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Beyoncé's 'RENAISSANCE' is the No. 1 Album of 2022

Illustration: Huston Wilson for NPR



/ Parkwood Entertainment/Columbia
Parkwood Entertainment/Columbia

Ann Powers: No game-topping artist in 2022 regularly earns as many flowers as Beyoncé. She's so undefeated that the narrative at this point is almost tedious: Every few years she releases a major project that not only shows her undiminished prowess as a vocalist, writer, producer and all-around star, but creates a new rulebook by which her peers' work will be judged. From her meta-confessional masterwork Lemonade to her pan-African projects to the multimedia epic Homecoming, she's expanded pop auteurism in ways that inspire not just admiration but awe.

That's why it's no surprise that her dance music fantasia RENAISSANCE — a pandemic-era lark, she stated upon its release, designed to allow her to "be free of perfectionism and over-thinking" — is topping not only NPR Music's Best Albums list but many more, becoming the most highly lauded album of 2022.

She's accomplished this without the usual industry-mandated flourish of visuals, aside from a handful of photographs culminating in a stunning cover shot in an equestrian pose that's both mythic and redolent of the museum-worthy works she and her husband love to collect. The neo-classical framework the album's title provides works to communicate both its mission — to honor dance music's lineage of queer, mostly Black DJ's, producers and divas as Old Masters equal to any Beatle — and her own role, as the head of a guild herself, overseeing myriad collaborators to put their own marks on the canvas of her work.

With RENAISSANCE, Beyoncé has given us something beyond her personal story, or even the wide-opening interface between that story and Black history as shaped by migration, racism and resistance. She's created a detail-rich panorama inspired by the living history of that sacred space, the club. It's her Sistine Chapel, and it deserves to be discussed that way — as a star-filled imaginary sky, and an origin myth that comes to life through its brilliant brush strokes. To really appreciate it is to focus on its remarkable design, the way it sounds and feels different depending on one's perspective. Listening this way, what comes to the fore is its stunning detail, etched by many hands. Rather than a set of bangers (which, of course it is), RENAISSANCE can be experienced as a seemingly inexhaustible text, each portion connecting to the other to evoke moments in time whose impact is timeless.

To honor this magnificence, I convened with two of the best music writers I know — Daphne A. Brooks and Danyel Smith — to share their favorite fine points in this stunning fresco, starting out with the moments that thrill us, stop us in our tracks, add up to the creation myth that is RENAISSANCE.

Daphne A. Brooks: "Migration, (anti)racism and resistance" themes are all over RENAISSANCE, like strong, rippling undercurrents that burst to the surface in some of my favorite moments on the record. We hear the Texas-meets-New Orleans hubris and tenacity of an artist who knows what Black folks on the move — what Black women on the move — have delivered to the world artistically and otherwise by way of their bodies as it rings through the revolutionary looseness of the "Church Girl" line, "Twirl that ass like you came up out the South girl." We hear it in the signature and nuanced forms of attention she gives to Blackness as an experience of distinct and high value, via an archival sound byte from late great theater practitioner and grassroots activist Barbara Ann Teer ("We dress a certain way, we walk a certain way, we talk a certain way.... All of these things we do in a different, unique, specific way that is personally ours..."). Moments like this are a response to racism: to stretch ourselves out far beyond the confines of this wretched world and to draw on our prodigious powers as a people, to "reach out," as she sings on "Alien Superstar," "to the solar system ... flying over bulls***" and in pursuit of a "supernatural love." Love — self-love, love between intimates, love of community, gloriously passionate sexual connection, the euphorically free body — these are all building blocks of resistance on the record.

The moment when she hits the peak of the pre-chorus in "Church Girl" with that devastatingly forthright declaration, a simple utterance that we, nevertheless, rarely hear articulated so bluntly and yet simultaneously with so much swift and fluid vocal dexterity and poetry. It's the moment when she puts everyone on notice, letting everyone know, "I was born free." Listening to the way that she turns "born" into a glorious glissando remains the most arresting moment for me in a series of arresting moments on RENAISSANCE. Through her reading of that one word, Beyoncé is able to take us on an entire trip through Black women and Black peoples' history of subjugation, emancipation and the ongoing project to name the terms of our own liberation. It's only after that baptismal moment of self-reclamation that, as "Church Girl" reminds us, we are able to let ourselves go and ride a thick, incessant beat that demands of us to drop it low.

