the day before July issue RenaissanceBeyoncé’s seventh studio album, her management team announced in a press statement that the LP would not include visual effects as part of its rollout. “This is a chance to be listeners again, not spectators,” it said. The choice was an odd one, if a little disappointing as Beyoncé continues to be one of the leading image makers of our time. Unexpected release of the singer’s self-titled album in 2013. Lemonade, in 2016, were accompanied by breathtaking music videos that rewrote the rules of contemporary artistry. (Collection video for Lemonade premiered as a movie on HBO.) Currently, when she does “speak” outside of the album cycle, it’s mostly through professionally curated Instagram posts, which in turn become the subject of endless fan theories. So the fact that Renaissance going into a world without its own visual language was, well, a bit confusing.
Images are the dominant record of this era. We exist on screens and beyond. We strive to be noticed, and our most forward-thinking social media apps allow for this sharing. YouTube was the backbone of our search, a bottomless video marketplace that gave ordinary users the ability to create what they wanted, to be who they wanted. For a while, Instagram was a seductress you couldn’t live without. Influencers have built an entire economy around the concept of surveillance. More recently, TikTok has become in a new frontier of cultural production where moving images flicker on our iPhones with compelling, almost irresistible kineticism.
As the digital age became a surreal inevitability in my daily life, social media exponentially enlarged my gaze, an almost exhaustive lens through which I looked. For me, this is the field – to discover and test the meaning; meaning often derived from all sorts of visual representations. As I wrote earlier, images make us true. Memes and GIFs are the authority language in almost all of my group chats. There are nights when I scroll through the motley grid of dating apps with feverish obsession, scrolling through the possibilities of what I see and the promises of everything these rectangular shots have to offer—angular faces, cropped brown bodies. Even the bloated age of TV streaming has provided a mine of content and images that I am constantly devouring. images around us. It seems quite natural to yearn for more, to want to find new permutations to define yourself.
But then I listened Renaissance. And listened, and listened, and listened. And I understood. His songs should live on in us, not necessarily as a reflection of Beyoncé’s artistic invention, but as a reminder of our own fantastic possibilities, despite the difficulties that surround us. She was not alone in this creative endeavor. Other high-profile artists this year have attempted to follow the same path, creating music designed to be experienced on a more analog, human level.
At times, listening to Drake can feel like watching a History feed filtered through TikTok. A shameless interloper, albeit a passionate student of the past, his six solo albums are a collage of global influences, pumping local scenes, sounds and sensations. Latest, Honestly, it doesn’t matter, was unexpectedly released in June. Like Renaissancewhat I liked about it is the way it swerved into the neon fog of the dance floor, looking for a more analog moment where the digital terrain doesn’t dictate as much how we interact and create and create ourselves. In Drake’s case, he drew inspiration from the club music of Baltimore and Jersey, setting the mood with head-turning productions from celebrities like Black Coffee. Related albums by Bad Bunny and Kendrick Lamar have also begged us to get back on our feet and move this year. Even now I hear it; an earthquake as Bad Bunny reads “Titi me pregunto”, a sort of summer spell blaring from city blocks, New Yorkers’ energy is more alive than ever. It was the sound of a city, of many cities around the world, finding their way again.
It’s been five months since the release Renaissance, and the call for visuals doesn’t let up one iota. But this desire misses the point. Renaissancethe spirit was never about what it could fully imagine through Beyoncé’s eyes. We were her canvas all the time, our bodies in motion, our realized joy, were the very images we were looking for. The music—cheerful, exuberantly black, and downright bizarre—has turned us into our own embodiments of creativity and meaning, a lens of joy and resilience. Whether it’s singing the lines “comfortable in my skin” to “Cozy” randomly blurting out “unique!!” or even immerse yourself in Friday night’s brilliant production of Virgo’s Groove, which is where the album came to life the most and where it should have been seen. These are images that live. Renaissancethe most convincing image will always be with us together, glorifying ourselves.
In March I lost a friend to suicide, and by the end of the summer I lost my grandmother to dementia. There were other losses as well. It was a year when everything seemed big, dark and limited. The music that called me, that saved me, gave the opposite: it was bright, dirty and deeply vulnerable. It brought clarity. He dispelled the lingering fog. The best musicians of the year made us move again – not to the office, this is a former invention of pre-pandemic life, but back to the world, to the dance floor, where the kindred embrace of friends and new passions was like witchcraft, and the rustling of bodies against each other is a balm. We all radiate electricity and intent. We are all rebuilding life in the midst of the ongoing effects of death.