Beyoncé returns with Renaissance: a play for the mainstream and a strike against perfectionism | Beyoncé

A new Beyoncé album is always a blockbuster event – a moment of pop culture unity in a fractured landscape. The difference with this week’s Renaissance, however, is that it is one that fans have had time to prepare for. While 2013’s Beyoncé and 2016’s Lemonade both arrived with little to no warning, her seventh album has followed a more traditional roll-out: it was announced six weeks ago in conjunction with a Vogue cover and followed by a single, the 90s house throwback Break My Soul. Beyoncé even joined TikTok earlier this month – the de facto promo tool for any contemporary pop star.

Renaissance will be closely scrutinised for what it says and how much it sells. Short of the unlikely event of Rihanna releasing her follow-up to 2016’s Anti, Renaissance is 2022’s most anticipated superstar album and one that has already seen the 40-year-old pop star return to the upper echelons of the singles charts. In America, Break My Soul became Beyoncé’s first solo Top 10 single in six years and placed the former Destiny’s Child star alongside Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney as the only artists in Billboard history to achieve at least 20 Top 10 songs as a solo artist and 10 as a member of a group. In the UK, meanwhile, Break My Soul currently sits at No 4, marking her first foray into the Top 10 since 2013’s Drunk in Love.

“Break My Soul is one of the most commercial things she’s released in quite some time,” says Christopher Molanphy, US chart analyst and pop critic. “What was interesting about Beyoncé in the 2010s was that as omnipresent as she was in popular culture, she was not a traditional hitmaker. It’s as if she was going for art as much as she was going for hits. Her last album that was packed with hits was I Am… Sasha Fierce and that was released in 2008.”

Beyoncé: Break My Soul – video

Molanphy sees Break My Soul’s success at US radio, an important component in turning a single into a bona fide smash, as a good sign for Renaissance’s long-term sales. “There’s no one paying attention to popular culture who has not heard of Beyoncé, but there’s knowing who she is a cultural figure and knowing her as a hitmaker,” he says. “Gen Z will absolutely know who she is, but they may not have previously consumed her in the way they consume an artist like Billie Eilish or Bad Bunny.” For her older fanbase, Molanphy argues, the more traditional rollout gives them time to pay attention. “She really is trying to have everybody be involved with this record.”

Since becoming more overt with her politics and activism with Lemonade, Beyoncé can also expect the album’s lyrical content to come under close inspection. Critics have dubbed Break My Soul the anthem of the Great Resignation – the ongoing trend of US employees quitting their jobs en masse – due to its anti-capitalist lyrics encouraging people to ditch the 9 to 5. But it follows criticism of the star and husband Jay-Z – whose joint net worth is close to $2bn – after their Oscars party this year at the Chateau Marmont in LA involved crossing a picket line of workers protesting allegedly abhorrent conditions.

“Toeing that [anti-capitalist] line doesn’t always work for someone as famous and rich as Beyoncé,” says Tshepo Mokoena, author of Lives of Musicians: Beyoncé. “What happened with the criticism around that party is quite similar to the [2021] Tiffany campaign she did with Jay-Z wearing a diamond that may or may not have been a blood diamond. There was an almost immediate backlash to this image of Black excellence, which has become a little bit of a cliche in and of itself. But I do think that she’s willing to gamble with [Break My Soul] hitting the right note with some people while ruffling other people’s feathers. I think even the people who are enjoying the song are thinking: Beyoncé is not in a 9 to 5 job like me, but for the next four minutes I’m with her.”

Beyoncé: Renaissance album art.
Beyoncé: Renaissance album art

It’s a gamble that the notoriously perfectionist Beyoncé may not have previously been so keen to make. In a relatively lengthy Instagram post announcing Renaissance – itself a rarity – she referred to it as “a place to be free of perfectionism and overthinking”, marking a clear shift in her attitude towards her work: it was only in 2013 that she released a single called Flawless. “She has had to focus on perfection to get to where she is,” says Mokoena. “Now that she’s entered this deity-like position in pop culture, she can do as she pleases.”

Shedding old behaviours also chimes with the current post-lockdown climate. “Her choosing to anchor this album as a release through dance music, of throwing your inhibitions away, might be her way of responding [to the pandemic],” says Mokoena.

This sense of freedom also applies to her role as curator, with Renaissance bringing new collaborators to her usual cohort of co-writers and co-producers. In addition to Pharrell Williams and The-Dream, there are also alt-pop outliers such as PC Music’s AG Cook and Grimes collaborator BloodPop. She also shines a light on the often unheralded Black female pioneers of dance music such as Honey Dijon or Grace Jones.

“Beyoncé moves with intention,” says Taylor Crumpton, a music, pop culture and politics journalist from Dallas, Texas, who sees the inclusion of Dijon and Jones as a way of showcasing the “architects of a sound that is historically coded as white. I think of Beyoncé more now as a historian than a musician. She is finding the people who have created these sounds.”

That said, Jones’s involvement on the track Move is something of a surprise after she seemed to dismiss Beyoncé as a passing trend in her 2015 autobiography, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs. “Beyoncé is a student of music – she knows you can’t make a dance album without Grace Jones,” says Crumpton.

Beyoncé’s rewriting of the rules around how to release albums also coincided with her stepping away from revealing anything about herself in interviews: that Vogue appearance was noticeably skimpy on the details.

Instead, each record has offered fans a tantalising peek inside her world, whether it be exalting married life on 2013’s self-titled album, or laying bare Jay-Z’s infidelity on follow-up Lemonade. Her silence outside music may be a way of keeping the focus on her as musician, itself a hard fought battle in the pop industry, not least for a Black woman.

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