Beyoncé, the Queen of Pop is trying hard to keep her crown
The writer is the FT’s pop critic
“Ten, ten, ten across the board”, sings Beyoncé on her new album Renaissance as if anticipating a series of euphoric reviews. They duly arrived. “What a gift that the smartest record of the year is also its deepest feeling,” marvels the Los Angeles Times. For the New York Times, “the register of his voice approaches the galactic”.
Superlatives and lavish praise are the rhetorical jewels in Beyoncé’s crown. They reinforce her status as Queen Bey, a dominant figure in American pop, hailed as a pioneer of black American art and culture. Along with the applause, however, his first album of new solo material in six years also brings atypical signs of fallibility.
The first stumble came when he fled two days ahead of schedule. Its ardent fanbase, known as Beyhive, descended in angry swarms online at those who admitted listening to the leak. “Thank you for calling early anyone trying to sneak into the club,” Beyoncé told her 271 million Instagram followers.
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 intentionally used in a harmful way, will be replaced,” a rep promised.
The re-edited version of “Heated” appeared on streaming platforms last week. But another controversy followed. Renaissance pays homage to Black and LGBT dance floor traditions and is packed with sampled vocals and interpolated melodies from other recordings. This tinkering led to a charge of “stealing” from fellow American singer Kelis.
Her complaint was prompted by the use of a melodic phrase from her 2003 hit “Milkshake.” Kelis claimed she was not alerted to her tween in Renaissanceis “energy”. No statement was released in response to Kelis, but digital versions of “Energy” were surreptitiously re-edited to remove the “Milkshake” reference. It seems like RenaissanceThe attention paid to the history of dance music does not prevent us from reworking our own past.
RenaissanceBeyoncé’s rocky arrival goes against Beyoncé’s usual determination to do things her own way. This trait crystallized in Destiny’s Child, the girl group she belonged to before going solo. “Don’t depend on anyone else to give you what you want,” she sang 22 years ago in their biggest hit, “Independent Women Pt I.” His later career realized this desire for independence.
The eponymous title Beyonce, released in 2013, was a breakthrough in this regard. Bypassing her label’s usual schedule, she decided to surprise release it just before Christmas, a dead time in traditional industry thinking. “All those boring record labels,” she said in one of her songs. Each track is accompanied by its own innovative video. The lyrics gave the endemic sexualization of American pop a feminist spin. The result was a commercial and critical success.
His 2016 follow-up Lemonade is widely considered his masterpiece. He walked out amid rumors of alleged infidelity from rapper-mogul husband Jay-Z. In an act of show-womanship bravery, she regained control of the publicity around her marriage by addressing her supposed issues in her songs.
She also took control of the narrative in a deeper sense. LemonadeImmersion in the textures and customs of black communities in southern America was a form of personal historiography. As a black woman from Texas, a descendant of slaves, Beyoncé comes from a line of people whose history has been violently erased. Her success at becoming one of America’s preeminent voices isn’t just a showbiz triumph. It is an act of historical recovery.
Renaissance is on track to achieve top rankings worldwide, but with lower sales figures than its predecessors. In its first four days of release, it sold approximately 275,000 copies in the United States. In contrast, Beyonce sold 617,000 copies in its first three days. “This album has a super cultural impact,” music analyst Tatiana Cirisano told the FT last week. “But I don’t know if that translates into commercial success.”
Beyoncé’s cultural capital is immense. But the hasty changes to his album after its release pose a risk for him. Allegations of ableism and allegations of disrespectful behavior towards another African American woman undermine her position as a spokesperson for the oppressed. They also suggest oddly sloppy planning on the part of a singer with keen attention to detail. The offensive term in ‘Heated’ caused an uproar when US star Lizzo used it on her latest album recently: she was forced to apologize and changed the song. Meanwhile, Kelis’ resentment at not getting copyright credit for “Milkshake” is well known.
There’s a fine line between being determined to do what you want and feeling entitled to get what you want. Privilege delimits it. Beyoncé believes in the liberating potential of black entrepreneurship. “I dream it, I work hard, I work until I own it,” she sang in Lemonade. But his and Jay-Z’s pride in being self-made African-American members of the super-rich sits ill with the progressiveness for which his music is celebrated.
Recent criticisms of the use of private jets by stars such as Drake and Taylor Swift point to hardening attitudes towards celebrity wealth at a time of accelerating economic and climate crisis. RenaissanceBeyoncé’s turbulent take-off reveals the fine line between activism and plutocracy in Beyoncé’s character, the tightrope she walks between standing up for the underprivileged and flaunting her own hard-earned privilege. If the cracks widen, another revival or revival will be needed for the next stage of his career.