A Dance Music Guide to Beyoncé’s “Renaissance”
Beyoncé’s new album “Renaissance” is consciously steeped in dance music history, artfully embracing decades of samples and sounds: Donna Summer and Chic’s 1970s disco, Jamaican dancehall, the hyperpop at internet speed. She’s chosen specific collaborators, references and even keyboard sounds that pay homage to club memories while making her own 21st century statement. Here are some of the sources she celebrates and an exploration of their significance.
The second and third titles of the album, “Comfortable” and “Alien Superstar” writing and producing feature films by Chicago-born DJ and house music producer Honey Dijon. “Cosy” also includes a writing credit for Curtis Alan Jones, known as Cajmere or Green Velvet – one of Chicago’s biggest house music producers.
This locale is essential here. Chicago is the birthplace of house music, and Chicago house, in particular, often moves with a very pronounced swing, accentuated by octave-hopping staccato bass patterns. The canonical example is Adonis’ “No Way Back” from 1986, and the bassline of “Cozy” plays as an inversion of it. The song is almost mnemonically recognizable as early Chicago house without just sounding like an homage.
On “Alien Superstar”, the hook cadence (“I’m too class for this world/Forever I’m that girl”) is attributed to an interpolation of Right Said Fred’s dancefloor novelty “I’m Too Sexy”. .” Taylor Swift borrowed the same part (also with credit) on her 2017 track “Look What You Made Me Do,” and Drake sampled the 1992 song on “Way Too Sexy” from 2021.
There is another direct reminder on “Handcuff Him”: The bass line is instantly recognizable as the offspring of Bernard Edwards’ monster riff from Chic’s “Good Times,” a 1979 No. 1 hit, and Edwards’ partner in Chic, Nile Rodgers, gets credit for write and play guitars here. (On bass and drums: Raphael Saadiq.) As Ken Barnes pointed out in his liner notes for “The Disco Years Vol. 4: Lost in Music”, a compilation on Rhino Records, rewriting Chic became something of a national pastime in the early 1980s, especially via the beginnings of hip-hop and post-disco R&B. This version of one, two, three (rest) is as indebted to the many rewrites of “Good Times” as the original: “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang and “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll” by Vaughn Mason, for example.
“Energy” features the writing and production of Skrillex, an early 2010s EDM festival superstar known for his drops – dramatic buildups that resolve into a new beat – but since his heyday he’s largely worked behind the scenes. (See Justin Bieber’s 2015 hit “Where Are Ü Now,” which he did alongside Diplo.) “Energy” seems to be running on wires; it’s taut minimalism, with the loosest layering of sub-bass.
The song also has songwriting credits for Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, songwriting and production duo The Neptunes, known for their work with a wide range of singers and rappers beginning in the 1990s. release of “Renaissance,” singer and songwriter Kelis spoke out on social media, saying the credits were for a snippet of one of her songs (it turned out to be an interpolation of 2003’s “Milkshake,” ) , and that she had not authorized its use. Kelis was not a credited writer or producer on most of the early albums she made with the Neptunes, and had no credits on “Milkshake”. In a 2020 interview with The Guardian, she said she signed a deal with the duo when she “was too young and too dumb to check it out”.
A similar situation occurred with the first single from the album, “Break My Soul” which is indebted to Korg’s central motif of Robin S.’s pop-house hit “Show Me Love.” But whether his 1992 remix was sampled was initially unclear, and during the first week of the song’s release, the credits changed. (The latest release says Beyoncé’s song “contains elements” of “Show Me Love.”) The afterlife of Robin S.’s song was robust: Her riff appeared in “Where They At?? ?” from Brooklyn producer AceMo in 2019. featuring John FM, which has become a key underground dance anthem before and during the pandemic, as well as in recent releases by Charli XCX and Daddy Yankee.
Another key to “Break My Soul” is the urging scream (“Release your wiggle!”) by New Orleans bounce artist Big Freedia, which Beyoncé previously sampled on “Formation” (2016). Bounce is a style of dance music from New Orleans that is incredibly fast, bass-intensive, and heavy on call-and-response; the twerk emerged in response.
