The day before the release of Renaissance, Beyoncé’s seventh studio album, in July, her management team announced in a press statement that the record would not include any visuals as part of its launch. “It’s a chance to be a listener again, not a spectator,” it said. The choice was odd, if a little disappointing, given that Beyoncé remains one of the leading image makers of our time. The surprise release of the singer’s self-titled album in 2013 and Lemonade in 2016 were accompanied by a stunning series of music videos that rewrote the rules of modern artistry. (The video collection for Lemonade premiered as a movie on HBO.) These days, when she “speaks” outside of an album cycle, it’s mostly through expertly curated Instagram posts, which in turn become the subject of endless fan theories. So the fact that the Renaissance would come into the world without its own visual language was kind of confusing.
Pictures are the dominant record of this era. We exist in and across screens. We yearn to make ourselves visible, and our most forward-thinking social media apps enable such exchanges. YouTube was the foundation of our quest, an endless bazaar of videos that gave everyday users the power 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 being watched. More recently, TikTok has become the new frontier of cultural production, where moving images flicker across our iPhones at a compelling, practically irresistible rate.
As the digital age became a surreal inevitability of my everyday life, social media magnified my view exponentially, an almost exhausting lens through which I peered. It is a province for me to discover and test meaning; Meaning often derived from all sorts of visual renderings. As I have already written, pictures make us real. Memes and GIFs are the main slang in almost all of my group chats. There are nights when I prowl the checkered grid of hookup apps with a feverish obsession, the possibility of what I see and the promise of all those square snaps—slanted faces, cropped brown bodies—can offer, scroll. Even the bloated streaming age of television has delivered a wealth of content and images that I keep devouring. The images are all around us. It seems only natural to long for more, to want to find new permutations to define ourselves.
But then I heard Renaissance. And listened and listened and listened. And I got it. His songs are meant to live on in us, not necessarily as a reflection of Beyoncé’s artistic inventiveness, but as a reminder of our own amazing possibilities despite the adversity surrounding us. She was not alone in this creative endeavor. Other marquee artists attempted similar detours this year, making music meant to be experienced on a more analog, human level.
Listening to Drake can sometimes feel like watching the History Channel filtered through TikTok. A shameless invader, albeit an avid student of the past, his six solo albums are a collage of global influences, an assemblage of local scenes, sounds and sensibilities. The latest, Honestly, Nevermind, was surprisingly released in June. What I loved about Renaissance was how it faded into the neon haze of the dance floor, searching for a more analog moment where digital terrains didn’t dictate as much how we interact, create, and create ourselves. In Drake’s case, he drew inspiration from Baltimore and Jersey club music and set the mood with stunning productions from house luminaries like Black Coffee. Bad Bunny and Kendrick Lamar’s albums also begged us to get up and move this year. Even now I can hear it; the quake of Bad Bunny rapping “Titi me pregunto,” its own brand of summer magic booming out of the city blocks, the energy of New Yorkers more alive than ever. It was the sound of a city, many cities around the world, finding their way again.
It’s been five months since Renaissance released, and the call for visuals hasn’t abated one bit. But this longing misses the point. The spirit of Renaissance was never about what it could envision entirely through Beyoncé’s eyes. We were her canvas the whole time, our bodies in motion, our realized joy were exactly the images we were looking for. The music – lively, richly black and perfectly queer – transformed us into our own avatars of creation and meaning, prisms of joy and resilience. Whether it sang the lines “comfortable in my skin” on “Cosy” and accidentally blurted out “unique!!”. or getting lost in the scintillating production of “Virgo’s Groove” on a Friday night, that’s where the album came alive most and was meant to be seen. Those are the images that stay. The most compelling imagery of the Renaissance will always be that we celebrate together.
In March I lost a friend to suicide, and by the end of the summer I would lose my grandmother to dementia. There were other casualties as well. It was a year where everything felt big and dark and finite. The music that called me, that saved me, delivered the opposite: it was bright and chaotic and deeply vulnerable. It offered clarity. It cleared the persistent fog. The year’s best musicians got us moving again — not to the office, that bygone invention of pre-pandemic life, but back to the world and back to the dance floor, where the kindred embrace of friends and new flames was like a conjure, and the rustling of bodies against each other like balm. We are all radiant with electricity and purpose. We all rebuild life in the thick, ongoing aftermath of death.