On Everything Is Love, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s new album released this past Saturday, a bunch of elements unexpectedly commingle: a line about Napoleon blowing off the Sphinx’s nose, the Migos’ signature adlibs, Malcolm X, joking references to the almost-demise of a marriage, trap acoustics, broom-jumping ceremonies, winky references to the streaming wars.
These are all strange bedfellows, but so, once, were Bey and Jay as a romantic pair. They’ve since gone from an unlikely May-December duo to one of American pop culture’s most rock-solid power couples, married with three small children and several business partnerships. The latest product of their union is a nine-song project, a laboratory that tests out just how well they work together, as artists, and as lovers now primed to reveal more of their mystique to the world after spending the majority of their romance collectively retreating from the public eye.
On the bridge of album standout “Lovehappy,” the couple distills the album’s overriding message: “We’re flawed but we’re still perfect for each other.” This is a meditation on perfection, rendered via a flawlessly orchestrated rollout at the London stop of their On the Run II Tour, over expertly crafted instrumentals, and an ideal concept under the circumstances: a reunited couple’s first extended collaborative project. Fresh off of a vow renewal, they’re in it for the long haul. This album is a symbolic re-exchange of rings, a symphonic take on #blacklove in a moment suffuse with it.
For as long as it’s taken for them to put it together, the collaboration lives up to the hype. Obviously, neither is a stranger to musical partnerships. Beyoncé’s made several albums with Destiny’s Child, and Jay-Z made Watch the Throne (2011) with Kanye West, Best of Both Worlds (2002) with R. Kelly, and a compilation with his old Roc-a-Fella labelmates. But this one makes the most musical sense of all those outside of DC’s discography. Everything Is Love comes roughly one year after Jay-Z’s 4:44 album, the rapper’s response to Beyoncé’s Lemonade, the album she released in May 2016 detailing her heartbreak and healing from his infidelities and other indiscretions. With all of the public confessions and restorative video projects and public appearances, the past two years have threatened to overexpose us to them. When Jay hinted at a joint album in his New York Times interview with Dean Baquet last year, people naturally wondered if the couple would be able to actually do something we haven’t heard before. And would there be anything new to learn? A weird question in retrospect given that they once even refused to admit they were married. My, how things have changed!
From the first song, the balmy, straight R&B stunner “Summer,” the two address those concerns, trading verses in a mode that feels long overdue and kind of surprising given their history. The lush heat and scintillating build-up of “Summer” are basically new for these two, who are maximal expressivists when duetting, usually out for the biggest, splashiest, poppiest form of conveying what it feels like to be with each other. But that everything-but-the-kitchen-sink songcraft has always felt like a distancing gesture, the sonic equivalent of a hall of mirrors, over-refracting simple sentiments instead of reflecting them. Coming off of intermittent pairings over the years, including “‘03 Bonnie and Clyde,” “Crazy in Love,” and “Drunk in Love,” Everything finds them, well, in love. Yet this time it feels lived-in. “Let’s make love in the summertime / On the sands, beach sands, make plans / To be in each other’s arms,” Beyoncé sings. Jay rhymes about his trajectory in that season over a lifetime, and the psychological, as well as material, peace music has given his family. It’s sweet, and its laid-back lyricism feels refreshing given all the superlatives we’re used to from them.
On the song Beyoncé channels Lauryn Hill, especially her iconic The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill–era trilling, melismatic vocal runs. The song also echoes “Summertime,” George Gershwin’s jazz standard written for all-black opera Porgy and Bess. “Summer” is a thesis statement by the couple, pointing at an iconic symbol of black American love. (Releasing the record on Juneteenth, that annual celebration of black emancipation in this country, helps to cement this link). The quintessential “Summertime” line “Your daddy’s rich, and your mama’s good-looking,” is certainly true of Blue, Rumi, and Sir’s parents. But their mama’s also rich, and a bigger star than their daddy is, and, as she conveys on “Nice,” she’s such a honcho she don’t care about streaming numbers.
She might be ambivalent, but this record will surely rack up spins. Tracks like “Apeshit,” “Nice,” “Heard About Us,” and the bonus track “Salud!” brim with crowd-pleasing braggadocio and Carter-brand shoutouts, perfectly priming them to climb the charts. As light and effortless as it is, the music has some ideological heft. This is a record replete with references to prison reform, Kalief Browder and Trayvon Martin, and the Carters’ reception on Martin Luther King Boulevards as a testament to success. Jay’s rapping on “Black Effect” is exquisite and psychologically complex. The contemporariness of the album, via its trap-influenced sound, is the most clever use of the genre’s conventions. Trapping is hard, but making a long-term romantic relationship work is probably more difficult.
Trapping is hard, but making a long-term romantic relationship work is probably more difficult.
Much of Jay and Bey’s music of late has had a thread of black economic self-empowerment and up-by-your-own-bootstraps lyricism; Everything slyly redistributes some of that responsibility squarely on the shoulders of black women. On the album’s “713,” Jay raps, “To all the good girls that love hustlers / To the mothers that put up with us [...] / We only know love because of ya [...] / Black queen, you rescued us.” The notion that black women have rescued black men will undoubtedly make some of us groan, and others feel appreciated, and many of us might very well do a little of both. The underlying theme of this album is black women’s capacity to pull themselves up, and also their men and children.
