Her Devotion Weighs A Ton: Beyoncé And Jay-Z's Celebration Of 'Love'

Jun 19, 2018
Originally published on June 20, 2018 12:39 am

On Saturday, one of the highest-profile and most scrutinized marriages in pop music became an official collaboration with the surprise release of Jay-Z and Beyoncé's album Everything Is Love, credited to The Carters, alongside a video for the album's first single, shot in the Louvre. The album had been rumored since the release of Beyoncé's 2016 album Lemonade and Jay-Z's 4:44, both of which addressed fault lines in the artists' marriage, and in a summer of major hip-hop albums, this instantly marked a new high-water mark. As it does when Beyoncé (and her husband, to a lesser extent) releases something new, the world snapped to attention. NPR Music critics Rodney Carmichael and Ann Powers were among those who spent the days following its release listening to — and thinking about — Everything Is Love. (You can listen to a conversation between Powers, Carmichael and All Things Considered host Audie Cornish by clicking on the audio player below.)


Ann Powers: All hail the Queen for turning a bleak American weekend into a joyous Bey Day. I felt a bit of the Markle sparkle when I saw the first video and album art for Everything Is Love: Just like that American princess who carried the sanctified church to Windsor Castle, Beyoncé brought her man and her 21st- century Black Arts-informed aesthetic into the Louvre to recast the Western art tradition in a way that feels absolutely necessary right now. I sometimes think Jay and Bey live in a Kehinde Wiley painting; like Barack Obama's presidential portraitist, they're all about exposing the elegance of subjects — including their own home communities and past lives — that have consistently been excluded from the corridors of power.

"These diamonds on me, they see-through," Beyoncé raps deep into "Apes***"; in the video, she wears a flesh-colored leotard while dancing in front of the Venus de Milo. The skin we see through her diamonds is Creole brown, like her daughter Blue's skin, and like the skin of the kids at the Texas border whose lost faces are breaking so many hearts right now. Jay-Z stands next to her, holding her hand, one hand in the pocket of his Superfly 1970s-style suit. His presence is inherently elegant, but in relationship to the white aesthetics this museum represents, unprocessed: "The fro that I grow got no perm in it," he rhymes in "Black Effect."

The Carters are as comfortable in their wealth as are any moguls minted within the entertainment world, and as always, they pointedly and continually remind listeners that their assertions of wealth are meant to elevate not just themselves but their communities of color, both real and historical. Hugely intertextual, with myriad references to rap hits of yore and samples of peers both contemporary and legendary — including Jay-Z himself — Everything Is Love feels like a victory lap not just for the couple, who've made it through marital strife, but for hip-hop itself, the most popular music on the planet, an art form as dense with detail as a Neoclassical history painting and as elegant in its profane poeticism as an alabaster nude.

What this album is, musically, matters, and Rodney, I think it has everything to do with the rise of women in hip-hop. This is pop music, with irresistible hooks and highly danceable beats. Jay-Z has long been skilled at incorporating these accessible elements into his style — this year is also the anniversary of his immortal marriage of the murder scene to an Annie chorus in "Hard Knock Life" — but by letting Beyoncé lead in this collaboration, he forever ties so-called "hard" rap with the soft power of the women-driven Top 40. Beyoncé, in turn, plays with her own gender position, telling haters (as if she had any) to "get off my d***" and showing Quavo of and Offset of Migos exactly where their singsong flow came from. I love the moment in "Nice" where she spins a line that ends in a falsetto high note, and then Pharrell Williams does exactly the same thing on his line when he follows: It's a lesson in lineage. As Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote on Twitter, it's fun to think about Beyoncé and her sister-peer Rihanna as the leading rappers of the day, not because these singers have also excelled at what for decades has been a man's game, but because the men have been tapping their game all along.

Rodney Carmichael: God save the Queen; and maybe we should be thanking the Queen for saving the god MCs while we're at it.

One rapper from Queens and another betrothed to Queen Bey — former foes turned friendly competitors — released albums this weekend. One is lackluster, the other blockbuster. And I can't help thinking how their relationship to the women in their lives marks the difference between the two.

It was impossible for me, and plenty of people I follow on Twitter, to listen to Everything Is Love without comparing it to Nas' 11th studio album, Nasir. Maybe that's not fair, but it's real. In the midst of a historic month full of major releases from some of the marquee names in big boy rap, it feels like women are playing a pivotal role. And not just by their absence, despite being constantly marginalized within the culture and the industry, but by their presence.

