Beyoncé and Jay-Z have closely guarded the particulars of their private lives for years. Lately, though, they’ve shown signs of trying to balance their massive public profiles with a desire for accessibility and superstar demystification. It’s a gesture Beyonce telegraphed with the unofficial campaign slogan of her Formation Tour: “God is God and I am not,” and it’s a guiding theme of Jay and Bey’s new surprise album, Everything Is Love, which they’ve released as the Carters.
“I got real problems just like you,” Beyonce grumbles on “Boss.” They’re people, too, they suggest—people who can shut the Louvre down on short notice to film a music video, but people nonetheless. Released in the second week of their On the Run II Tour after a show at London Stadium, the album realizes the power in learning from our failings. In its embrace of cooperation, it finds strength in presenting a unified front and rallying against common enemies. It’s an act of reciprocity.
Everything is Love is the refreshing final chapter in a trilogy of albums that includes Beyoncé’s unburdening 2016 odyssey Lemonade and Jay-Z’s 2017 conscience-stricken apologia 4:44, glimpses inside a strained marriage from both sides. The ultimate power couple has been finding resolution and absolution through an active artistic process that’s apparently been as therapeutic and corrective for them as it’s been enrapturing for everyone else. But it isn’t quite reconciliation or vindication until they come together. “We were using our art almost like a therapy session,” Jay told the New York Times. “And we started making music together.” In teaming up and completing this personal triptych they show mediation can be a tonic.
If Lemonade was Beyoncé publicly, subtly and sublimely exorcising the demons of her union, 4:44 was a humbled and disarmed Jay-Z figuring family and community into his success equation. Both albums dealt directly (and tacitly) with their responsibilities to each other, and their responsibility to society as black billionaires. Everything Is Love is couples counseling as an art exhibition, as much a splendid relationship retrospective as it is a celebration of their growing black family dynasty. When Beyoncé raps, “My great-great-grandchildren already rich/That’s a lot of brown children on your Forbes list,” she’s connecting the dots between their love and their legacy.
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Beyoncé and Jay co-produced every song, but Cool & Dre, Pharrell and Boi-1da distinguish exactly what the album sounds like – at times classicist and often trendy but usually stunning. “ApeShit” converts a Migos demo into a glitzy high-end trap boomer. The Pharrell-produced “Nice” strips the fluorescent sheen off Lil Uzi Vert’s “Neon Guts” for something decidedly less animated but no less satisfying. Pairing piano plinks with 808 bass, “713” takes their love to the streets.
In celebrating their reconciliation, the Carters take a victory lap hand-in-hand, and they have more ways to stunt than most, performing outsized rap boasts few others can match: saying no to the Super Bowl (“You need me, I don’t need you”), going to war with the Grammys, ignoring Spotify (“’Cause my success can’t be quantified”), dismissing Trump attacks (“Your president tweeting about Hov like he knows us”). Jay challenges the SEC and seeks a commendation for the part he played in freeing Meek Mill for good measure. Bey’s wearing 35 chains and demanding to get paid in equity. They let Quavo ad-libs echo through the Louvre as they pose before the Mona Lisa in the “Apeshit” video, a fitting metaphor for rap’s infiltration of predominantly white spaces.
As “Black Effect” makes obvious, and “ApeShit” conveys more understatedly, the Carters can’t and won’t forget their place in the black community, even as the continue to climb the highest rungs of white society. The most glaring analog for such a statement is Watch the Throne, Jay’s collaborative album with frenemy Kanye West, which Beyoncé references offhandedly on “LoveHappy.” Both albums reconcile relishing extravagant black wealth with mourning a broken American political system, hoping listeners find visions of a freer black planet in their revelry, but only Everything is Love foregrounds family matters. They focus on each other first and their kids, being respecting partners and indulgent parents. (Their daughter, Blue Ivy, pops up constantly like a recurring character.) Their depiction of an enriched black life, via a triumphant Rap-&-B windfall with nods to Chief Keef, Shawty Lo, Common, and Biggie and homages to Kalief Browder, Trayvon Martin, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, extends beyond their immediate family to those they’ve influenced and who’ve influenced them. When Beyoncé repurposes lyrics Jay thought up for Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.” in the hook on “713,” she’s tracing this lineage, adding weight to her earlier “Nice” claim “Freestyling live, blueprint from my Jigga who never writes.”
Though there will always be a pop tint to anything Beyoncé does, Everything Is Love is largely a rap album. In its verses, one of the greatest rappers of his generation finds an able rallying partner. While Jay’s raps on 4:44 were confessional, they were rapped in whispers, as if recounted to a shrink or recorded into a phone mic for a voice memo. Here, he raps in conversation with Beyoncé, professing directly to her and giving her the chance to interject. When he brags that he got her diamond from Chaumet out in Paris and not at Jared, she counters with a side-eye: “Yeah, you fucked up the first stone, we had to get remarried.” Bey, who has been an exceptional (albeit selective) rapper throughout her career, chews up scenery as voraciously as rap’s best flexers.
Beyoncé is a star that cannot be eclipsed, even when playing on terms that should (in theory) favor Jay, and he very obviously knows this; he willingly, at times even graciously, plays both husband-in-waiting and understudy, following her lead closely and egging her on. He intones the words, “It’s Beyoncé, nigga, oh my god,” on “Heard About Us” like a fanboy worshipping at her altar. He beams, shouting, “She went crazy!” after Bey springs out of a particularly prime triplet cadence on “Apeshit.” Naturally, Bey shines when ceded space, her flows surging through trap-lite thumpers and synth-pop fame-measurers alike, and Jay thrives in his unusual role serving as her reinforcements, but there are a choice few moments of perfect balance: the swaggering “Boss,” the interplay of “LoveHappy,” and the teetering rap-sung well-wisher “Friends” each strike a precise tone as off-kilter pop-rap crowning achievements. You can hear some concessions and compromises being made elsewhere, but that’s what working through trauma requires.
In keeping with its theme of everlasting love being a cure-all for what pains humanity, this album sounds like it was a blast to make– which may be its most important quality. It’s also a blast to listen to. Only on rare occasions have the Carters been this in sync in song, a reflection of a hard fought battle back to each other. “This beach ain’t always been no paradise/But nightmares only last one night,” Bey proposes on “LoveHappy.” While the album doesn’t muster the ambitious and intense highs of its two predecessors, it is one of the most satisfying event-albums in some time, and it feels like a labor of love.