On “Friends,” the chorus “Come pull me up, pull me up / And never let me down” is reserved for the support engendered by pals of the couple, but elsewhere on the album, you feel the weight of black women’s labor. (The album’s cover is a black woman picking a black man’s afro.) In a year when black women saved themselves and the entire state of Alabama from Roy Moore’s election, and a year and a half since 95% of black women voted as a bloc to save the country from Donald Trump, the narrative of the black woman who “rescued us,” as nebulous as that “us” is, is pervasive. It’s also true of Beyoncé’s role on this album. Her vocal play, and sheer profile, keep this record from becoming 4:44 part two. That’s still a good album, just not the kind of massive hit they’re used to.
If Lemonade was inspired by black women’s interior journey toward self-actualization, most prominently via Bey’s allusions to Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, and if 4:44 was Jay-Z’s Citizen Kane, as I wrote upon its release, then Everything Is Love also bears some relation to a landmark piece of American cinema. This album is, in many ways, reminiscent of Charles Burnett’s classic cult film Killer of Sheep (1977), a striking, musically rich meditation on black love rendered through the banal. Only on this album are Beyoncé and Jay-Z rendering their version of the black mundane through branded, filtered, already uncontroversial fodder.
Everything is much louder and polished than that film is, but its central notion, of exploring the depth of black romantic relationships, remains. If it sounds strange to compare this über-visible couple to a quiet but respected, little-seen black cult film, consider this couple’s trajectory. Their relationship has become so intertwined with American lore. They are not only making fun of the infamous elevator incident on the “Flawless (Remix)” and on 4:44, but they’re also already cannibalizing their more recent foibles. At the very beginning of the couple’s On the Run II Tour, earlier in June, we learned that Jay and Bey renewed their vows. On “Lovehappy,” the album’s jubilant closer, Beyoncé sings to her husband, “You fucked up the first stone, we had to get remarried.” There’s something uneasy about “Lovehappy” and the couple’s assurance that their marital troubles are far behind them. Their ultra-visibility nowadays, and their transparency, belies what made them so interesting. In this light, their recent public sharing is the equivalent of a couple posting pics online all the time in order to beat back some of their doubts. This is a really, really good album. It’s buoyant, sunny, and coherent. And every song could be a single. Something about it, though, just feels like a person poised to drop their smile when you turn away.
To go back to Miseducation, which has received so much fanfare this year, being sampled by Drake and Cardi B, Lauryn Hill gave a generation of black music fans a deft mix of vulnerability and hard #bars, of rap and R&B together (see the movement from Miseducation’s opening track, the Wyclef Jean diss “Lost Ones,” to the doo-wop cover “Tell Him.”) Sonically, Everything Is Love encompasses this juxtaposition. And the style, of the two trading rap and sung bars, recalls Miseducation’s compositions. There are even interludes that hearken back to that album’s skits about the meaning of love. Instead of Hill’s voice stylistically splintered, here you have two distinct voices and artists melding into a cohesive unit. That sounds awfully a lot like the dictionary definition of marriage.
Or the idea behind #blacklove. It’s a hashtag and an ideal and it’s everywhere. It’s pervasive on social media, and even a docuseries on OWN. Everything Is Love is the apotheosis of this phenomenon. The prevailing thought is that love between straight black women and men has been under siege since at least slavery, and current criminal justice measures exacerbate the challenges facing black partnerships (admittedly, there’s less of an appreciation of the struggle nonhetero lovers face). In American pop culture, the black duet has been the space for erotic energy and a kind of image-forecasting, the black woman and man in literal and figurative harmony.
In the late ’60s, when America was imploding and black communities were literally on fire, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (1967) and “You’re All I Need to Get By” (1968) were both mainstream Motown candy and something for black couples specifically to savor, before “black is beautiful” was a firmly accepted view. In the ’70s, when some black men and women were sparring over black feminism, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s duets offered sophisticated common ground. Diana Ross and Lionel Richie’s “Endless Love” (1981) anticipated the crack era and so loomed over the broken families that followed as a kind of bygone utopia you could only access on FM radio. Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need to Get By” (1995) and Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo’s “Nothing Even Matters” (1998) came along during a culture war between younger black women and men, right after rappers started dissing R&B and all the tenderness it held within it, and before Nelly swiping a credit card in a woman’s butt elicited protests at Spelman University. The timing of black duets has always been really meaningful whether or not their performers intended for them to be.
So what does Everything Is Love say about the time we’re living in? We’re in an era of hyperbranding and viral hashtagging, and for a couple so insistently and shrewdly focused on accruing wealth and maximizing their profile, surfacing with their first joint album in an era of #blacklove is prudent. Again, it makes sense that The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill feels like a touchstone for this album, but the diversions are real, too. The elusivity of “that thing,” or the “everything” from “Everything Is Everything,” Hill referred to 20 years ago has been overarticulated to such a degree on Everything Is Love that you wish some of it were still a mystery. ●
Niela Orr is a writer from Philadelphia. A former BuzzFeed Emerging Writers Fellow, she is a columnist for the Baffler and an interviews editor for the Believer. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Elle, and McSweeney's Quarterly.