At the end of "713," Jay-Z raps:

America's a muhf**** to us
Lock us up, shoot us
Shoot our self-esteem down
We don't deserve true love
Black queen, you rescued us
You rescued us

That heaps a lot of responsibility on black women, that savior trope. But there's no doubt that Beyoncé saved Jay-Z by giving him a second act, or new breath, in a career that could have easily been stymied by his overreliance on the street clichés, survivor's guilt and hollow hustler's ethos. He's striving for family now, for legacy and loyalty. She's made him whole.

Yet the weighty crown that Jay perches on Beyoncé's head is a reflection of the way hip-hop has always conscripted women for its dirty work, whether those women are actual performers, silent partners or props discarded as collateral damage.

From the beef to the biggest releases of the last month, they all reveal the ways in which men value or devalue the women in their lives: Pusha T didn't go low with "Story of Adidon" until Drake mentioned his fiancée's name on "Duppy Freestyle." Drake didn't concede defeat by bowing out, at least temporarily, until Pusha dissed his mama and teased out the identity of a woman even kiss-and-tell Drake has stayed conspicuously silent about: the mother of his alleged son. You summed it up perfectly last month, Ann, when you tweeted: "Please direct me to the feminist intersectional think pieces on the #RapBeef that take the legacy into account but which also acknowledge that both @Drake and @PUSHA_T disrespect women's privacy and autonomy via their beef."

There's more: Kanye's solo album, ye, which he admittedly remade after his slavery-was-a-choice comment on TMZ. His main motivation for redoing the album wasn't to repair his image within the black community or even to explain what he meant, it was to alleviate his wife's concerns over the controversy potentially affecting their bottom line. His apology to her on "Wouldn't Leave" is the centerpiece of the album.

Then, we come to Nas, whose ex-wife Kelis doesn't get a direct mention on Nasir, but whose recent allegations of abuse faced at the hands of Nas during their five-year marriage loom over his release. Nas doesn't directly address those allegations on the album (he hasn't made explicit public statements away from the music either), but he does drop a few bitter-sounding lines on "Simple Things" about his exes, his "kids' mothers" and getting married to someone who "wasn't that match." Maybe Nas' lawyer advised him against speaking on the allegations in the midst of a custody battle, but what he does say speaks volumes.

Finally, Jay-Z and Beyoncé tied a bow on the three-act play they lifted the curtain on two years ago. There's plenty worth dissecting about this album, but there's no doubt that their bond, their loyalty, is the glue.

I've always been a bigger fan of Nas than Jay. For years, there was a clear delineation between the two. Nas was the brooding thinker; Jay was consumed with the bombast and braggadocio. But that was before Becky With The Good Hair prompted Beyoncé's unsweetened Lemonade and Jay-Z's confessional 4:44. With The Carters' makeup album being released one day after Nasir, the difference between two of rap's god-level MCs has been transposed: Beyoncé made an honest man out of Jay, while Kelis seems to have revealed the depths of Nas' self-deception.

It's a deep revelation and it cuts both ways, but it also comes at an interesting time. All year long, fans and critics alike have been grappling with whether or not hip-hop is ready for a #MeToo reckoning. SoundCloud rappers and legacy artists alike have faced extreme charges and allegations ranging from physical battery to sexual assault against women.

For the most part, hip-hop artists have not weighed in on this conversation about the power dynamic between men and women – at least not in the music itself. But Beyoncé's agency — in relationship to her husband but also to hip-hop — feels like it has challenged that complicit silence in some ways. Could Beyoncé and Jay-Z lead the way forward for some sort of cultural redemption? I don't know. That may not even be the right question. I'm curious what you think about some of this, Ann.

Ann Powers: Is this a way of hip-hop dealing with the #MeToo moment? On one level, I don't think so. That open-ended movement centers on exposing sexual violence, on a continuum ranging from street harassment to rape. I can see how infidelity might be viewed as part of that bigger picture, but one man's containment within a marriage via public shaming (a harsh but, I think, accurate simple reading of what this album trilogy has accomplished on a strictly sexual-politics level) seems different to me than a reckoning with actual crimes against women. A system that values marital monogamy over other forms of sexual expression is inherently conservative, and not entirely in alignment with women's freedom.

