Beyoncé's 'Renaissance' is a thotty, naughty and ethereal work of art : Pop Culture Happy Hour On Beyoncé's new album Renaissance, the superstar channels a rich history of Black and queer music. There's disco, dancehall, bounce, house, gospel, freestyle and funk — all served up in a confident, sexy and thotty gumbo. Now that we've had some time to sit with (and get down to) the album, how are we feeling? Was it worth the wait?

Beyoncé's 'Renaissance' is a thotty, naughty and ethereal work of art

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AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

Heads up - this podcast contains explicit language.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: Finally, it's here. Beyonce released her new album "Renaissance," and the superstar channels a rich history of Black and queer music. It's a joyful sonic immersion made for dance floors of all kinds. There's disco, dancehall, bounce, house, gospel, freestyle and funk, all served up in a confident, sexy and thotty gumbo. Now that we've had some time to sit with and get down to the album, how are we feeling? Was it worth the wait? And where does this sit within the Queen B canon?

I'm Aisha Harris. And on this episode of NPR's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, we're talking about Beyonce's new album, "Renaissance."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: Joining me today is writer Kiana Fitzgerald. Welcome back, Kiana.

KIANA FITZGERALD, BYLINE: Thank you so much for having me.

HARRIS: Yeah. It's great to have you. Also with us, making his POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR debut, is music and cultural critic Craig Seymour. Welcome, Craig.

CRAIG SEYMOUR: Hey, thanks for having me. Such an honor.

HARRIS: Yes. It's such an honor on our end as well. So "Renaissance" is Beyonce's first solo studio album since 2016's "Lemonade." But she's obviously been busy the last six years. She gave us the "Homecoming" concert at Coachella, plus two other major projects - the album "Everything Is Love," her collaboration with husband Jay-Z, and a soundtrack and visual album to accompany the 2019 remake of "The Lion King."

Now, her new album "Renaissance" spans 16 tracks and multiple decades of musical influences. The list of collaborators is so long. It includes go-to producer The-Dream, Nile Rodgers, Grace Jones, Big Freedia, Tems and Syd. And the stylistic interpolations and samples are in abundance, too. You've got Robin S.'s '90s house banger "Show Me Love," of course, but also the late great Teena Marie, ballroom DJ MikeQ and gospel legends The Clark Sisters. Those are just a few of the many names that are dropped within this album.

Now, it's being marketed by her team as Act 1 of a three-act project. And we're recording this Monday morning, so as of this taping, we have no clue what else awaits us in the "Renaissance" era, though we'll all be eagerly watching for it, I'm sure. Kiana, let's start with you. What are your first thoughts? We've had this marinating for a few days over the weekend. So how are you feeling about "Renaissance"?

FITZGERALD: I feel amazing about it.

(LAUGHTER)

FITZGERALD: I have not stopped listening to this. And even when I had to stop listening, I kept thinking about it over and over - like, I can't wait to hear this again. I just feel like as soon as the album opens and you hear the sample of these MFs ain't stopping me, I was like, oh, here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M THAT GIRL")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) These motherf****** ain't stopping me.

FITZGERALD: This is what we're in for. This is it.

HARRIS: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M THAT GIRL")

BEYONCE: (Singing) I pull up in these clothes, look so good.

FITZGERALD: You know, she just sounds so comfortable on this album. She sounds so steeped in her influences. So - just like she's reveling in her abilities. And I feel like this is Beyonce, like, in her peak form. It's an immersive experience that - it's like one continuous listening, like, party. And the term disco trap I feel is super appropriate for this album because it has those influences, and it also has, like, trap beats. I hear a lot of, like, hip-hop influences in this album, obviously from her husband Jay-Z but also from Houston, which is her hometown. And I want to say that I am a Beyonce stan up and down, and I love her history, but I also am still becoming familiar with some of the influences on this album. So I'm so glad to be here alongside Craig, and I'd love to hear his thoughts.

HARRIS: I'm right there with you, Kiana. Now, Craig, you have a very long history, both - not just with Black music and Black female artists but Destiny's Child and Beyonce in particular. You've been covering Beyonce since the beginning. So how do you feel about this moment that she's having with "Renaissance"?

