Bey is back with her highly anticipated seventh studio album, Renaissance. The 16-track record is her first solo album in six years since Lemonade. And like with everything she does, she's raised the bar.
The album is a sonic masterpiece as Bey delivers her style and interpretation of the house music she was exposed to growing up. Beyoncé credits that exposure to her Uncle Johnny, who died of complications from AIDS, and she dedicates Renaissance to him in the album's liner notes.
"He was my godmother and the first person to expose me to a lot of the music and culture that serve as inspiration for this album," she writes. Uncle Johnny was a pivotal figure in Beyoncé's life and career, designing costumes for Destiny's Child with her mother Tina before high-end labels would dress "four Black, curvy, country girls." As a Black queer southerner living with HIV, Beyoncé’s decision to dedicate Renaissance to Uncle Johnny and to center Black LGBTQIA voices and Ballroom history and culture in the music is one of unconditional love and hope. Music journalist Gerrick Kennedy agrees.
"She's talked about her uncle over the years, but to really celebrate that [with Renaissance] ... If we hadn't had this moment [with COVID lockdown] where we have been sitting and reflecting, I don't know if we would've gotten a project like this,” Kennedy tells xoNecole. “It also feels like [Beyoncé] allowed herself to grieve this family member, but also this part of her and her mother's life and how she was raised and the [queer] scenes that she was privy to as a kid [in the South] before we all really knew her," says Kennedy.
Fans got a taste of her intentions to honor the Black queer community with this album on June 21, when she dropped the lead single from Renaissance, “Break My Soul.” The lead single features samples of Robin S.'s 1990 hit "Show Me Love" and the Queen of Bounce, Big Freedia's 2014 song "Explode."
"For [Beyoncé] to extend her hand to her queer fans, hold us up the way that she did and create a universe for us [with this album]. There's something really magical about it," Kennedy says.
“Cozy,” the second song on the album, serves as a proudly queer-centric affirmation of being comfortable with who you are and features trans icons Honey Dijon and Ts Madison. In verse two, Beyoncé sings about colors that describe Daniel Quasar's 2018 Progress Pride flag design that brings marginalized LGBTQIA+ people of color, trans people, and those living with HIV/AIDS to the forefront. And in the post-chorus and bridge, there's a sample of Ts Madison's video "B**tch, I'm BLACK."
"There are no words to describe my feelings,” Ts Madison tells xoNecole about the opportunity to feature on “Cozy.” “Beyonce is a global phenomenon. For her to add my voice and statement piece on this project means a great deal to not only the Black community, but also the trans and queer community," she says.
My favorite track, "Church Girl," reminds me of Sunday sermons ending at 3 p.m., followed by a community fish fry and great music as the Louisiana heat beams down on my skin. Besides its reminder of my southern roots, "Church Girl" serves as a form of catharsis to let go of your burdens, whether at the altar or on the dance floor.
That form of release is the common theme throughout the album, emphasizing the importance of agency, self-love, and freedom to express yourself.
Renaissance also features contributions from The-Dream, Tems, NO I.D., NOVA WAV, Raphael Saadiq, and Mike Dean, to name a few. Songwriter Diane Warren might have tried to come for Beyoncé crediting 24 writers on one track of Renaissance, but it’s Beyoncé's communal approach to her craft that makes Renaissance flow so beautifully; it's how she's able to merge regional sounds and flip them with some southern spice.
Music historian and author Craig Seymour says that with her collaborations on Renaissance – like featuring live trumpets played by Bastrop, Louisiana native Jamelle Adisa on "Cuff It," – Beyoncé reconnects house music that had been born in places like Chicago back to its southern roots, honoring the foundation of the genre itself.
"People always want to act like Black history is brand new, but the first thing is to understand the huge influence of the Great Migration,” Seymour tells xoNecole. “All those people who created early house music were the grandchildren of Southerners. So those southern cultural traditions and things like that were a part of their lives even though they were in an urban environment," says Seymour. "The kind of yearning, the desire for acceptance that you get with a lot of early house, you can trace a lot of those elements even back to the urban blues, which essentially was the soundtrack to the Great Migration."
Seymour also tells us that the sub-genres of house Beyoncé chose to recreate on the album show her commitment to authentically representing the culture.
— BEYONCÉ (@Beyonce) July 29, 2022
"One of her most significant influences on the album is the sub-genre of house called 'bitch tracks,' which were often made by drag performers who were basically reading somebody on a record. Moi Renee's "’Miss Honey’" is one of the foundational ones, and she sampled Kevin Aviance's "’Cunty’" on [the track] "Pure/Honey," says Seymour.
It’s that track, as well as “Alien Superstar” that season one winner of the HBOMax vogue competition show Legendary Calypso Jetè Balmain relates to the most. But Calypso, who's worked with Megan Thee Stallion and more, is no stranger to how thin the line between homage to the culture and commodification can be.
"Being a Black trans woman and knowing Ballroom, going back to the roots and everything, I don't want this to just be another way of getting people to tune into music," says Calypso. "I'm kind of sad that it took for Beyoncé to do things like this [for the community to get the attention it deserves]. I love it; I appreciate it. But I don't want this to be [seen as] a trend because Ballroom has been around for so long." She hopes that the visuals for Renaissance will showcase the culture authentically.
"It will open the eyes of many who are allies or not LBTQIA+. Because right now, people are just hearing it, and people are probably like, 'Oh, my God, this is a great time because Beyoncé made it,' says Calypso. "If you were to walk into a straight club and say, 'Oh, play Kevin Jz Prodigy.' They'll never play Kevin Jz Prodigy. They don't know who that is."
In recent years, Ballroom — traditionally an underground haven for Black and brown LGBTQIA+ folks — has become a part of the mainstream pop culture discussion thanks to TV series like Pose and Legendary, and a resurgence of house music. While the general public gawks at the beauty, glamour, and voguing, there's a deeper story of resilience, survival and strength in community. "Nobody wants to talk about AIDS because it created a substantial generational gap,” Seymour says. “The government's inaction caused gay men to die disproportionately of AIDS, especially Black gay men."
And now, at the height of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation and the short life expectancy of Black trans women, who are attacked daily, we must look beyond the surface. Renaissance is more than a musical masterpiece; it’s inherently political and communal as she lends herself and platform to the memory of her Uncle Johnny and to generations of queer folks. Looking back to move forward through music is a form of resistance in her wheelhouse, using this album to bridge young queer folks to their elders, roots, and the ongoing fight for our rights. That's the true essence of Renaissance in every sense of the word.
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Featured image by Carlijn Jacobs