At the same time, as both Lemonade and 4:44 explore, the emotional wreckage infidelity wreaks in many African-American relationships is deeply connected to the disruption of the family by slavery, Jim Crow and the prison-industrial complex. The most remarkable thing about Lemonade, especially, is the compassion it expresses within its rage: the way that, like an August Wilson play or a Toni Morrison novel or a great blues song, it shows that a daddy's creeping or a husband's shallow love may be partly motivated by his own marginalization in a culture that, outside of its furtive corners, doesn't let him be a whole man.

Rodney Carmichael: You're right, Ann — this album in no way provides an answer for hip-hop's #MeToo paradox. But it is ironic that, in this moment, a genre that's prized the unfiltered voice of maligned black malehood since its inception is suddenly, and loudly, finding a woman as the real keeper of truth. Authenticity in rap has always been based on transparency. Back in the day, we called it keeping it real. Even that became role-play after a while. But at a moment where we have all these major male figures in the genre being less than transparent — scared to address allegations of spousal abuse or secret paternity to avoid damaging their brand — you have Beyoncé keeping Jay-Z honest on a public stage. Sure, it's performance. But it's also what hip-hop has always been at its best: personal.

That kind of vulnerability used to be — and I believe still is — essential to play in this space. It's what makes Erykah Badu one of the greatest, unheralded MCs of all time. She should be right up there with Andre 3000, as Wesley Morris and Rembert Browne pointed out on a recent episode of Still Processing.

Ann Powers: It's interesting, isn't it, that women are not only so skilled at articulating the details of private life, but also so often tasked with that. This album, I think, isn't that personal. Is that a strange thing to say? Though "Summer" is a deliciously sensual slow jam that could also be an effective ad for a newly branded BeyJay couples' resort, Everything Is Love mostly stays away from sex or even tenderness. The exceptions are all Jay's: his strikingly vulnerable reminiscence about the early days of the Carters' love affair in "713," or his swooning line, "If I could stay in her head forever, that'd be fine by me." Beyoncé, on the other hand, is all swagger and business. She even describes lust as a form of work that she has perfected. "Tell me your desires, I won't ever tire," she croons.

If you think about it, even the fact that this album is cast as a celebration defuses any sense of intimacy it might communicate. Who celebrates the end of couples' therapy? Don't people usually act sadder but wiser in these moments? Instead of the sweet sadness of John Lennon telling Yoko Ono, "I wilt just like a fading flower" when she's away, or even Johnny Cash's utter surrender of his own will to June Carter's ring of fire — expressions of connection that ultimately exclude the world beyond the couple — Jay and Bey shout "Salud!" and invite us all to sip their champagne.

As Lindsay Zoladz wrote over at The Ringer, this coronation of a queen who rules her king is partly an assertion of Beyonce's alpha role in her reconstituted relationship with Jay-Z and in their shared pop career. She's the innovator; he's the Harry. I have to admit, while listening to Everything Is Love for the third or fourth time, I wondered if this album was always part of the deal between them — a final act of penance before she let him dismantle the doghouse. But the smile Jay gives Bey as they recline in their finery at the Louvre says something else. They both are more powerful together, economically, socially, artistically. Everything Is Love commemorates their partnership as a true royal marriage: a consolidation of wealth and of vision, a match that shores up a whole community.

At its fur-lined, gold watch-rocking heart, Everything Is Love is about two people who need each other — sexually, sure, but even more so in other ways. As family, they are building a legacy that will last beyond their own lives, via the wealth and projected influence of their children. As artists, they've extended each other's careers. She keeps him at the center of the mainstream instead of in the weeds, where most older rappers end up. (He is almost 50, after all.) And he has given her something too, beside pain: a story. Think about how most of Beyoncé's fellow pop divas have struggled to maintain relevance as they've grown beyond the first flash of their fame. Turning their bad romance into a redemption song, Beyoncé demolished the idea that as a woman in pop, she was ultimately frivolous. Though her work merited inclusion in this category before that point, it was her ability to make art of the wrong he did her that officially made her a legacy artist.

"Last name gon' be here forever," Beyoncé declares in "Nice," before comparing herself to the Rockefellers. Marriage serves legacy: it consolidates wealth and keeps last names alive. At a moment when America's attitudes about the value of family ties seems so challenged, Everything Is Love shows how much staying together means, not just emotionally, but as a means of power, even of survival. When I listen to this album, I'm reminded of the words of another pop royal couple, Valerie Simpson and the late Nickolas Ashford. "Somehow we managed, we had to stick together," that legendary R&B duo sang in their most famous song. "And now we're solid as a rock." Just like the one on Beyoncé's hand, the one she's flashing now.

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