On Friday Beyoncé released her seventh solo album, “Act I: Renaissance,” six years after the breakaway success of “Lemonade.” She gave fans and critics a taste of her latest work last month, when she dropped the surprise single “Break My Soul.” (It debuted on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay Chart top 10 on Billboard.)
The iconic performer runs a famously tight ship, with a carefully curated image and studio presence. And yet, “Renaissance” leaked two days ahead of the scheduled release this week, causing a flurry of headlines that clouded the premiere. Of course, leaked content in the music industry is not a new thing. But this (minor) chaos highlights how even Beyoncé may be losing some control in our current moment. And in the end, we might relate more to this lack of control than to her songs themselves.
Beyoncé writes that her new album represents a creative awakening and personal evolution that grew out of the darkness and isolation of the 2020 lockdown. She says she dreamed of an escape “to feel free and adventurous when little else was moving.” And she’s banking on the rest of us feeling the same existential longing and ultimately, rejuvenation and reinvention.
It certainly seems as if the pandemic and lockdown prompted a wave of personal reflection, especially in terms of what we value, who we want to spend our time with, and the role of money and work in our everyday lives. This sentiment arguably culminated in the Great Resignation, as millions of people quit their jobs in hopes that they would not just survive but thrive creatively, professionally and emotionally. Beyoncé’s single “Break My Soul” seems to capture this sentiment.
It also seems around two years too late.
Indeed, after an early wave of perhaps overly optimistic media reports highlighting those who, like Beyoncé apparently, have been able to create new businesses or more flexible work experiences, others have now expressed regret about leaving their jobs without an adequate plan or alternative lined up in a society where so much of our quality of life and well-being is traced back to employment. It’s no surprise that some have panned “Break My Soul” as “tone-deaf.”
It’s also not surprising that Beyoncé experienced a personal renaissance during the past couple of years while so many of the rest of us are feeling more personally and professionally uncertain than ever. “Renaissance” reflects the “good vibes only” mood of a few years ago. Now we have articles being published about how this kind of attitude can actually turn toxic if it disavows more complex experiences and emotions. Americans have long been relentlessly optimistic — an interesting side effect of our national exceptionalism. This album taps into that quality, but it’s a feeling that feels increasingly in short supply as our political rights and environment deteriorate.
Public frustration runs deep. A majority of the population has expressed time and time again its support for women’s reproductive rights, stronger gun laws and greater action on climate change. Our collective inability to advance more humane and socially progressive public policy has left us in a state of social retrograde more than one of renaissance.
In this climate, music about feeling good and the dreamy escapes of the uber wealthy is hard to get too excited about — even if we have a less critical opinion of Beyoncé’s celebrity and meteoric success as the late bell hooks. Beyoncé might be a musical genius, as evidenced by unexpected collaborations such as working with Grace Jones on the track “Move.” She mixes and samples across genres, and her sheer determination is compelling. But this is just not quite the flavor of cultural reawakening we’re sorely in need of right now.
Because here’s the thing about renaissances: They refer to collective change and social transformation, not personal private evolutions. The Italian Renaissance wasn’t just about the great works and achievements of figures like Leonardo da Vinci or Galileo Galileo but more importantly about a definitive break from older traditional ways of thinking and organizing society. Closer to home, few would pin the Harlem Renaissance on the shoulders of any single person, even the formidable ones of Langston Hughes or Zora Neal Hurston. No, the Harlem Renaissance was about a fundamental reorganization of everyday life and social space boldly centered around Black life. In order to not just dream up but sustain lasting personal evolution, we need wider social transformations and protections that allow for that greater personal expression.
Yes, we need good vibes and good music, but we also need better socioeconomic plans so we’re not left scrambling when those dreams of escape don’t quite take hold. Beyoncé’s personal renaissance may well inspire her biggest fans. Maybe it will also provide a catchy soundtrack for the rest of us as we push ourselves, each other, and our social institutions toward a better tomorrow.