SEYMOUR: I feel like this is an incredible expression, a personal expression. But what she does so well is that it also connects with a collective feeling. One thing that strikes me so deeply is that it's a tribute to her late uncle, her gay Uncle Johnny, who passed away of AIDS I think sometime in the early 2000s because she mentioned him during an award show, that he passed away years earlier.

And it made me think about how during the pandemic, so many of us were forced to deal with emotions that we didn't - hadn't necessarily dealt with in just the everyday, 9-to-5, getting that money - all this kind of stuff. But when everything stopped, a lot of us found ourselves dealing with memories, grief, all sorts of things that we thought we had either buried or dealt with and everything. So it seemed to me completely appropriate that at this moment - and her career has just been going nonstop since that era. It seems appropriate for me that in that moment of the world stopping, you know, suddenly he came to mind, and suddenly she started thinking about the music that he used to play and think about the larger context of gay culture.

And so it just seems so organic to me in the way that it speaks to a specific time, but it also speaks to our collective experience, a lot of the things that we went through during the pandemic.

HARRIS: Yeah, yeah.

SEYMOUR: And it's a jam.

FITZGERALD: And it's a jam. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

SEYMOUR: My whole thing, I guess, is just, like, I'm still at the point of, like, even though I've listened to it a million times and have written reviews on it, I can't necessarily say - other than "Church Girl," which is just, like - you know, I could just fall to the floor in tears over that record - it still, like, sounds like one song to me. I don't always know.

FITZGERALD: Yeah.

SEYMOUR: Like, what's that part there? What'd she say that line? What's that line?

HARRIS: Yeah.

SEYMOUR: I sometimes don't know.

HARRIS: Yeah.

SEYMOUR: So, you know, it's still kind of a continuous thing for me.

HARRIS: Right. I mean, that's actually a point I wanted to bring up because probably one of my favorite things, if not the favorite thing, for me for this album are the transitions. They're so seamless. When "Break My Soul" was released, the first time I heard it, I was like, OK, this is cute.

FITZGERALD: (Laughter).

HARRIS: You know, I hear the Robin S. I hear it. But I was wanting more, I think, from her vocals 'cause when you hear that song and you think of "Show Me Love," "Show Me Love" is a powerhouse song. And so Beyonce kind of lays back on it and grooves with it, but she doesn't quite attack it in the way that Robin S. attacks "Show Me Love." And I should very much clarify that it's an interpolation; it's not a direct sample of that song. But obviously, she was meant to invoke that song.

And then I heard "Break My Soul" during Pride in SF, and I got it. I understood. But then to hear that song on the album is a whole new level. I actually want to play the transition that happens into "Break My Soul." It starts with "Energy," which is such - it's such a good, like, dancehall afrobeat song that moves right into "Break My Soul." And the transition is just, like, so fantastic. You also hear Big Freedia enter in right before. Let's just play it. I love it.

FITZGERALD: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAK MY SOUL")

BEAM: (Singing) Energy, energy. Yeah, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) I'm about to explode. Take off this load. Bend it. Bust it open. Won't you make it go - (vocalizing).

HARRIS: It's masterful. And I love the way that she's doing that throughout a lot of the album. It also feels like she purposely - every song is purposely sort of tracked through. And I kept - when I was listening to it over and over, I kept thinking to myself, oh, OK, so this is like when you're first getting to the party, all right? You've got "Cuff It." You've got "Cozy." You've got "Alien Superstar." It's like the early part of the night when you're on the dance floor. And then as you keep going, at one point you get into "Church Girl," and it's like, oh, OK, we're just - we're getting down. We're getting down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHURCH GIRL")

BEYONCE: (Singing) I'll drop it like a thotty, drop it like a thotty. I said, now pop it like a thotty, pop it like a thotty - you bad. Let me say, now drop it like a thotty, drop it like a thotty - you bad. Church girls acting loose. Bad girls acting snotty - you bad. Let it go, girl.

HARRIS: And then later on, it gets a little bit darker. Like, it starts to feel like, oh, it's 2 a.m. It's 3 a.m. And you're like - you've been dancing for a while, but you're still going. And I love the way it just kind of flows like that. And then at the end with "Summer Renaissance," it's just like, OK, we're letting it all just go and melt away. And I think that's just - she made a dance album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMER RENAISSANCE")

BEYONCE: (Singing) I wanna house you and make you take my name. I'm gonna spouse you and make you touch a ring. I'm gonna take you all the way. Baby, can I take you all the way? You sexy motherf*****. Boy, you growing on me.