Danyel Smith: I love pop and the pop-pop-poppiest moment of RENAISSANCE is not so much a part of a song but the virality of "Cuff It," and the dance challenges, the line dances, Nicole Scherzinger making "Cuff" moves in formal wear, Kelly Rowland swerving deep in her bucket hat, the wedding moments — all of this without, mind you, Beyoncé having provided a video (a la the 2009 "Single Ladies" dance phenomenon). The whole world is a Soul Train line. The club is in your apartment's foyer, on the gravel of your driveway, on the escalator at the mall. I'm in the mood to f*** something up! We gon' f*** up the night! A call from the Queen to drink and be merry, because tomorrow we ride at dawn.

Ann Powers: RENAISSANCE touches down in 1970s disco with Nile Rodgers, Chicago house with Green Velvet, bounce with Big Freedia, and those are just the most obvious examples of its time-traveling. If you had to live in a historical moment with Bey via RENAISSANCE, what would yours be? I'll start: I love the shimmering Janetisms of "Plastic Off the Sofa," which takes me back to The Velvet Rope's "My Need," while also somehow putting me in the middle of a roller disco slow dance, skating backward under the starry lights while the Bee Gees' "More Than a Woman" plays in the background. And, of course, it's cowritten by the Internet's Syd, whose own skin-tingling music has brought the shimmering sex ballad into the 21st century. No samples on that song, but it conjures a Milky Way of memories.

Daphne A. Brooks: I'm here for the time-traveling — especially as I'm settled back in at home in the San Francisco Bay Area for the holidays (shout out to my fellow "yay-Arean" D. Smith!) with family and thinking about my 1970s childhood, shaped in great part culturally by my older sister Renel's teen musical obsessions: Soul Train, American Bandstand, Saturday Night Fever, Donna Summer, Chic and Sister Sledge. How can I hear something like that smooth-as-butter, light-as-a-feather, Nile Rodgers co-produced joint "Cuff It" and not be transported back to tennis-shoe roller skates, satin jackets, weekend birthday parties at the rink. I know my grade school, post-Civil Rights self had the privilege of taking for granted what a miracle it was to live in a period in which Black women artists not only saturated the fabric of our everyday world but also dominated the pop and not just soul and R&B charts. RENAISSANCE takes us back to that place, among others, reclaims that moment and draws as a "don't f*** with my sis'" throughline to our current pop time and place.

Danyel Smith: I want to go back to Beyoncé's own 2003 debut because I've felt a Donna Summer aura glowing around Beyoncé ever since I saw the album cover (shot by Markus Klinko). Beyoncé has on the famous diamond crop top — it looks built with shards of a shattered disco ball. Plus, the fourth (platinum; produced by Scott Storch) single from Dangerously in Love, "Naughty Girl" is a loud, juicy precursor to all of the '70s energy of RENAISSANCE — Beyoncé interpolates the hook from Summer's revolutionary 1975 "Love to Love You Baby" as if she heard it in the womb — which, likely, she did.

Daphne A. Brooks: Another hypnotic and irresistible '70s citation on the record: Catch the Afro-Greek chorus (this is how I'm referring to it!) on "Cuff It" chiming in along with her and announcing that "We gettin' f***** up tonight..." I hear George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic, masters of the funk ensemble vocals drenched in sly choral play, nimble reinterpretations of church sounds reimagined in rebelliously secular contexts. I often think of this sound as the funk "Afro-Greek" chorus that was all around me as a child growing up listening to KSOL in the 1970s. It's the sound of a fleet and mobile collective peoples offering shrewd and sage wisdom and candid commentary about Black life playing through the changes, finding a way to get around obstacles that seem "so wide you can't get around it / so low you can't get under it / so high you can't get over it..." and then perpetually finding ways to do just that through our genius music.

