“Renaissance” is a salute to disco, an underrated genre that was created by Black, brown and queer people in New York City in order to express their spirit and find community. “Renaissance’s” sonic theme is modernized disco, and it’s not only cohesive, it’s uplifting and inspiring. There’s an ecstatic feel to these high-tempo and midtempo songs that recalls a rapturous night at the legendary Studio 54
Disco dominated American culture in the late ’70s but its stature crumbled quickly after disco was tragically attacked by the white male rock ‘n’ roll community as an uprising against the queer liberation that disco promised. I don’t mean that symbolically — in Chicago a rock radio station organized a mass burning of disco records in Chicago’s Comiskey Park
. It was one of the more overtly racist and homophobic moments in pre-Trump America. After that, disco seemed to die rather quickly. (It didn’t, but that’s another story.) Beyoncé picking up the banner of disco and waving it proudly feels like the queen of culture reaching back to a tribe that many tried to destroy and working to save them.
For “Renaissance,” Beyoncé calls in disco legends — Nile Rodgers from Chic is the producer of “Cuff It,” Grace Jones guests on “Move,” and the Queen of Disco, Donna Summer, gets a tribute in the album’s final song, “Summer Renaissance” where Beyoncé interpolates Summer’s classic “I Feel Love.” But “Renaissance” is also a celebration of the people behind disco, the LGBTQ community, thanks to contributions from Ts Madison, Big Freedia, Honey Dijon, Kevin Aviance and more. And you can barely listen to “Renaissance” without having Beyoncé’s loving call out to her favorite gay cousin “Uncle Johnny.” This is an album that speaks to the importance of LGBTQ people, Black people and Black women. It’s sonic empowerment.
This album is like the spirit of disco was reanimated and giving love to people who need it. The reason why so many people are so upset about Beyoncé’s loss is that this feels like much more than an album. It’s a danceable political statement. The album’s first single “Break My Soul” was an exhortation to joy in the face of soul-crushing capitalism. The biggest artist in the world is looking at her gay, Black and female fans and saying “I see you and I love you.” She’s pouring pride into their spirit.
Beyoncé, with this album, isn’t just giving us beats, she’s giving us life. This isn’t music for the background of a sushi restaurant. This is what you make when you know that you’re the sort of artist who represents a community, who makes hearts and minds leap because you told people they matter. And the rejection of her by the Grammys — rejection is what her losing Album of the Year feels like — is painful. This album affirms and validates people so deeply that it’s so important to them that for her to lose Album of the Year is like the Grammys rejecting them as people.
It also costs the Grammys a sense of relevance. How is it Beyoncé has won the most Grammys ever yet has never won the Album of the Year? How does that make sense? She’s never made an album worthy of the most important award? Really? Well, of course not, because in the last two decades, it’s been nearly impossible for modern Black music — hip-hop and R&B — to win Album of the Year.
In 1999 Lauryn Hill won for “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” and in 2004 Outkast won for “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.” Since 2005, AOTY nominees have included Kanye three times, Usher, Alicia Keys, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar three times, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé four times. All of them lost while Taylor Swift won three times, the Dixie Chicks won once and U2 won despite being way past their prime. In 2022, Jon Batiste won Album of the Year for his album “We Are” but that was truly a jazz album and not an R&B album (even though it won a Best R&B Album Grammy that year). These genre distinctions can get tricky, but as great as “We Are” is, it doesn’t speak to the culture the way R&B from Usher, Frank Ocean, Alicia Keys and Beyoncé does. It wasn’t celebrated as recognition for the culture the way a win for music like Beyoncé’s would have been.
It feels like modern Black music isn’t being respected by the Grammy community. It feels like Black musicians are making a lot of modern influential music, but the contemporary Black sound is somehow never enough. And if it feels like Beyoncé isn’t enough, then it feels like we are not enough. Even though Beyonce clearly made the best album of the year. Do better.
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