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'Renaissance' places Beyoncé at the very center of pop music right now

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The first new Beyonce studio album in six years is here and it's called "Renaissance." The pop star says the 16 tracks were recorded during the pandemic. Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, says while the music is dense with allusions to different eras of pop music, Beyonce's performances have a lightness and agility that gives the project an often thrilling energy. Here's Ken's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAK MY SOUL")

BEYONCE: (Singing) You won't break my soul. You won't break my soul. You won't break my soul. You won't break my soul. I'm telling everybody, everybody, everybody, everybody. Now, I just fell in love. And I just quit my job. I'm gonna find new drive. Damn, they work me so damn hard. Work by nine, then off past 5. And they work my nerves. That's why I cannot sleep at night.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's "Break My Soul," the first single from Beyonce's new album, "Renaissance." "Break My Soul" was released a few weeks before the album, and with its lyric about escaping the deadening drudgery of 9-5 work was widely interpreted as Beyonce's take on the pandemic-inspired great resignation. Little did we know that what was to follow was a whole album about the freedom of escapism.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALIEN SUPERSTAR")

BEYONCE: (Singing) I'm one of one. I'm No. 1. I'm the only one. Don't even waste your time trying to compete with me. No one else in this world can think like me. I'm twisted. I'll contradict it. Keep him addicted. Lies on his lips, I lick it. Unique. That's what you are. Stilettos kicking vintage crystal off the bar. Category - bad - I'm the bar. Alien superstar. Whip, whip. I'm too classy for this world, forever, I'm that girl. Feed you diamonds and pearls, oh, baby. I'm too classy...

TUCKER: That's "Alien Superstar," over whose clattering beats Beyonce applies a layer of her patented positive thinking, only half joking that she's, quote, "too classy for this world." "Alien Superstar" gives you an idea of the way many songs here are constructed around rhythms and riffs that pulse and throb while Beyonce's vocal soars atop the music. The best example of this is the album's longest track called "Virgo's Groove," as Beyonce croons over a languid, sneaky beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VIRGO'S GROOVE")

BEYONCE: (Singing) Baby, come over. Come be alone with me tonight. All the emotions. It's washing over me tonight. Right here. Right now. Iced up. Bite down. Baby, lock in right now. I want it right here, right now. Cuddled up on the couch. Motorboat, baby, spin around. Slow-mo coming out my house. I want it right here, right now.

TUCKER: At 6-minutes-plus, "Virgo's Groove" is at once very contemporary and very 1980s. Its sound owes something to the Michael Jackson-Quincy Jones albums of that era. And its hypnotic hook reminds me of Lakeside's great 1980 hit "Fantastic Voyage." Now listen to the way Beyonce rolls it back further to the '70s and nods to Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" on the song "Summer Renaissance."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMER RENAISSANCE")

BEYONCE: (Singing) It's so good. It's so good. It's so good. It's so good. Oh, it's so good. It's so good. It's so good. It's so good. It's so good.

TUCKER: Elsewhere on "Renaissance," Beyonce offers the song "Cuff it," a thick slice of R&B that recalls Funkadelic's "Not Just Knee Deep." And on another standout track, "Move," she enlists dance music pioneer Grace Jones with some emphasis on Detroit techno music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOVE")

BEYONCE: (Singing) Move, move, move. Yeah, you got to move, move. Anything you do will be held against you. You have to move, move, move. Skrrt (ph) off, make room. Stampede coming through. Big boss on the move. Yeah. Bounce it.

TUCKER: There are some breathtaking moments on "Renaissance," which are all the more impressive for the way Beyonce delivers them so casually. Listen to the way she almost buries this gorgeously fluid burst of phrasing toward the end of the song "Pure Honey." Lesser artists would build a whole hit single around a verse that Beyonce just tosses off.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURE HONEY")

BEYONCE: (Singing) You know it's Friday night, and I'm ready to drive. Throw me them keys. Baby, let's go. Friday night and I'm ready to drive. Throw me them keys. Baby, let's go. We jump in the car, quarter tank of gas. World's at war, low on cash. Jump in the car, quarter tank of gas, world's at war, low on cash. I ain't never felt a feeling like this. You been in love but not like this. Sweet honey sin, taste it on your lips. Up and down on it, light switch.

TUCKER: Except for the song titled "America Has A Problem" and a fleeting reference to the electoral defeat of Donald Trump, there's little of the social commentary that was laced through her previous album, 2016's "Lemonade." But the escapist aesthetic of "Renaissance" is its own kind of statement. Beyonce's way of asserting the primacy of Black musical forms throughout American pop history. And "Renaissance" places Beyonce at the very center of pop music right now.

DAVIES: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed Beyonce's new album called "Renaissance." On Monday's show, actor Melanie Lynskey. She's nominated for an Emmy for her leading role in the Showtime series "Yellowjackets." The show tells the story of a girls soccer team that went down in a plane crash in 1996 and had to survive in the wilderness for over a year. Lewinsky's other films include "Heavenly Creatures," "Up In The Air," "The Informant" and "Don't Look Up." I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.