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Has Beyoncé brought disco back?

Since Beyoncé announced the release of her new album Renaissance back in June many of her fans around have been counting down the days until the album dropped. In a change of pace from her previous bodies of work, this marked the first time since the release of her 2011 album 4 that she let us know new music was coming. The differences between Renaissance and the bodies of work Beyoncé has released in the past 10 years do not end with the return to a more traditional roll out. Renaissance is defined by a commitment to an overarching disco-funk-house sound that diverges from the Afro-beat influences of The Lion King: The Gift (2019) and the Hip-Hop-Rock-Soul sound of Lemonade (2016). Has Beyoncé brought disco back? Despite this departure the album has a sense of continuity from her previous albums with the fact each centres on a different aspect of Black origin genres that have to varying levels been co-opted and diluted from their roots. 

Beyoncé has mastered turning her work into love letters to the Black experience and, even as a non-Black listener, asserts the importance for her entire audience to admire the importance of Black art. Renaissance continues to follow this trend and gives a salute to singers like Donna Summer (she is sampled on the album actually) and to 90s house that many of us in our 20s were maybe too young to appreciate fully the first time around. This is further emphasised by the fact the album’s tracks all seamlessly blend into one another, replicating the feeling of being in a club with a DJ transitioning from one song to the next. Listening to the album from the first track to the last enriches your experience and makes clearer the vision Beyoncé had for it. I will say that one caveat of this is that it makes it somewhat harder to single out standout tracks on the album, making it more of an all or nothing listening experience.

The album opens with I’M THAT GIRL, a bragadocuious song that sets the tone that this album’s main lyrical theme is self love and empowerment. Beyoncé reminds us of her prowess as a performer through the lyrics and asserts that she is that girl. The song then transitions into COZY which has a similar vibe. For me, neither song massively stands out but instead set the scene for the first standout track of the album, ALIEN SUPERSTAR. This song is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful of the album. Taking a Beyoncéified approach to the space motif common in other new wave disco songs (see: Levatating by Dua Lipa and Supernova by Kylie Minogue) this song also gives us the first taste of the political content we have come to expect from Bey. 

The song samples a speech from Babara Ann Teer where she says “We dress a certain way. We walk a certain way. We talk a certain way. We paint a certain way. We make love a certain way, you know? All of these things we do in a different, unique specific way that is personally ours”. This sample is reminiscent of past samples in Beyoncé’s music like in the song ***Flawless from her 2013 self titled album. Her music, even in an album which is definitely less overtly political than previous albums, never fails to centre the experiences of Black women. 

BREAK MY SOUL is the next standout track on the album, and serves as its lead single. Having listened through Renaissance a few times it makes sense why Beyoncé would opt for this song as the lead single. BREAK MY SOUL encapsulates the whole vibe of Renaissance and gives it to us in a neat package. Heavy disco and house influence married with lyrics about self love delivered with signature silky vocals. It is the quintessential track of the album and also serves to mark where the album divides. 

After BREAK MY SOUL, the tone of Renaissance shifts with CHURCH GIRL. This song leads us into a more chill, smoother area of the album that almost reminds you as a listener of when a DJ may slot in a slower song to give everyone a chance to grab a drink and cool down. This doesn’t mean that CHURCH GIRL is any less enjoyable a listen than the rest of the tracks so far, but it does lead us into PLASTIC OFF THE SOFA. Both songs have a clearly different vibe to the first half of the album offering different flavours to the listener while remaining solidly within the overarching sound of Renaissance. They then lead us into VIRGO’S GROOVE. This song is another highlight of the album, and picks up the speed again with a more heavy disco tune. 

Next comes MOVE and HEATED, two songs with a fairly similar energy. Both have a heavier beat and lyrically are packed with attitude. As a queer person these songs immediately made me think of the Ballroom scene that form the basis of modern drag culture. The lyrics are catty and sassy, and I can see them becoming staples of drag acts around the world. HEATED actually pays tribute to Beyoncé’s uncle, a gay man who made many of Destiny’s Child’s costumes. Towards the end of the song Bey repeats “Uncle Johnny made my dress, that cheap spandex she looks a mess”. The second half of the album follows a fairly similar lyrical theme, with the main material focussing on how great Beyoncé is with sprinklings of admiration for Black women and Queer people.

Personally, while I love a hyped up banger, I love Beyoncé when she gives us stripped back emotional songs with lyrics that are more dynamic. I do find myself yearning for at least one ballad on the album, and while I understand why there isn’t one, I can’t help miss its presence. The album does feel like a complete package, but falls short lyrically to a degree. The songs don’t tend to say an awful lot and I feel this is most displayed in the song AMERICA HAS A PROBLEM. I was anticipating from this title that the song would be addressing at least one of America’s many social issues, but instead the song merely samples Kilo Ali saying “America has a problem” before diving into a song which doesn’t offer any kind of commentary at all. In the flux of the songs blending together like a DJ set it feels like a way of slotting something semi-provocative in the midst of dancing at the club. Beyoncé has one of the most powerful voices (both socially and literally) in the music industry and I was anticipating a more direct use of it. As I have previously stated, the overarching album is a love letter to the Black disco artists and originators of 90s house that she often samples on Renaissance, but I was anticipating more. 

Renaissance closes with SUMMER RENAISSANCE, and this song is certainly a very strong close to what is, ultimately a very strong album. It samples Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, a disco classic that is recognisable to anyone who even causally likes disco music. She builds on the sample to create a song that captures the feeling of being at a hot steamy outdoor summer dance party. The song ties up what I feel Beyoncé was setting out to achieve with Renaissance, an album that is a love letter to genres of Black music that have not been majorly touched on yet in her discography. As a disco fan, some of the tracks from this album will be added to my regular rotation. Given the way the album is mixed to blend and flow from track to track it serves to be a complete experience for the listener, and successfully hits a note of cohesion that is lost on so many albums in the streaming area. Renaissance feels like an album that is meant to be listened to in its entirety. Overall it is a very good album, but for me does fall short somewhat with its lyricism, though I may be tainted by Lemonade which to me will always be Beyoncé’s magnum opus.