Words like “superstar” and “icon” get tossed around all too easily nowadays. It’s like younger people have heard us use the terms and want to assign the statuses to their cultural signifiers before they have been earned.
I’m not saying the newer artists have to produce another “Thriller,” Michael Jackson’s towering 1983 musical moment. From his moonwalk performance during the “Motown 25” television special to the horror film music video produced for the title track, we all kind of knew that was a once-in-a-lifetime album.
But can these new guys at least produce another “Bad”? Seriously, who else but Jackson could have a “disappointing” followup that sells 45 million copies?
It’ll be interesting to see where the latest album from the current queen of soul, Beyoncé, ends up. I’m not sure “Renaissance” is her best album, but driven by the disco-drenched first single, “Break My Soul,” it is definitely the album of the summer of 2022.
The whole album drips with influences from disco, Chicago house, and New Orleans bounce to 70s soul. Nile Rodgers’ signature rhythm guitar licks pop up on “Cuff It,” Grace Jones grabs co-lead vocals on “Move” and Big Freedia’s voice helps drive “Break My Soul.” Other contributors include Raphael Saadiq, Sheila E., Nigerian songstress Tems and Pharrell.
It’s like Queen Bey threw a party and invited everybody to help her make a mixtape. Not even death is not an obstacle when you can sample, and Donna Summer shows up on album standout “Summer Renaissance” (I see what you did there, Bey), which leans heavily on Giorgio Moroder and Summer’s 1975 classic, “Love to Love You.”
We are directed at the beginning of “Alien Superstar” to not leave the dance floor and from that track through the suite of songs comprising “Cuff It,” “Energy” and “Break My Soul,” there’s no reason anyone would dare consider it. “Church Girl” fools you into thinking it’s time to get a drink to cool off, until that bass drops. Then it’s time to get back out there and dance in ways you can ask forgiveness for come Sunday morning.
In the end, it’s this mixtape quality that undermines “Renaissance” for me. Too many tracks have samples and flourishes that remind me of other, better, songs. When Beyoncé’s voice is placed front and center (“Plastic Off The Sofa” and “Virgo’s Groove”) she shows she can sing as well as anyone in the business, but too much time is spent letting the music take the lead.
She’s too talented for so much of this album to sound like it was designed to be chopped up for TikTok and Instagram videos.
One the flipside is Lizzo’s latest album, “Special.” The woman Apple Music calls a “plus-size powerhouse” released her fourth album a few weeks earlier, and while it’s not getting the buzz of Beyoncé’s album, it has already generated a top single, “It’s About Damn Time,” with more likely to come.
Lizzo borrows from 70s and 80s rhythm and blues on the first single, but her voice is the main attraction throughout the album. This personal approach carries over to the lyrics.
“I keep on writin’ these songs/‘Cause he keep on doin’ me wrong/And my girls keep singin’ along, uh/I guess that I’m not alone.”
Whereas Beyoncé comes across like the leader of a movement, listening to Lizzo feels like hearing from a friend who spills on her life’s ups and downs without losing her perspective, positive attitude or wicked sense of humor.
There are a couple tracks I can pass over — she riffs on the Beastie Boys’ “Girls” to little effect — but there’s nothing out there as appealing as the title track: “In case nobody told you today/ You’re special … I will always love you the same/You’re special.” I’ve caught myself humming that more than a few times lately.
Both albums are too casual with profanity. The first line of each contains one of George Carlin’s famous seven words you can’t say on television. Young people should listen to the sanitized versions.
Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” might be the album of the summer, but Lizzo’s “Special” hits like a cool breeze on a hot summer day.
Terry E. Manning lives and works in Savannah, Ga. He is a Clemson graduate and worked for 20 years as a journalist. He can be reached at teemanning@ gmail.com.