Beyoncé’s Ode to Black Joy: Merging Past and Future in ‘Renaissance’

Black women—across genders, sexualities and communities—have always been the blueprint, and Beyoncé’s Renaissance proves that.

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“The past and future merge to meet us here.”

When pop star Beyoncé spoke these poetic words by Warsan Shire on what was then considered her magnum opus audiovisual project, Lemonade, she meditated on the intergenerational “curse” of love and betrayal in intimate cis-hetero relationships, passed down from Black grandmothers to their granddaughters who were inclined to fall in love with “men like their fathers.” This was a curse she also intended to “heal” from as she circled through anger, indifference, forgiveness and hope. 

Renaissance, her subsequent seventh solo album (and the first in a three-volume project), offers a much different vibe—one that also represents an intergenerational inheritance engulfed in the pleasures of Black dance music, vibrating across the various subcultures of Black communities around the world. (Check out Michaelangelo Matos’ “guide” to the Black dance music sampled and interpolated across the album.) 

If Lemonade taps into Black pain, Renaissance immerses itself in Black joy—an elusive fantasy world anchored by a pulsating bassline traveling across the Black Atlantic sonic waves of Chicago house, Detroit techno, Harlem ballroom, Jamaican dance hall, New Orleans bounce, London garage, Lagos Afrobeat, and the nostalgic echoes of 1970s disco, ’80s funk, pop and early hip-hop, and ’90s club music, syncing with millennial-era Internet hyperpop. This album effortlessly interweaves sound technologies across space and time in the most Afrofuturistic sense to connect Black communal sites of pleasure: from the ballroom to the dance club to the house party. 

So many of these spaces are queer, and Renaissance is both a tribute to this legacy and a reverberation of these voices, as amplified in her sampling of Black trans artists like Ts Madison and Big Freedia, both of whom have informed the pop star’s sense of self-love, resistance and inclusivity, as Omise’eke Tinsley reminds us. Bey rightly dedicates her album to the LGBTQ+ community, specifically shouting out her late “Uncle Johnny,” a gay relative and nephew to her mother Tina Knowles Lawson, someone who had sewn her prom dress—“Uncle Johnny made my dress / that cheap spandex, you look a mess!”—and whose death from HIV/AIDS is counted among a generation of queer men wiped out by a previous pandemic during an era that shaped the same music echoed throughout Renaissance.

It is more than apt that, in creating this project during the COVID-19 lockdown and subsequent re-opening, Bey would tap into nostalgic memories wrapped in glitter and disco balls, where a homebound humanity can fondly remember human touch: from the simple intimacy of a hug, to the more erotic slow jam, to a crowded dance floor when that bass hits. 

One of the more intentional throwback gestures on this album is her invocation of Disco Queen herself, Donna Summer, whose 1977 “I Feel Love,” a fixture for Black (and) queer dance floors, is sampled for her closing track “Summer Renaissance.” Bey had already simulated Summer’s musical orgasmic high vocals on “Love to Love You, Baby” with her 2003 hit “Naughty Girl.” The vocal echoes of this simulation frame other Renaissance tracks, like “Plastic off the Sofa” and “Virgo’s Groove,” the latter vibrating with a smooth funk that would fit comfortably on fellow Virgo muse Michael Jackson’s 1979 Off the Wall—a comparison Questlove already made in his review of Renaissance.

Bey’s high vocals and soprano runs invoke not just Donna Summer but also the high falsetto of Prince, another muse who effortlessly channeled sex-infused vocals throughout his music. “Alien Superstar” and “Pure/Honey” especially echo the sounds of Prince and Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl,” while integrating the ego-boosting, braggadocio elements of hip-hop and Black queer ballroom cultures. 

Traversing these spaces is the time-bending politics of what constitutes the “future.” Interestingly, both Donna Summer and Prince projected into the “future”—Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” prophetically invoked the techno sound of the ’90s, while Prince proclaimed in 1982 that we should all “party like it’s 1999” when the world would come to an end. This is the epitome of Afrofuturism—or what Erik Steinskog, author of Afrofuturism and Black Sound Studies, calls “sonic time-traveling.”

The end of the world is oftentimes the beginning of a new one, a new paradigm shift, a ‘renaissance.’ And what better way to start over than with joy and love? 

