Review: Beyoncé and Jay-Z tell a story of success on ‘Everything Is Love’
Some acts finish a concert with an encore. Beyoncé and Jay-Z? By now we should know they think bigger.
On Saturday, pop’s No. 1 power couple revealed at the end of a show in London that they’d just released a new album, “Everything Is Love.” It’s the first joint full-length from the married singer and rapper, who’ve been collaborating with increasing frequency — and to increasing scrutiny — since the early 2000s.
“No need to ask — you heard about us,” Beyoncé sings in one new song, and the data backs her up: Within hours of their announcement, “Everything Is Love” was dominating social media around the globe. (Initially available only through Tidal, which the couple partly owns, the album had made it to other streaming services by early Monday.)
Although it’s been in the works for years, “Everything Is Love” — with nine songs, one bonus track and an accompanying music video, set in the Louvre, for a cut with an unprintable title — plays out that notion of an encore.
The project follows two earlier solo albums, Beyoncé’s 2016 “Lemonade” and Jay-Z’s 2017 “4:44,” that depicted a marriage in crisis; each was exacting in laying out one side of the tale. Now the two superstars, secure in our familiarity with the details, have come together to assure us they’ve made up.
Indeed, things are good enough for Beyoncé and Jay-Z (who was born Shawn Carter) that “Everything Is Love” is billed officially to the Carters.
“Let’s make love in the summertime,” Beyoncé suggests over a languid vintage-soul groove to open the album in “Summer.” Then she looks confidently to the future: “Make plans to be in each other’s arms.”
Part of what drove the couple’s reconciliation, the music suggests, is their shared success — the certainty, in other words, that neither could ever find another partner capable of pulling such weight. If their accomplishments unite them, though, they also emphasize their rare standing; the multi-act narrative they’ve spun over the last two years goes beyond their particulars to address the state of African American ambition.
On “Everything Is Love” the two flex their muscles like it’s an Olympic sport, with Jay-Z boasting that he turned down the Super Bowl halftime show (“You need me, I don’t need you,” he tells the NFL) and Beyoncé insisting that she doesn’t care about streaming numbers (which strains credibility until she points out that “Lemonade” still isn’t on Spotify).
Expensive brand names pepper the songs’ lyrics; Jay-Z acknowledges that celebrity has made him a legal target but then brags that he’s “show-up-to-court-without-a-suit famous.”
Yet for all they’re doing to burnish their legends, Beyoncé and Jay-Z want to be seen as unchanged by the game. In “Boss,” Beyoncé describes “dropping my daughter off at school every morning,” while “713” takes its title from an area code in the singer’s hometown of Houston.
“I put it down for the 713,” she proclaims, tweaking a line from “Still D.R.E.” by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, “And we still got love for the streets.”
That’s not the only instance of recycling on “Everything Is Love.” In “Heard About Us,” Jay-Z and Beyoncé borrow the late Notorious B.I.G.’s “If you don’t know, now you know” chant from his song “Juicy”; “Friends,” about the value of one’s closest confidants, evokes Whodini’s classic by the same name (even as it takes an apparent shot at Kanye West, who previously nodded to the Whodini track in his “Real Friends”).
As these cozy interpolations make clear, the Carters are in a less adventurous mode here than they were on the kaleidoscopic “Lemonade” or the radically intimate “4:44.” Compared to those efforts — or to Beyoncé’s mind-blower of a performance at April’s Coachella festival — this album doesn’t seek to present either musician in a startling new light.
And some of the trap-inspired production, as in the unprintably titled song (which features input from Migos), can feel surprisingly ordinary, at least for a Beyoncé project.
But the inside references and the happy proximity to current rap also work in service of a larger point, which is thinking about black achievement in the context of a cultural and political system designed to hinder it.
The Carters do that thinking vividly and explicitly in their new music video; it places the couple and a group of dancers amid some of the recognized masterworks of European art. (The album’s cover carries through that idea, with a black woman lovingly tending to a black man’s hair in front of the Mona Lisa.)
Yet “Everything Is Love” is full of subtler juxtaposition, as in “Boss,” where Beyoncé’s description of the wealth she and Jay-Z will pass down leads her to envision “a lot of brown children on your Forbes list.” In “Nice,” with a jaunty beat co-produced by Pharrell Williams, Jay-Z’s account of his jet-setting lifestyle — “My passport is tatted, it look like it’s active” — is interrupted by the arrival of a subpoena.
“Time to remind me I’m black again, huh?” he asks.
There’s an activist thrust to the love songs as well — to the welcome representation in a tune like “LoveHappy,” which closes the album, of a complicated but solid relationship between two adults who’ve endured “some things,” as Beyoncé refers to Jay-Z’s alleged infidelity.
“Baby, the ups and downs are worth it,” she sings over lush backing vocals and a crisp throwback beat, “Long way to go, but we’ll work it.”
Mainstream art makes too little room for stories like that, especially when the grown-ups in question are people of color.
But the Carters won’t be denied on “Everything Is Love.” For them, this hard-won encore is also a beginning.
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