As soon as Beyoncé’s staggering new album starts making your head feel fizzy, try to reorient yourself to the fact that all of this sweaty maximalism is unfolding in a neat, 90-degree angle between the mirror and the dance floor. Affirmation and locomotion are her twin themes here, and when she gets their edges to align this perfectly flush, it’s an invitation to shake your body to something that feels more optimistic than escapist, which is exactly how a superstar earns the right to name her pandemic-era album “Renaissance.”
This is feel-good music in the sense that it’s also feel-everything music. Drawing on the forward-motion pulses of house, disco and more, Beyoncé uses rhythm to push in expansive emotional directions, singing about dignity and desire in high detail. On top of that, amid thick layers of instrumentation and sampling, she’s speaking to the extraordinary breadth of Black American dance music writ large. With so much to excavate, the only thing more impressive than the deepness is the lightness. Just watch the auteur hopscotch across “Summer Renaissance,” a fleet, ornate interpolation of “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer: “I’m feeling way too loose to be tied down/Can you see my brain open wide now?” Yes, and we can hear it, too.
Beyoncé’s psyche may know no borders, but what about the rest of us? In the titular opening line of “All Up In Your Mind,” she delivers her monosyllables in a skull-penetrating staccato, then burrows in deep, the way only the best pop singers can. Elsewhere in the track list, she experiences a flash of carpe-diem panic while romping through the disco plushness of “Virgo’s Groove,” singing about how she consulted a psychic who “told me we got s--- to do, we ain’t got time like we used to.”
Her music has long been rooted in empathy, but now it might be extending toward something like telepathy. Listen to how the tracks on “Renaissance” melt into one another like a seamless DJ set. Or, if you’re willing to take it to another plane, try to hear it as a metaphor for a blended super-consciousness.
She isn’t ignoring the world outside her head, though. Amid the tumultuous tempo surges of “I’m That Girl,” she’s reconciling her “un-American life” with her ability to “shine right through the blinds.” Moments later, on “Energy,” she sings about how the momentary relief of “voting out 45” can’t erase the continuous threat of white supremacy, “’cause them Karens just turned into terrorists.” Then everything pivots into “Break My Soul,” a neo-house balm with a refrain — “You won’t break my soul” — that feels stronger than anything she’s sung since Destiny’s Child.
Beyoncé’s importance often gets warped by the hyperbole that surrounds her, but “Renaissance” gives us something to think about: Who in pop music has stayed this relevant for this long? Sadly, not Prince. The Beatles broke up. Maybe Michael Jackson, but she’s gaining fast. And though celebrity might be a longevity competition, music isn’t. Beyoncé sounds like she’s never cared about her music more. She knows all about mirrors, and dance floors, and extra-dimensional planes of consciousness, too. May she never find the ceiling.