By Ricky Tucker
On July 29, 2022, our lordt and save-her, Beyoncé, released Renaissance, her long-awaited seventh studio album that, coming off its lead single, “Break My Soul,” promised to be redemptive to all of us who, in the past few years, have felt cast aside, if not full-on antagonized, by the powers that be, including that relentless microscopic militia known as COVID. That jerk . . .
Anyhow, Beyoncé delivered. Us.
Ironically, the album is, in fact, a soul-shattering love letter to dance music, many of its lyfe-granting sixteen tracks certifiably hitting the BPMs to qualify as EDM. It specifically utilizes house music, a global Black and queer nexus containing disco, electronica, and soul elements. House is also the genre that werks as a driving engine to Ball Culture, the world’s largest art collective and an LGBTQ Black and Latin community for which I wrote my own love letter, And the Category Is . . . : Inside New York’s Vogue, House, and Ballroom Community.
The cultural correlations between Ballroom and Renaissance are abundant, and after literally listening to it three times a day for about three weeks, which is seriously a lowball estimate, I could very well for the rest of my life “Beautiful Mind” you the connective tissue. A notably titular red thread is that Queen Bey quotes the Ball MC pre-walk announcement, “Category Is . . .” several times throughout the course of the album, which, upon first listen, was enough for me to swoon and faint right into a hospital gurney to be immediately and efficiently hup-hupped by a pair of gold lamé-drenched butch queens to my funeral. Do not pass go. Do not collect 200 dollars. Money is a construct, and heaven doesn’t take it.
The album is also aptly “it” by the virtues of its heart-pounding meter, its nonstop danceability—nay, its VOGUE-ability—its Ball-like cat calls throughout, its baroque if not breakneck transitions, its bravada, and its bombastic queer Black aesthetic. This album is for me. Scratch that—this Renaissance is for the girlz.
And intellectually I knew that, but actually felt it roughly a week after Bey’s release, on August 5, 2022, when I caught word that the New York Public Library, another one of our lordt and save-hers, had curated a list of books that speak directly to each track of Renaissance. My book is one of them. And on the thumbnail of their post, it sat dead center, between Octavia E. Butler and Nichole Perkins. Swoon-to-funeral2.
But Beyoncé has always been serious business to me. From that genesis revelation twenty-five years ago at my first job at the North Carolinian, Andy Griffith-themed soda shop called Mayberry, where my coworker, Nicole Jennings, played for me Destiny Child’s “No, No, No pt. 2.” To learning the dance moves to Usher’s cameo in “Naughty Girl” while cataloging books at Boston Public Library. To hearing and being knocked out by the MJ bounce of “Déjà Vu” through the radio in the back kitchen of Fiore’s Bakery in Jamaica Plain. To rifling through and organizing Beyoncé concert pics on my phone as a student worker at The New School. To fellow Beacon Broadside blogger and my editor Maya Fernandez and I first meeting to talk book stuff and Beyoncé standom. I had, for decades, engaged Beyoncé on the job, often in lieu of it. And now, thanks to NYPL and a book I’d written with love for a community that has loved on me, I’ve somehow, cosmically, made talking about Beyoncé MY ACTUAL JOB.
So, let’s get to werk.
Renaissance Tracks That Stand Out as Distinctly Ballroom
“It should cost a billion to look this good / But she make it look easy ’cause she got it (Check my technique)”
Thank you, New York Public Library, for connecting And the Category Is . . . with this track and its above lyrical extraction. “Pure/Honey,” a manic, quintessentially vogue fem track, has the strongest direct tie to Ballroom on the album for its classic use of kat-kuh-kat-kat-kat-kat-kat syncopation that ensures earthquake-level spins and dips on the 2s and 4s, and for its sampling of Kevin Aviance’s legendary “Cunty” chant, a nether region throb that lends as the heartbeat of many a vogue performance at a Ball, and a meter key to my friend DJ/producer MikeQ’s “Feels Like,” also sampled here. A loop of Moi Renee's 1992 track, “Miss Honey,” seals it all like a torched crème brulé finish.
I also want to take NYPL’s shout out as an opportunity to further point out this lyric’s correlation to the book, particularly in a literary context. Pardon the braggadocio—owning our greatness is a major messaging point of Renaissance—but when I wrote the book, I intentionally broke it up into digestible, modular sections made up of close reads of culture and media, art criticism, personal narratives, and interviews—all meant to paint sociopolitical complexity. To keep the kinetic energy up—like at a ball—and to ensure we leave learning something from Ball culture. Because form is the ultimate chaser for content. Like a spoonful of sugar. Ballroom is the antidote to so much that ailes us. Check my technique.
