Beyoncé returns with Renaissance: a play for the mainstream and a blow to perfectionism beyonce

A new Beyoncé album is always a blockbuster event — a moment of pop culture unity in a fractured landscape. What’s different from this week’s renaissance, however, is that fans have had time to prepare. While 2013’s Beyoncé and 2016’s Lemonade both hit the market with little to no warning, their seventh album followed a more traditional roll-out: It was announced six weeks ago in conjunction with a Vogue cover, followed by a single, ’90s house throwback Break My Soul. Beyoncé even joined TikTok earlier this month — the de facto promotional tool for any contemporary pop star.

Renaissance is closely scrutinized into what it says and how much it sells. Barring the unlikely event of Rihanna releasing her follow-up to 2016’s Anti, Renaissance is the most anticipated superstar album of 2022 and one that has already seen the 40-year-old pop star return to the top echelons of the singles chart. In America, Break My Soul became Beyoncé’s first solo Top 10 single in six years, placing the former Destiny’s Child star alongside Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney as the only artist in Billboard history to have at least 20 Top 10 singles. Songs as a solo artist and reached 10 as a member of a group. In the UK, Break My Soul currently sits at number 4, marking their first foray into the top 10 since 2013’s Drunk in Love.

“Break My Soul is one of the most commercial tracks she’s released in a while,” said Christopher Molanphy, US chart analyst and pop critic. “The interesting thing about Beyoncé in the 2010s was that, as ubiquitous as she was in popular culture, she wasn’t a traditional hitmaker. It’s like she aspires to art as much as hits. Her last hit album was I Am… Sasha Fierce, released in 2008.”

Beyoncé: Break My Soul video

Molanphy sees the success of Break My Soul on US radio, a key component in making a single a hit, bodes well for Renaissance’s long-term sales. “There’s no one paying attention to popular culture who hasn’t heard of Beyoncé, but it’s important to know who she is as a cultural figure and to know her as a hitmaker,” he says. “Gen Z will absolutely know who she is, but she may not have consumed her before in the way she would consume an artist like Billie Eilish or Bad Bunny.” For their older fan base, Molanphy argues, the more traditional introduction gives them time to pay attention to be. “She’s really trying to get everyone involved on this record.”

As Beyoncé has become more outspoken about her politics and activism with Lemonade, she can also expect the album’s lyrical content to come under scrutiny. Critics have called Break My Soul the anthem of the Great Resignation – the ongoing trend of US employees resigning en masse – due to its anti-capitalist lyrics encouraging people to give up the 9 to 5. But it follows criticism leveled at the star and husband Jay-Z – whose combined net worth is nearly $2 billion – after their Oscars party at LA’s Chateau Marmont this year was about crossing a picket line by workers allegedly opposed heinous conditions protested.

“Show 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 to the criticism of this party is quite similar to that [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 bit of a cliché in and of itself. But I think she’s ready to play with him [Break My Soul] striking the right tone with some people and causing excitement in others. I think even the people who enjoy the song think, Beyoncé doesn’t have a 9-to-5 job like me, but I’ll be with her for the next four minutes.”

Beyoncé: Renaissance album cover

It’s a gamble the notoriously perfectionist Beyoncé might not have been willing to take before. In a relatively lengthy Instagram post announcing Renaissance — itself a rarity — she referred to it as “a place where you can be free from perfectionism and overthinking,” marking a definite shift in her attitude toward her work : It wasn’t until 2013 that she released a single called Flawless. “She had to focus on perfection to get where she is,” says Mokoena. “Now that she’s occupied this godlike position in pop culture, she can do whatever she wants.”

The shedding of old behaviors also fits the current post-lockdown climate. “Your decision to anchor this album as a dance music release, to throw away your inhibitions, might be your way of reacting [to the pandemic]says Mokoena.

This sense of freedom extends to her role as curator as well, as Renaissance brings new collaborators to her usual group of co-writers and co-producers. Alongside Pharrell Williams and The-Dream are alt-pop outliers like PC Music’s AG Cook and Grimes collaborators BloodPop. She also sheds light on the often unheralded black pioneers of dance music like Honey Dijon or Grace Jones.

“Beyoncé moves on purpose,” says Taylor Crumpton, a music, pop culture, and political journalist from Dallas, Texas, who sees the inclusion of Dijon and Jones as a way to showcase the “architects of a sound historically coded as white is. Today I see Beyoncé more as a historian than as a musician. She finds the people who created those sounds.”

However, Jones’ involvement in the track move comes as a surprise after Beyoncé seemed to dismiss it as a passing trend in her 2015 autobiography, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs. “Beyoncé is studying music—she knows you can’t make a dance album without Grace Jones,” says Crumpton.

Beyoncé’s paraphrase of the rules for releasing albums also coincided with her reluctance to reveal anything about herself in interviews: This Vogue appearance was noticeably lackluster on the details.

Instead, each record offered fans a tantalizing glimpse into her world, whether it’s glorifying married life on 2013’s self-titled album or exposing Jay-Z’s infidelity on follow-up Lemonade. Her silence outside of music may be a way to focus on her as a musician, itself a hard-fought struggle in the pop industry, not least for a black woman.

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