Beyoncé and Jay-Z: The State of the Union Is Strong
Posted June 17, 2018 6:09 p.m. EDT
The strife, sorrow, fury, self-doubt and atonement are over; it’s time for a victory lap. That’s the basis of “Everything Is Love” by the Carters: Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s first full-length album together after years of marriage, parenthood, musical collaborations and shared touring, including the London stadium concert Saturday where they abruptly announced the release of the new album. The nine-song “Everything Is Love” and a bonus track, “Salud!” are available (at least for now) only on Tidal, the streaming service they partly own.
“Everything Is Love” arrives as the capstone of a trilogy. It proclaims a happy ending to the sequence of albums that began with Beyoncé's prodigious 2016 “Lemonade”: a grand statement, magnified by its dreamlike full-length video and interludes of poetry, that set personal betrayal and resolve alongside a multigenerational history of African-American women’s travails. It continued in 2017 with Jay-Z’s “4:44,” a stripped-down, strikingly exposed album about accepting responsibility as a grown man, husband and father.
With their new album as the Carters, Jay-Z (born Shawn Carter) and Beyoncé are once again a united force, celebrating their success on every front: artistic, financial, marital, erotic, historic. The joint album has been long in the making, Jay-Z said in an interview with The New York Times; the care shows in tracks that can hark back to vintage R&B or delve into eerie, disorienting electronic soundscapes.
In the album’s first single, “Apes**t,” Beyoncé sings, “I can’t believe we made it.” But of course she can: The song is unapologetically arrogant and pugnacious over trap percussion and nagging, dissonant chords. Jay-Z shrugs off his zero wins out of eight Grammy nominations in 2018 by pointing to the Carters’ ecstatic, stadium-sized audiences on tour; he adds, “I said no to the Super Bowl/You need me, I don’t need you.” The Carters often position themselves as equals to institutions and corporations, willing to take on the NFL, Spotify and a presidential tweet.
This is more familiar, less vulnerable and less exploratory territory than the zones where Beyoncé and Jay-Z ventured on “Lemonade” and “4:44.” Neither is alone now; they have each other’s unequivocal support, despite a few argumentative moments. Their musical impulses converge, too, with Beyoncé often rapping as well as singing. As they have done before, they toss around luxury brand names and cite the facts of their prosperity: houses, cars, designer clothes, extravagant watches.
In “713” (a Houston area code) and other songs, they insist they’re still connected to the places they grew up, yet they don’t pretend to be anything other than rich and famous: “No need to ask, you heard about us/Already know you know about us,” Beyoncé sings in “Heard About Us”; soon, Jay-Z adds another metric, noting that he is “every-day-I’m-getting-sued famous.” In “Salud!,” they toast their own affluence with Champagne and enumerate their houses while laughing off adverse comments.
The video for “Apes**t” was made in the Louvre, including the Carters’ own selfies in front of the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo; the location is one more prize for Jay-Z to boast about in “Heard About Us.” But with the Carters and a dance troupe taking over the Louvre’s palatial spaces, the video also places an unapologetic, physical black presence in a citadel of European culture.
And that has become part of Beyoncé's and Jay-Z’s shared project: to remember, amid their indisputable yet anomalous success, how much has been denied to others by systemic racism. The chorus of “Nice,” sung by its co-producer Pharrell Williams, is “I can do anything,” but the song pours on sarcasm in a track full of edgy, shifty polytonal chords. Jay-Z raps about getting a subpoena while on tour, snickering that he’s getting dragged into court now after “years of drug trafficking” in his youth: “Time to remind me I’m black again, huh?”
Wealth generation is the best revenge. In “Boss,” Beyoncé reaches down to a low-register yowl to sing, “My great-great-grandchildren already rich/That’s a lot of brown children on your Forbes list.” Cultural memory has a place, too: The song’s coda features a riffing horn section like the brass bands Beyoncé deployed for her remarkable performance this year at Coachella, which celebrated the marching bands and drumlines of historically black colleges and universities. Conscious of hip-hop history, in “713” Beyoncé's chorus harks back to lines from “Still D.R.E.,” a song Jay-Z helped write for Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre: “We still got love for the streets,” she declares. And in “Black Effect,” Jay-Z promises, “I’m good on any MLK Boulevard.”
When the songs celebrate sensuality and durable love — in the album’s opener, “Summer,” and its finale, “LoveHappy” — the music invokes plush, retro-flavored soul. Rich, quivering strings accompany Beyoncé's sultry summons to make love on the beach in “Summer.” There are more conflicts to resolve, and choppier horns and drums, in “LoveHappy” — “Lucky I ain’t kill you,” Beyoncé snaps at one point, recalling Jay-Z’s alleged affair — but eventually she turns to singing and decides, “Love is deeper than your pain and I believe you can change/Baby, the ups and downs are worth it.”
Outside love and family, there’s still tension. The lyrics of “Friends” praise the loyalty and unselfishness of a longtime inner circle (while making veiled references to a rift with Jay-Z’s former collaborator, Kanye West). But the music is ominous — all minor chords, twitchy percussion and detached keyboard tinkling. The assurances in other songs, like “713” and “Nice,” also arrive in settings that deliberately ratchet up discomfort. Triumphant in business and reaffirmed in love, the Carters know they have another battle: against sounding complacent.
“Everything Is Love”