HARRIS: I mean, what do you think about - we've had all these conversations about dance music. And, you know, Craig, you've written about this extensively and talked about how, you know, dance music and club music, it's never really gone away. But every once in a while, major artists will bring it back. And, you know, what do you make of this moment, and why now?

SEYMOUR: Yeah. I mean, I think it's perfect now in so many ways that are sort of intentional in terms of, since we were in lockdown and everything, people do need a release, and dance music provides a release. But it's also really weird in that the disco era really coincided with the rise of the religious right, and there were a lot of attacks against gay people, against integrated spaces and all of that stuff at the time that the whole world was dancing. And so it just really seems weird to me that we are having this club music renaissance at the same time that we're seeing the rollback of abortion rights, at the same time we're seeing all of these voter suppression efforts, at the same time people can't even have their kids get waved at Sesame Place.

(LAUGHTER)

SEYMOUR: You know what I mean?

HARRIS: I know.

SEYMOUR: Like, all of this kind of stuff is going down.

HARRIS: Yeah.

SEYMOUR: Again, I think Beyonce hits the zeitgeist, you know, and offers us really provocative ways to look at other things that are going on in the culture because, as she says, America got a problem, right?

HARRIS: (Laughter).

FITZGERALD: As someone who, you know, is, like, very steeped in Black culture of all iterations, of course, I have, like, influential knowledge of certain aspects of certain genres, but as a whole, like, house, dance music - I'm a hip-hop girl. Like, there are certain parts of those that go together. But, you know, overall, I'm still learning a lot about it. And I feel like I was still able to rock right into this. And it was not a big learning curve for me in order to understand certain things.

I've been doing a lot of reading, a lot of research, and the more I learn about it, the more I'm, like, living so much more full and so much more in my purpose because I feel like had I known some of this stuff a little bit earlier, I would have been much more confident in myself as someone who does identify as queer. So I'm learning as I go. And Beyonce is holding my hand along the way. And I appreciate her for that.

SEYMOUR: I was born in 1968, so I was there when "Rapper's Delight" came out and everything like that. And as a gay man, I was one of the - you know, most of my friends really weren't listening to hip-hop, like, that I was rocking as much with the Public Enemy cassettes and MC Lyte cassettes and stuff as I was with house music. And, you know, there was a lot of anger in house music because - in some elements of it because it was a response to Reaganomics, to AIDS and all of that kind of stuff. And that was particularly expressed through the drag queens on what were called bitch tracks. You know, I think there's a big continuity between the anger that you see - that you hear in some early hip-hop and the sort of aggression that you hear on so-called bitch tracks that Beyonce does sample on "Pure/Honey."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURE/HONEY")

BEYONCE: (Singing) Check my technique. Coming for my technique. You wanna feel my technique? It's pure. Bad bitches to the left.

SEYMOUR: You know, she is perfect for this time, but I think that she's making continuities between things that were created around the same time by Black people that were sort of going through similar things but from different social positions. So I think that's really interesting. At a really small moment of time, house was very credible in hip-hop...

HARRIS: Right.

SEYMOUR: ...Like the Jungle Brothers' "I'll House You," Queen Latifah's "Come Into My House." But as I think it got more associated with - and that's all out of Jersey and stuff. But as it got more associated with gayness and hip-hop is so hyper masculine, I think the divide started to happen. So I'm really glad that you get - it's so great when people can hear, I mean, 'cause it's all a continuity, you know? So I think...

HARRIS: Yeah.

FITZGERALD: Absolutely.

SEYMOUR: I love what you said.

FITZGERALD: Thank you.

HARRIS: One of my favorite tracks is probably "America Has Got A Problem," which you've already referenced. And that song, I think, it's got this sort of Miami bass freestyle feel to it, but also, it does feel very house-y. And I think it's just the way she's playing also with her cadences.

FITZGERALD: Yeah.

HARRIS: She's switching them up all the time. No song, actually - I mean, other than maybe "Break My Soul" - really has the same tempo or same beat for the entirety of the song.

