All hail Beyoncé, queen of the viral moment

·6-min read
Ripping up the rule book: Beyoncé with husband Jay-Z  (Beyonce / Instagram)
Ripping up the rule book: Beyoncé with husband Jay-Z (Beyonce / Instagram)

When Beyoncé says jump, the only appropriate response is: how high, queen? For evidence, look no further than the way in which she revolutionised album roll-outs. On Friday December 13, 2013, Beyoncé pioneered the surprise album drop when she released her self-titled fifth album unannounced. The internet duly imploded, with the ensuing delirium induced in fans nicknamed “Beyoncé Syndrome” by the BBC. Such was her impact that record companies later adopted Friday releases as the industry standard. (In the US, albums had been released on a Tuesday since the Eighties).

Beyoncé repeated the surprise drop in 2016 with her visual album, Lemonade. The gimmick was copied by artists from Kanye West to Kendrick Lamar, who also uploaded albums with none of the usual promotion or fanfare expected from a major artist. But just as the music industry had reconfigured itself by her example, Bey had another surprise in store. Last week — on the same day that Drake surprise-dropped his seventh album, Honestly, Nevermind — Beyoncé announced her seventh album, Renaissance, in the traditional manner with a release date pegged for July 29 (a Tuesday). The moral of the tale? Beyoncé can do whatever she damn pleases.

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Dropping breadcrumbs

In the run-up to the announcement, Beyoncé hinted that a new era was coming. She removed the profile pictures from all of her social media accounts, leading some fans to speculate that she couldn’t possibly be telegraphing the arrival of new music (after all, she’s spent almost a decade releasing records without warning, while teasing decidedly less, err, exciting projects, like activewear lines and vegan meal services).

However, once placeholder art appeared on her website, captioned “Image, B7” — the nickname fans have used to refer to her seventh album — it seemed undeniable that new music was imminent. Rumours gained pace on June 15 when her charitable foundation, BeyGOOD, marked Black Music Month by posting a collage of albums by black musicians. These including an unfamiliar image of a red gloved hand pointing to a photo of R&B singer Brandy’s 2020 album. It’s title? B7. A day later the news was confirmed when Beyoncé shared the words “act i … RENAISSANCE” on her social media accounts, and streaming platforms offered fans the chance to pre-save the release. As a viral campaign, it had spread quicker than gonorrhoea at Freshers’ Week, creating the kind of hysteria unseen since... last time Beyoncé released new music.

Beyoncé’s British Vogue cover shoot recalled the decadence of Studio 54 (Vogue)
Beyoncé’s British Vogue cover shoot recalled the decadence of Studio 54 (Vogue)

The silent treatment

Once she had our attention, Beyoncé had no intention of letting it wander. Following the announcement, she unveiled a lavish photoshoot for British Vogue. Shots of her riding a horse and straddling a mirror ball recalled the decadence of Studio 54, leading to speculation that the album would include disco elements. However, in the accompanying profile by Edward Enninful, Beyoncé remained typically laconic, uttering just nine words throughout. Obviously there are revelatory sentences which contain even fewer words (“You ain’t my muvva” /”Yes I aaaaam”) but... this was not that. The nine word sentence in question? “My earth, my heart, my soil and my sanity” (in reference to her inner circle). Yup, that’s the only quote she gives.

Beyoncé’s silence away from the stage has helped to cement her legend. Since 2014, she has demurred from completing face-to-face interviews, instead answering questions via email or on pre-recorded segments for TV. It has helped to elevate her above her pop peers, demonstrating that she doesn’t need to play by the usual rules of celebrity to win the game. Speaking on her 2014 documentary, Beyonce: Life is but a Dream, she compared her approach to Nina Simone. “When Nina Simone put out music, you loved her voice. That’s what she wanted you to love,” she said. “You didn’t get brainwashed by her day-to-day life. That’s not your business. It shouldn’t influence the way you listen to the voice and the art, but it does.”

By restricting information about herself, Beyoncé has increased demand. The resulting thirst for details is what leads fans to refresh her social channels for any shadow of news and react with frenzy when she so much as changes her Instagram bio. Instead of granting endless interviews and documenting every moment on social media, Beyoncé has perfected the art of promoting her music on her own terms. In the attention economy, she reigns supreme.

 (Beyoncé has compared her approach to stardom to that of blues singer Nina Simone)
(Beyoncé has compared her approach to stardom to that of blues singer Nina Simone)

Sticking it to the man?

Beyoncé launched the lead single, and sixth track, from her new album by adding “6. BREAK MY SOUL midnight ET” to her bios — but was forced to drop the track two hours early after leaks circulated online. A mid-tempo house track, Break My Soul samples Nineties club classic Show Me Love by Robin S, and features guest vocals from New Orleans bounce legend Big Freedia.

“Bey is back, and I’m sleeping real good at night,” Beyoncé announces, a phrase which seems precision engineered to join “Becky with the good hair” and “I woke up like this” in the litany of endlessly quotable (and singable) Beyoncé lyrics. Over a bouncy piano line, she sings: “I just quit my job/ I’m gonna find new drive/ Damn they work me so damn hard/ work by nine/ then off past five.”

“Beyoncé singing about the pressures of a nine to five is camp,” declared one Twitter user while another joked, “Beyoncé telling us to quit our jobs knowing we need to make money for her tour she is so funny.” Writing on his blog, author R Eric Thomas commented: “You know things are rough when even Beyoncé is like ‘this job is stressing me out!’ Ma’am, your job is Being Beyoncé!”

Beyoncé’s apparent pivot to pro-unionist provoked a raft of think pieces. Could a multi-millionaire really be an anti-capitalist? On the other hand, can’t an artist reflect the “great resignation” zeitgeist, without being personally responsible for leading a revolution? These are questions which Dolly Parton appeared untroubled by when she released 9 to 5, but arguably those were simpler times...

Beyoncé with husband Jay-Z (Beyonce / Instagram)
Beyoncé with husband Jay-Z (Beyonce / Instagram)

For her next trick...

With the single unleashed into their greedy ears, what can fans expect from Renaissance? Super-sleuths have deduced from the album’s Apple Music page that it is 16 tracks. Songs one to four, seven, nine, and 11 to 16 are all listed as explicit, implying that Beyoncé is either extremely angry, extremely horny, or both. The Apple music page lists the album under its ‘pop’ category, but “a source familiar with the project” blabbed to Variety that it will feature both dance and country-leaning tracks. According to whoever is about to get their inner circle privileges revoked, Bey has collaborated with Ryan Tedder (who co-wrote her 2008 single Halo), Stevie Wonder, John Legend and Andra Day (who executive-produced Beyoncé’s sister Solange’s 2016 album A Seat at the Table).

Unbeknownst to us, Beyoncé teased the album’s title in an email to Harper’s Bazaar last August, saying: “With all the isolation and injustice over the past year, I think we are all ready to escape, travel, love, and laugh again. I feel a renaissance emerging, and I want to be part of nurturing that escape in any way possible.” All of which is to say that we have very little idea what the album will actually sound like. And we get the impression that that’s exactly how Beyoncé likes it.