“Might I suggest you don’t fuck with my sis . . . ooh—cuz she comfortable.”
As I write this, I’m thinking of an Instagram story I saw just today by my friend, House-Ball Culture Mother and book interviewee, Gia Love, that featured the Bey track, “Cozy.” In it, she’s summer-selfying while out and about in NYC, the most public of publics, just being the beautiful, bodacious, and bombastic Black Trans Ballroom queen she is. Not in danger. But thriving. That’s “Cozy.”
“Category: bad bitch / I’m the bar.”
This track is Beyoncé rap-singing as a Ball MC, specifically highlighting her royalty and categories that all fall under the umbrella of the refrain “unique!”, which is adjacent to the world-famous category “bizarre.” I’m looking at you, legendary Lee Soulja. Basically, “Alien Superstar” must be the name and theme of a Ball that’s happened in the past ten years. I’m, like, certain of it.
“Who dis girl in the back of da room?”
In the “Church” chapter of And the Category Is . . . , I write about the theological safe space that is the Ballroom dancefloor. To further underscore this haloed space theory, Ball Culture’s godfather of nightlife, Lee Soulja, recounts to me the time he left Studio 54 and discovered the Paradise Garage, the then truly divine dance club alternative where he saw voguers for the first time, and witnessed Grace Jones (sampled here), backstage, being body painted by Keith Haring! Though “Move” begins Renaissance’s block of dancehall-style tracks, such sacred spaces are interchangeable. Be it a club, dancehall, roller rink, or house of worship, you can find Grace Jones, Jesus, Yoncé and ‘nem, helping you to be born-again.
“Tip, tip, tip on hardwood floors / Tens, tens, tens across the board.”
Here, she’s referencing the flight down a Ball’s runway, leading to the judges table—and a perfect score. Speaking of, you should follow winner of HBO’s Legendary and vogue extraordinaire, Arturo Lyons, on Instagram (@arturo_thaengineer). There you’ll find very recent videos of his soft/pink and powerful choreography to “Heated,” a song that is one of the album’s cuntiest vogue fem submissions verging on island fodder. The song also implements the sound of a hand fan—thwoorp!—a prop used by Ball walkers and drag queens alike. For the “Vogue” chapter of the book, I visit one of Arturo’s vogue classes, and let me tell you, hunty: if you attend one of his NYC classes, you will need to do your squats and take your collagen, cuz your knees aren’t ready. Your spirit, on the other hand, has been waiting.
Another notable lyric from “Heated” is Beyoncé’s mention of her gay uncle who passed away due to AIDS-related complications:
“Uncle Jonny made my dress/That cheap spandex—she looks a mess!”
I laughed when I heard this, because of Bey’s embedded shade to her rhetorical category competitors (Rhianna—where’s that album tho . . . ?), and the reverence for the unsung tailors and seamstresses that adorn the Ballroom Community across categories. Then I looked up Uncle Jonny, and I simply wanted to know more. His death is a type of senseless and deep loss that beautifully categorizes Beyoncé, Ballroom, LGBTQ life, and frankly, my family. Like the COVID-19 pandemic, it is such traumatic depths that give us a keener understanding of why we would even need to be together, dancing, rejoicing, and reaching for the sky.
So. That’s Renaissance, at least from an aesthetic, lyrical, and Ballroom standpoint. The above connections have revitalized my love of dance and my determination and dedication to Ballroom as I continue my tour of And the Category Is . . . Now, there is still the question of the album’s sociopolitical impact and borrowing, of who truly has ownership here. Is this album progressive in terms of increasing representation for Ball and queer cultures? Is it appropriation? And with Madonna joining Beyoncé on the remix of “Break My Soul,” referencing her 1990 hit “Vogue,” is this album harmful or healing? I’ll soon be writing about this as I continue to sit, several times a day, with this gorgeous album. Who am I kidding? I’ll be dancing. Voguing.
About the Author
Ricky Tucker is a North Carolina native, a storyteller, an educator, a lead creative, and an art critic. His work explores the imprints of art and memory on narrative, and the absurdity of most fleeting moments. He has written for the Paris Review, the Tenth Magazine, and Public Seminar, among others, and has performed for reading series including the Moth Grand SLAM, Sister Spit, Born: Free, and Spark London. In 2017, he was chosen as a Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Fellow for creative nonfiction. He is the author of And the Category Is . . . : Inside New York’s Vogue, House, and Ballroom Community. Connect with him at thewriterrickytucker.com and on Instagram: @rictorscale.