we still shine like we used to / And we still grind like we used to / And we cut ties when we need to." Acknowledging one's age, only to affirm "yeah, I still got it" is not exactly the kind of self-awareness that makes a lyric stick in one's brain for the long haul. The worst of this vapidity has to be in "America Has A Problem." With a title like that, you would expect Miss-Knowles-It-All to get dead-ass serious and cut loose with some flaming social commentary, right? Wrong. It's just yet another ditty about how nice her breasts are. "This Is America," this song is not. On this album, Beyoncé is no Childish Gambino.

But c'mon. Let's be real here: with Renaissance, Bey isn't trying to compete with musicians like Monáe or Gambino. She's not trying to contemplate anything deeper than pure animal attraction. Nah, it's pretty apparent that she's attempting to prove she can get all Sasha Fierce with the Cardi B/Megan Thee Stallion-style musicians and hang with the "Damn right, I'm a Thot, I'm a hussy and proud of it!" crowd. Which is why, thanks to this album, we can now say there's a song where Beyoncé invites men to motorboat her ("Virgo’s Groove," natch). On the one hand, I guess that's a score for the acceptance of sexual liberation in pop music, but on the other...

See, what made a song like, say, Cardi & Megan's "WAP" such a viral hit was not just that it was willing to get openly, audaciously filthy. No, it also did so in a way that was genuinely liberating. Here was a song that wasn't just bluntly singing about sex in the way that men have been encouraging each other on for decades, it was also making it extremely clear who was in charge in paradigm. It was telling men, "No. This time, you get to be my object." It put men in their place.

By contrast, Beyoncé is so eager-to-please here, it almost borders on sycophantism. Sure, there's declarations of Bey's sexiness aplenty, but it's always framed in terms of other people needing to notice how sexy she is. As if her libido's a falling tree; it makes no sound unless other people hear it. Always the object of sexiness, never the subject. Not only that, but none of her come-hither missives are particularly clever. Stuff like “I’m crazy / I’m swearin' / I’m darin’ / Your man’s starin’” is pretty lame compared to telling a dude he's gonna need a mop when his woman is done with him. It sounds try-hard instead of self-assured.

Ultimately, it's a shame the album is so surface-level, because once again, it's got a hell of a surface. In terms of composition, the candy-coated sound here is truly excellent. But as a meaningful dish? It's not very filling.

Rating: C

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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