These tracks from the 1970s and ’80s projected a cultural reset that the ’90s represented at the time, so it makes sense that Bey would reach back into the past that is now the 1990s for us to rearticulate a different cultural reset. The 2020s definitely seem more “apocalyptic” with our pandemics and climate crises, but Bey’s revisitation of the imagined apocalypse of the close of the 20th century reminds us that the message then still works for us now: Embrace the joy, “release the wiggle,” as her hit single “Break My Soul” suggests. The end of the world is oftentimes the beginning of a new one, a new paradigm shift, a “renaissance.” And what better way to start over than with joy and love? 

And there is so much joy on this album. As many have already noted, the transitions between each track demonstrate how Bey meticulously crafted the sound project: from the tempo buildup of the intro, “I’m that Girl,” to the seamless bass line weaving together the different club bangers that follow: “Cozy,” “Alien Superstar,” “Cuff It,” “Energy” and “Break My Soul.” The tracks bleed into each other, the way a DJ keeps the party bumping from one song to the next.

We get a tempo and melodic change (which often happens on the dance floor) in “Church Girl” with the interjection of the Clark Sisters’ sped-up sample “Center of Thy Will.” This lyrical and tempo change also slyly reminds us of those earlier albums when, as Red Lip Theology and Lemonade Syllabus author Candice Benbow notes, Bey would offer gospel-influenced “Jesus tracks” to signify that she was “still that sweet girl from Houston.” This “Jesus track,” proclaiming the glories of twerking and reclaiming a sexuality that is often condemned in churches, is thoroughly remixed to make space for the profane in the sacred: “Drop it like a thotty.” This is a Saturday night joy that will extend right on into Sunday morning ecstasy. 

These tracks comprise the first segment of Renaissance, held together by a woven motif of self-love. “I’m that girl,” “Comfortable in my skin, cozy with who I am,” “I’m too classy for this world,” “You won’t break my soul,” “Can’t nobody judge me but me (cause I was born free).” Such boss moves have to be accompanied by a hard-driving bass, so when the music slows down for the twin tracks—“Plastic off the Sofa” and “Virgo’s Groove”—the music sonically creates space for intimacy with someone else.

“Plastic off the Sofa” includes the high-vocal cooing of Bey fondly loving on her significant other, but not without maintaining her self-love flex from the previous tracks: “I think you’re so cool (even though I’m cooler than you).” However, “Virgo’s Groove” really captures the ecstasy of erotic love as Bey’s vocal runs level up to a higher key while proclaiming, “You’re the love of my life.”

And just as the party vibes to all the mid-tempo grinding on the dance floor, she lets loose with another disco queen on “Move.” Bey, with Jamaican legend Grace Jones, command us to “Move out the way / I’m with my girls and we all need space / When the queen come through, part like the Red Sea.”

The bravado, which gathers momentum—not just in the Jamaican patois Grace Jones delivers on her spoken word, but the dancehall reggae remixed with the Afrobeat alongside the vocal addition of contemporary Nigerian sensation Tems—assembles a chorus of Black women across the Diaspora and across generations, who essentially continue the directive from Beyoncé’s past hit “Formation.” These women powerfully command space, both vocally and choreographically.

This is Black feminist swag signifying on Grace Jones’ memorable diva character Strangé from the Black romantic comedy Boomerang—which turned 30 this year—while Tems’ vocal presence, which recently anchored the sonic environment of the Wakanda Forever teaser trailer with her rendition of Jamaican legend Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry,” adds another layer of Diasporic consciousness.

“Move” is reminiscent of Beyoncé’s feminist anthem “My Power” from The Gift/Black Is King, the latter recently heard on the trailer for The Woman King, based on the history of the Dahomey women warriors. Warrior queens on the dance floor are a whole vibe!

By this time, the party is in full swing, so the next track, “Heated,” rightly declares in the refrain, “I got to fan myself off / I got to cool it down,” while ironically turning up the literal and figurative “heat” towards the end when Bey starts chanting in the style of “commentators” from the ballroom culture scene, while also adding elements of Jazz scat singing, hip-hop freestyle—what Ishmael Reed calls “mumbo jumbo” and Michael Jackson demonstrated with “Mama Say Mama Sa Mama Coosa.” (It is only appropriate that Bey, in throwing out gibberish that included the offensive ableist slur “spaz,” rightly edited the digital version of the track to remove said slur.)

Black women’s attitude is a whole mood and legacy.