Like, she is switching things up, whether it's her cadence, whether adding in a completely different melody or harmony for a few seconds and then going back in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA HAS A PROBLEM")

BEYONCE: (Singing) ...Like it wants you? Know that booty gon' do what it want to. Can't hit it one time, multiple. I know you see these racks, racks, racks on me. Now come and get high-igh-igh-igh-igh-igh. Twenty-forty-eighty out the trap. Hit it with the rap, put it on the map. Then we right back - back, back, back. Call me when you wanna get high-igh-igh-igh.

HARRIS: It's interesting to think about the way she is bringing all these things together. Each song can play to any sort of Black party situation possible. Like, "Church Girl" has got that Cash Money, "Int'l Players Anthem," HBCU party thing going on.

FITZGERALD: (Laughter).

HARRIS: For ball and voguing, you've got "Cozy," "Alien Superstar." The roller rink is like "Virgo's Groove," "Summer Renaissance." Like, she's playing to every sort of Black interaction that you could think of, like a celebratory interaction that's happening. And I think it's just so great to be able to listen to it.

I also think it's kind of cruel because so many of us are still trying to stay at home and not...

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: So it's like - you know, dancing to it in your room is one thing, or dancing to it with a small group of friends is one thing, but to be able to hear it in a space, the spaces that it's meant to be heard, I think it's just going to take off in such an even bigger way. You know, I'm curious, you mentioned the bitch tracks, Craig, and what are the ways you see her sort of connecting not just with other artists but with her past self?

SEYMOUR: Oh, that's a great question 'cause really - yes, I mean, Beyonce has her credibility in the dance world if you look at the Destiny's Child remixes, particularly from "The Writing's On The Wall," 'cause they worked exclusively with Maurice Joshua, who's one of the early sort of house innovators. He did, like, "This Is Acid." And so they worked exclusively, and he kind of - because they were new, he pitched them on the idea. He was like, OK, look; the record can sound one way if I just make a track and speed up your vocals, but it can sound a whole 'nother way if y'all just get on a plane, hop over here to Chicago right quick and record with the band.

So for all of those singles - "Bills, Bills, Bills," "Bug A Boo," "Say My Name" and "Jumpin', Jumpin'" - they actually rerecorded their vocals for the club. Now, superstars like Mariah were doing that kind of thing at the time, but it was very rare for a new group to do that. And he just talked about, like, the freedom. And so he kind of recreates that feel. So if you listen to things like "Bills, Bills, Bills," the Xclusive dub, you could just her just flowing over - like a disco diva over these tracks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BILLS, BILLS, BILLS (MAURICE'S XCLUSIVE DUB MIX)")

DESTINY'S CHILD: (Singing) Pay my bills. Pay my telephone bills. Pay my automo' bill. Then maybe we could chill.

SEYMOUR: So she ain't new to this. And she's done so many photoshoots that you know they were playing this kind of stuff, you know? And so I feel like she is just at a point where it feels organic to bring that in. And, you know, what a lot of the album feels like to me is it's so - which is true to renaissance. I mean, renaissance is - what? - looking back to look forward, right? And so much of it is self-referential. Like so much of it - like, I hear "Blow" in so many songs.

HARRIS: Yeah, "Cuff It," for sure. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CUFF IT")

BEYONCE: (Singing) We gon' f*** up tonight, black lights, spaceships fly - spaceships fly. Unapologetic when we f*** up the night, f*** up the night. We getting f***** up tonight. We gon' f*** up tonight.

SEYMOUR: "Heated" gives you, like, "Mine" feels. And, like - you know, so I feel like she's trying to make a record that - like you said, that we can easily incorporate into our lives. It's not a challenging album musically. It's more something that feels very comfortable off the bat, which is different from what she did with "Lemonade" and self-titled. You know, self-titled has a lot of stuff that people really had to grow into, same thing with "Lemonade." It's like, you know, that whole James Blake track - people like, why is this white man singing all on this Beyonce song?

(LAUGHTER)

SEYMOUR: But, you know, this feels, like, very comfortable and at home from jump, and I think that's intentional.

HARRIS: Yeah.

FITZGERALD: Yeah. And I wanted to say, we have this album, and we're inside, you know? She - like, on "Break My Soul" she says, you know, we outside. And it's like, not quite, you know? We're not quite there yet.

(LAUGHTER)

FITZGERALD: And - but I do feel like this album has a lot of staying power. And I'm very excited to see a tour for this album. I'm very excited to see what this album becomes when it's out in the free world. And I feel like there's just so much joy and celebration in it. And she's always been very forward thinking, always very prescient in a way. And I feel like this is another moment where we're seeing that happen and especially because I feel like, in recent years, we've had albums come out, and they come and go very quickly. And people are quick to be very cynical about certain aspects of albums. And I feel like with this, just being online and on Twitter and things like that, people are loving this album, like, almost wholly.

And it's, like, one of the rare moments where this has happened in recent years. And I feel like that has so much to do with the work that she put into it and the fact that she's working with the music, she's working with the history, and she's living and breathing with it. And that's, like, the key, I feel, to this album being so beautiful, so bombastic, so successful thus far. But, yeah, I'm very excited to hear how this album, you know, transcends time.

SEYMOUR: And, you know, to kind of jump on that and thinking about how she's always playing to our time, I think during the pandemic, 'cause we so inside, you know, most of the time, I think it's also been a time of people's individual creativity flourishing. I think that's how - why TikTok has become so popular during that time. And I think that's why she hasn't yet released any visuals for the album.

HARRIS: Yeah.

SEYMOUR: It's because she saw that you can drop a song at midnight on, you know, Friday morning, and by, you know, that afternoon somebody's going to have a whole little TikTok routine to it.

FITZGERALD: (Laughter).

SEYMOUR: And, you know, it's going to be a whole thing. So I think she was probably sitting back and watching that and going, wow, let me let people do their own thing to it first before I get in with my choreography and my looks and kind of overdetermine how things are supposed to be. Let me let people play with this almost and see what it comes up with. And I think that's absolutely brilliant. I think it's generous. And it's just another way that Beyonce continues to challenge us as an audience but also to try to feed our, like, inner souls and our creativity and everything like that.

She always seeks to inspire. And I think by not having the visuals initially, that's another way that she's inspiring people to really get in touch with their creativity and think about, like, what do you see when you listen to "Church Girl"? What do you imagine an alien superstar to look like?

HARRIS: Yeah.

SEYMOUR: You know, just all of those kind of things - I think it's - that's just a wonderful gift that she's given to us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALIEN SUPERSTAR")

BEYONCE: (Singing) I'm too classy for this world. Forever I'm that girl. Feed you diamonds and pearls. Ooh, baby. I'm too classy to be touched. I pay them all in dust. I'm stingy with my love. Ooh, baby.

HARRIS: For me, what I hope to see is I hope we see Big Freedia...

FITZGERALD: Yes.

HARRIS: ...Who has collaborated with Beyonce before on "Formation." That's her voice you can hear in the video, but we don't see her. And she's been asked about this many times in interviews about, you know, not appearing physically in the videos for that and also for Drake's "Nice For What," where she's also sampled. And she's very much like, look; if you hear my voice, you can Google me. I'm fine with it. But I would love to actually see her in that video. I would love to see someone like Leomie, one of the Vogue legends, dancing. I can see it already in these videos. I'm hoping as much as this is a celebration of Black queer music, we get to actually see Black queer people.

FITZGERALD: Yeah. We are so privileged and so lucky to live in the era of real-time Beyonce. Like, we are so blessed.

(LAUGHTER)

FITZGERALD: And this album is just an example of that.

HARRIS: Yes. Let the church say amen.

SEYMOUR: Amen.

FITZGERALD: (Laughter).

HARRIS: Well, obviously, we really, really enjoyed this album, and we are still chewing on it and dancing to it and enjoying it. We want to know what you think about Beyonce's "Renaissance." You can find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Craig Seymour, Kiana Fitzgerald, thanks to you both for being here. This was so much fun.

SEYMOUR: Thank you. I had such a great time. Thanks for inviting me.

FITZGERALD: Thank you. As did I.

HARRIS: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Candice Lim and Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. And Hello Come In provides our theme music. I'm Aisha Harris, and we'll see you all tomorrow, when we'll be talking about the new film "Bullet Train."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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