Can I pick more than one though? "All Up in Your Mind" is giving such good Gary Numan 1979 "Cars" eighth-grade vibes for me. I remember how "Cars" was the only "rock" song that my fellow Black schoolmates in my fraught integrated junior high experience copped to as being their jam. The British New Wave moment of the late '70s and early '80s offered a different take on the alien vocals that Roger and Zapp and p-funk (remember "Sir Nose?") dropped on us. It was a different kind of syntheticism and robotic drama (although adjacent to all of those gorgeous young Black and brown folk moving down the Soul Train line and busting out "the robot" moves). I have no desire to go back to the 1980s dawn of the Reagan disaster, but I do love love love how this track leans into its own form of Afrofuturism culled from this era.

Ann Powers: I love that you pulled out that memory! "Cars" was a favorite song of many early hip-hop artists, and later, of trip-hop pioneers like Tricky. There she goes, making connections; like Beyoncé projects of the past decade, RENAISSANCE deserves its own syllabus. (Shoutout to Candice Benbow for creating the first one!) This album is all about the details, which she drops incessantly, both in her lyrics and via the samples and sounds that form these songs. If you were to metaphorically drop the needle on a gesture that epitomizes the Beyoncé that builds universes, what would it be? I think I'd share "Heated," not only for its image of Bey compromising her manicure by tapping out beats on an Akai MPC drum machine, but for that little arch in her voice when she sings, "I gotta fend myself off," just a hint of an affected English accent. It's like she's waving her hand toward every mother who's spun and dipped her way across a Harlem ballroom.

Daphne A. Brooks: Can we even think of ANY other artist right now who deftly and assuredly and intelligently takes on such a vast array of voices on one record? Really serious about this. Taylor Swift, Adele, Ariana? Or, for that matter, Drake or her hubby — the whole lineup of superstar pop folk of the 21st century. Show me someone else who effortlessly makes use of such a thick (thique!) vocal palette and range — and not just to flex and flaunt (though why wouldn't she with skills this murderous?) but to tell stories in vivid color and multi-faceted detail. This is an artist who can shift at the drop-of-a-hat from classic R&B serenades that recall the goddess Minnie Riperton (Ann, that's what I hear in "Plastic Off the Sofa") to the Afrobeat, MC-rocking-the-mic energy that carries us out of "Heated" to the diasporic dancehall "bump and growl" inspired by legendary Grace Jones, who herself makes a swagger-ific entrance on the straight-out-the jungle "Move." By the time we hear her low-register, tricked out persona on the "dark trap" (I'd call it Black goth) house track "Thique," we're living in the multitudes of Blackness with her.

This is why, honestly, the great and wondrous Donna Summer is such a touchstone for RENAISSANCE — not just because of the fact that she is our all-time disco empress. The connection to Summer-time is most resonant for me in the multiplicity of ways that Beyoncé produces, arranges, repurposes and improvisationally pushes her vocals to run all over the pop map. Recall that Donna Summer, the Boston native who dabbled in blues rock band singing, the trans-Atlantic musical theater vet, was not just the icon who sang us through our "Last Dance," not just the expat based in Germany who teamed up with Giorgio Moroder to deliver a boundary-pushing sensual manifesto that captured the zeitgeist of the sexual revolution. She was a pop cosmopolitan who went to places with her voice that folks never expected of Black women. I'm thinking of one of my favorite deep-cuts, the title track off her 1980 album The Wanderer, in which our Summer genius gives complete Elvis in a song that encapsulates the audacity of her sonic roaming. This is the Summer that I hear all over RENAISSANCE, pushing through the soft bigotry of pop industry ceilings placed upon Black women artists. It's as though Beyoncé is saying to us, let's "go missing together" and sing ourselves onto new planes of erotic wonder and self-possession.

Danyel Smith: My moment is within "Break My Soul," a song which literally breaks my soul daily because it's a cri de coeur — "You won't break my soul" — that comes off more like a vow before God 'n' everybody than the sound of a suffering heart. The lines I want hourly are "Worldwide hoodie with a mask outside," and "In case you forgot how we act outside." That's it. That's culture right now. We are thugging it out in these (still pandemic) streets, but we will be free. We will see each other and we will have community. We will blast music in each other's actual company. We will help each other live.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent, and the author of Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music.

Daphne A. Brooks is a professor of African American Studies, American Studies, Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Music at Yale University and the author of Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound.

Danyel Smith is the author of Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop and the host of the podcast Black Girl Songbook.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.

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