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Arthur Christory / Gavel Media

Beyoncé’s Renaissance and Today’s Culture of Music Sampling

Over two decades of chart-topping and stadium touring might be enough for some people, but not Beyoncé. After delivering a historic Coachella performance and creating the soundtrack for Lion King: The Gift, the singer decided to explore one of the few genres she had left untouched: dance music. 

Beyoncé’s last studio album Lemonade, released 6 years ago, received critical acclaim for its passionate genre-bending. She established herself as a protean storyteller, going beyond her pop and R&B roots to draw inspiration from rock, country, and countless other genres. No matter what styles she’s dressed her music in, however, Beyoncé's vivid accounts of family, infidelity, and struggle have remained constant.

Her new project is simply an extension of what she has already proved. If she could traverse so many genres in 2016, of course, she could do the same in 2022. But Renaissance isn’t simply a reference to dance music; it’s an embrace. Over the course of 16 songs, she studies the historical nuances of dance music and exalts the black and queer culture that birthed it. From the disco emphasis of “Summer Renaissance” to the hyperpop influence of  “All Up in Your Mind,” Beyoncé boils dance culture down to a science.

This scholarship isn’t even the highlight of Renaissance. Upon a full playthrough, one word lingers: fun. Even while wrangling with an infinite number of producers, writers, and musical inspirations, Beyoncé prioritizes what dance music was made for. With the economy tumbling towards chaos and the pandemic continuing to linger, upbeat music is in high demand; the massively colorful rhythms of songs like “Alien Superstar” and “Church Girl” deliver. Out of the seven billion people on this Earth, very few could resist the urge to bounce during the intro of “AMERICA HAS A PROBLEM.”

Though Beyoncé’s delivery is primarily responsible for the success of these tracks, their foundation lies in the over 20 samples used throughout the project. Whether it be a reference to Donna Summer or the popular interpolation of Robin S.’s “Show Me Love,” some of the project’s brightest highlights lie in its bibliography. Renaissance utilizes sampling to not only channel the joy of the classics, but also help pay homage to the black, queer, and trans voices that built the genre. Icons like T.S. Madison, Big Freedia, and Honey Dijon offer words of struggle and empowerment that emphasize the difficult importance of the music that mainstream audiences now get to enjoy.

The project’s extensive bibliography is undeniably genius, but it has also attracted controversy surrounding artistic integrity. One sample in particular, from Kelis’ 2003 hit “Milkshake,” elicited a hostile response. Kelis revealed that she was never notified of its inclusion on the track “Energy.” In fact, the artist discovered the sample at the same time as the general public. Though Beyoncé and her label’s approach was perfectly legal, as Kelis barely receives royalties from the song herself (which highlights a larger issue of artistic compensation), the ethics of their actions are questionable. At the very least, artists like Kelis expect a degree of communication when their art is repackaged. The sample was promptly removed from the song, but the situation was left in awkward suspension. Kelis never ended up receiving compensation but was instead swarmed by an angry Bey-Hive.

Scrutiny of Renaissance’s collaboration didn’t end there, with some questioning the project’s extensive cast of writers. Highly decorated songwriter Diane Warren, whose talents appear on countless hits such as “Rhythm of the Night,” took to Twitter to ask “How can there be 24 writers on a song?” Likely referring to “Alien Superstar,” Warren seemed perplexed by its usage of sampling and interpolation. Though she apologized and claimed “no shade,” Warren’s confusion highlights a glaring issue in musical respect. Sampling and the utilization of multiple writers are particularly significant to historically black genres of music. Early pioneers of hip-hop and house music often relied on existing beats, as they lacked the funding and resources to constantly start from scratch. Therefore, sampling and reinvention remain an integral part of these genres to this day. White pop artists like Warren criticizing this practice reveals the ignorance and bias artists of color face in today’s music industry.

Controversy aside, the project remains a historic celebration and revival of dance music. Much like the queer culture it references, Renaissance lies at the intersection of oppression, revolution, and fun. So, although most of us can’t “release ya job,” Beyoncé may help us imagine a world where we can.