Following the lead of another pop singer, Lizzo, who also removed the slur from her own track, “Grrrls,” Beyoncé demonstrated how one can respond to criticism by doing better when you know better. Besides, her disabled fans have every right to dig into their own ego-boosting power, to be able to levitate when the beat hits, which would be hard to do with words designed to marginalize them further. Like a good and benevolent “Mutha,” Queen Bey respected her fans so that they too could tap into the feel-good vibe of feeling “U-N-I-Q-U-E.” 

Another edit involved removing an interpolation of Kelis’s “Milkshake,” when Kelis expressed her grievance on being included on a track without her knowledge and over music for which she is not properly credited. Some viewed Bey’s edit as “shade,” but again, for an album proclaiming Black joy, redressing power imbalances necessitates removing negative energy. Queen Bey kept it moving, and Kelis—who followed suit by posting photos of herself on her Instagram soaking up sunlight in the water—showed she too could play the same game of “Category: Unbothered.” Black women’s attitude is a whole mood and legacy.

It is this attitude, framing Renaissance, that informs and is informed by the same Black queer cultures that have given primers on clever wordplay and verbal/dance floor competitions, through overt “reads” and covert “shades” that were once explained in the Harlem ballroom documentary Paris is Burning (1990), which recently aired on Turner Classic Movies. Such cultural discourse also prepared Bey’s fan community to immediately recognize the “shade” thrown by white women on Twitter—from songwriting legend Diane Warren to Monica Lewinsky, both respectively suggesting that Bey is somehow inauthentic in her artistry (a decades-long critique steeped in the misogyny/misogynoir of what music scholar Birgitta J. Johnson calls the “collaboration tax”) and her feminism (should a feminist-aligned pop star lyrically “slut-shame” Lewinsky and call her out her name?).

Whatever one might think of Beyoncé’s authenticity on these issues, her album is a genuine ode to Black femininity, queendom and divas. It specifically celebrates the excesses of the feminine/femme, which is why expectations of “authenticity” ring hollow, especially for a pop star who constantly elevates the camp. As Tinsley notes, Beyoncé “embraces the self-consciously artificial—bling, makeup, extensions … [and] gifts us with a model of [B]lack femininity pliable enough to valorize black cis- and trans femmes.”

When others want authenticity, Beyoncé instead layers on the overproduced music and, as Zora Neale Hurston would say, “decorates the decorations,” glitter layered on the Tiffany and Coco Chanel. There is so much “Oshun Energy” here in the glitter, the gold, the mirrors, the honey, the sex, the music, and the night life—key domains for a love, beauty and fertility goddess.

It’s in the celebrated “dimples on my hips” from “Heated” that segues into “Racks getting thicker” on “Thique.” Or how the obsessive theme of “All Up in Your Mind” flows into the pseudo-political “America Has a Problem”—sampled from Kilo Ali’s “Cocaine,” in which the “drug problem” is none other than Bey’s own sexuality: “Know that booty gon’ do what it want to.” Given the pearl-clutching reactions from some conservatives, she’s not exactly exaggerating how she (and other women/femmes like her) are “problems,” at least problems that need regulation post-Roe.

Overall, Renaissance is about freedom of the body, which is so aptly celebrated in the penultimate track “Pure/Honey” that evokes ballroom voguing. The samplings of ballroom DJ Kevin JZ Prodigy alongside drag icons like Kevin Aviance and the late Moi Renee create the queer parameters around Bey’s “queen” persona. Its transition into the Donna-Summer-sampled final track “Summer Renaissance” climaxes on the fabulous extravaganza of being a Black diva. 

This is a pop star giving full credit to the subcultures that found freedom and joy as weapons against racism, misogynoir, homophobia and transphobia. As Carrie Battan noted, “Beyoncé is intent on proving that she is more dutiful student than fickle voyeur.”

More than being a student, she’s doing the Black feminist work of “lifting as we climb,” which is why Kelis’ criticism—as messy as it often became—required action and acknowledgement that Black women’s often uncredited musical labors have shaped the modern sounds of popular music, what Daphne A. Brooks calls “subterranean blues.” Moving these traditions “from margin to center,” as bell hooks advocates, comes with accountability, even with all the fun to be had.

Black women—across genders, sexualities and communities—have been the blueprint, and Beyoncé’s Renaissance proves that. As she so proudly proclaims on the otherworldly track “Alien Superstar”: “I’m the bar.”

Self-love, communal love, Black love. Black joy. We are ready to start over. 

I am grateful to Birgitta J. Johnson for providing feedback on this article.

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About

Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination.