The writer is the FT’s pop critic
“Ten, ten, ten across the board,” Beyoncé sings on her new album Renaissance as though anticipating a set of euphoric reviews. They have duly arrived. “What a gift that the year’s smartest record is also its most deep-feeling,” marvels the Los Angeles Times. For the New York Times, “the range of her voice nears the galactic”.
Superlatives and lavish praise are the rhetorical jewels in Beyoncé’s crown. They reinforce her status as Queen Bey, the dominant figure in US pop, hailed as a trailblazer for black American art and culture. Alongside the plaudits, however, her first album of new solo material in six years also brings untypical signs of fallibility.
The first stumble came when it leaked two days ahead of schedule. Her ardent fan base, known as the Beyhive, descended in angry online swarms on those who admitted listening to the leak. “I appreciate you for calling out anyone that was trying to sneak into the club early,” Beyoncé told her 271mn followers on Instagram.
A worse setback came after its official release. The singer found herself under attack for including an offensive term for disability in the song “Heated”. “The word, not used intentionally in a harmful way, will be replaced,” a representative promised.
The re-edited version of “Heated” emerged on streaming platforms last week. But further controversy followed. Renaissance pays tribute to black and LGBT dance floor traditions and abounds with sampled vocals and interpolated melodies from other recordings. This bricolage has led to an accusation of “theft” from fellow American singer Kelis.
Her complaint was prompted by the use of a melodic phrase from her 2003 hit “Milkshake”. Kelis claimed that she hadn’t been alerted to its interpolation in Renaissance’s “Energy”. No statement was released in response to Kelis but the digital versions of “Energy” have been surreptitiously re-edited to remove the “Milkshake” reference. It appears that Renaissance’s attentiveness to dance music history doesn’t preclude airbrushing its own past.
Renaissance’s rocky arrival cuts against Beyoncé’s usual determination to do things her own way. This trait was crystallised in Destiny’s Child, the girl group she belonged to before going solo. “Depend on no one else to give you what you want,” she sang 22 years ago in their biggest hit, “Independent Women Pt I”. Her subsequent career has realised that desire for independence.
The eponymously-titled Beyoncé, released in 2013, was a breakthrough in that respect. Bypassing her label’s customary scheduling, she decided to surprise-release it just before Christmas, a dead-time in traditional industry thinking. “All these record labels boring,” she declared in one of its songs. Each track came with its own innovative video. Lyrics gave US pop’s endemic sexualisation a feminist spin. The result was a commercial and critical smash.
Its 2016 follow-up Lemonade is widely considered her masterpiece. It came out amid rumours of purported infidelity by her rapper-mogul husband Jay-Z. In a bravura act of show-womanship, she regained control of the publicity around her marriage by addressing its supposed troubles in her songs.
She also took control of the narrative in a deeper sense. Lemonade’s immersion in the textures and customs of southern American black communities was a form of personal historiography. As a black woman from Texas, the descendant of slaves, Beyoncé comes from a line of people whose history was violently erased. Her success in making herself into one of the US’s pre-eminent voices isn’t just a showbiz triumph. It is an act of historical recuperation.
Renaissance is on course to top charts worldwide, albeit with lower sales figures than its predecessors. In its first four days of release, it sold about 275,000 copies in the US. In contrast, Beyoncé sold 617,000 copies in its first three days. “This album is super culturally impactful,” Tatiana Cirisano, a music analyst, told the FT last week. “But I don’t know if that translates to commercial success.”
Beyoncé’s cultural capital is immense. But her album’s hasty post-release alterations pose a risk to it. Allegations of ableism and claims of disrespectful behaviour to a fellow African-American woman undermine her standing as a voice for the oppressed. They also suggest oddly careless planning from a singer with famously acute attention to detail. The offensive term in “Heated” caused uproar when US star Lizzo used it recently in her latest album: she was forced to apologise and changed the song. Meanwhile, Kelis’s rancour about not getting a copyright credit for “Milkshake” is well-known.
There is a thin line between being determined to do what you want and feeling entitled to get what you want. Privilege demarcates it. Beyoncé has faith in the liberating potential of black entrepreneurialism. “I dream it, I work hard, I grind ‘til I own it,” she sang in Lemonade. But her and Jay-Z’s pride in being self-made, African-American members of the super-rich sits awkwardly with the progressivism for which her music is celebrated.
Recent criticisms of private jet use by stars such as Drake and Taylor Swift indicate a hardening of attitudes towards celebrity wealth at a time of accelerating economic and climate crisis. Renaissance’s turbulent take-off exposes the faultline between activism and plutocracy in Beyoncé’s persona, the tightrope she treads between standing up for the disadvantaged and flaunting her own hard-won privilege. If the cracks get wider, another renaissance or rebirth will be needed for the next stage of her career.