Where on earth is Beyoncé? Everywhere and nowhere. Everywhere: the top of the charts, the voice in the clubs, the words in people’s hearts, the basslines in people’s bodies. Nowhere: more than a month has gone by since the July 29 release of her latest album, Renaissance, with little more than a few photos to mark her new “era.” There are expectations for any artist in the wake of a successful album rollout — there are additional expectations for Beyoncé. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she seems unconcerned with either.
At first glance, it seems Beyoncé is as present as she has ever been — the new ad campaign launched by jewelry company Tiffany & Co. starring Beyoncé follows in the long tradition of increasing an artist’s exposure through retail collaborations. But in a time when artists are increasingly expected to cultivate their own promotional ecosystem on the internet — and when Beyoncé has long since proven herself adept at doing just that — her apparent absence from her own ecosystem has raised questions. Where is the full-length film that we expect to accompany each album since her 2016 Lemonade release? Where is the onslaught of music videos à la her 2013 self-titled release? These seem to be the questions of many die-hard fans, if their many viral tweets are any indication.
And for any artist with a song that was in the top ten of Billboard’s Hot 100 for 10 weeks, a music video would be a key promotional tool for keeping high chart numbers steady. But Beyoncé is not just any artist — not in her style, not in her influence and certainly not in her priorities.
In her 2013 documentary “Life is But a Dream,” Beyoncé makes her thoughts clear on the state of art and promotion in the music industry: “People don’t make albums anymore … they just try to sell a bunch of little quick singles, and they burn out, and they put out a new one, and they burn out, and they put out a new one. People don’t even listen to a body of work anymore.” As she expressed in 2013 and has certainly proven since, Beyoncé is what we would call an “album artist”: in a music economy that rewards the replayable single more than anything else, Beyoncé uses her unimpeachable star status to affirm the artistic value and economic viability of the longform musical project. She released her 2013 self-titled album as a set of songs and matching videos that could only be bought as one set on iTunes to ensure that listeners received the whole album experience; 2016’s Lemonade and its accompanying film — the “visual album” — was an evolution of that notion, expanding on the music with fashion, cinematography, set design and more, all of which the film brings together into a seamless whole.
Beyoncé has not been invisible in the wake of Renaissance, but what has been absent, at least so far, is a public, cinematic explanation of the Beyoncé that made the album, à la Lemonade or “Homecoming,” her documentary about the making of her 2018 headlining Coachella set. This Beyoncé has been somewhat evoked in a letter to fans published on her website ahead of the album’s release. In her letter, she describes the desire for freedom, adventure and uninhibited self-expression that guided the making of Renaissance, and she thanks the people who made it possible — this is perhaps our condensed behind-the-scenes documentary.
Beyoncé closes the letter with an address to her fans: “I hope you find joy in this music. I hope it inspires you to release the wiggle. Ha! And to feel as unique, strong, and sexy as you are.” Tweets from Beyoncé fans now read like a document of people finding that joy, dancing to Renaissance together from start to finish, the album practically DJing itself as the songs rush one into another, the party set that Beyoncé intended it to be. Drawing from ballroom culture pioneered by largely overlooked Black queer artists, and dedicating the album to her uncle Jonny, a Black gay man whom she cites as an influence, Beyoncé was clear in her intention to craft a love letter and safe space for her Black queer fans in particular. Her visual absence has been the cue for these fans — the clubbers, drag artists and ballroom performers that they are — to step inside of the music and elaborate on it themselves, in clubs and on stages worldwide.