Beyoncé returns to the late 90s on “Plastic on the couch.” While most of the song is a lush digital ballad, there’s a moment in its coda that could stem from “glitch” experimental electronics, where the end of a vocal run, heavily overdubbed, is subjected to a deliberately audible editing. It’s a bit jarring but mostly humorous – an audible nod to the listener, a facet of modern pop’s high-tech production laid bare. (For an example from the 90s, see Oval’s “94diskont” album or the “Clicks + Cuts” compilation, released in 2000.)
The classic disco asserts itself halfway through the album. “The Groove of the Virgin” features layers of undulating percussion, synthesizer and bass that update the production work Quincy Jones did with Michael Jackson – a kind of companion track to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”. “Move,” the next track, features a Grace Jones feature – disco royalty, just in case anyone’s wondering where Beyoncé might be from.
Equally notable on “Move” — and even more conspicuously on “America Has a Problem” — is the low-pitched swarm known in the dance world as “bass Reese.” The term refers to a 1988 record, “Just Want Another Chance” by Reese, one of many pseudonyms used by Kevin Saunderson, one of the first producers identified with Detroit techno in the mid-80s.
In the same way that ‘Chicago house’ refers not only to a style and its birthplace, but also to that octave-swinging sound, ‘Detroit techno’ tends to denote an attention to detail and an aura of restless invention. The heavy, foggy low-end of “Just Want Another Chance” has often been reused by London bass music styles like jungle, drum and bass, UK garage and dubstep – something writer Simon Reynolds called the “hardcore continuum” of black British music. urban area styles that took root on pirate radio London.
Beyoncé’s use of Reese’s heavy, undulating bass on “Move” and “America Has a Problem” places the album further in the black dance music continuum. “Problem” also opens with orchestral bangs, a la Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force, the electronic rap track “Planet Rock” – or, even more aptly given the title and lyrical theme, “Rhythm Nation by Janet Jackson.
“Heated” features Beyoncé in towering neo-dancehall form over a molding, woodblock-heavy groove. At the end of the song, she mentions tapping tracks with her fingers on the MPC, an instrument designed by Roger Linn that arrived in 1988. The MPC, made by Akai, is not played with a keyboard, but features a instead a square grid of pads that trigger different sounds, and it became a popular composition and performance tool.
“Thic” sounds like something that would have been all over dubstep dancefloors in the days before Skrillex, when the subgenre’s distended bass and choppy tempos were mostly the preserve of British producers. Indeed, the song’s writing and production credits include an artist influenced by these musicians: Chauncey Hollis Jr., aka Hit-Boy, who produced a dubstep-influenced hit on Jay-Z’s “Watch the Throne” and Kanye West (2011).
The plasticine sounds of “Thique” transform into even more synthetic sounds “All in Your Mind”, co-produced by AG Cook, the mastermind of London-based label and art collective PC Music, who arrived in the mid-2010s with a sound built on elegant exaggeration: sounds that weren’t just high-pitched in the style of a mechanical music, but deliberately grating. (Sophie, the producer known for her uplifting hyperpop who died in 2021, hailed from this camp.) “All Up” is futuristic robo-pop, with a sub-bass line that seems to dive under the speakers rather than droop. emanate from it.
“Pure honey,” the penultimate, is another sub-bass monster: the first part, propelled by a wicked bass drum, is a surprising approximation of the most steely techno, or perhaps the most “pure”. The “honey” arrives at the 2:11 mark, a bulbous neo-disco groove with feathery horns reminiscent of early Sylvester. The track runs in part over a sample of a Kevin Aviance song subtitled “The Feeling” – one of the key recordings of a queer house substyle known as “bitch tracks”.
Last title of the album, “Summer Rebirth” features Beyoncé singing, “It’s so good, it’s so good, it’s so good, it’s so good” over a very familiar pinball riff – yes, Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” interpolated finale , the 1977 disco hit with an all-synthesizer backdrop and heart-pounding beat that anticipated the future sound of dance music. But the main melodic phrase of “I Feel Love” sounds as if it were played on the Korg keyboard which anchors “Break My Soul”, subtly linking two eras into a third.