[Pitchfork] The Carters round out a trilogy of confrontational albums about their marriage with something lighter but no less resonant. It is a celebration of resilient black love and proud black extravagance.
Until recently, JAY-Z and Beyoncé had made careers of being astoundingly larger than life—cults of personalities we, in fact, knew very little about. He carefully crafted a narrative of corner-hustler-turned-corporate-CEO while guarding the intimate secrets of those closest to him; she was a perfectly manicured pop star who built an empire on turning the vagaries of life into empowerment anthems. Lemonade and 4:44 were watershed moments because they offered a glimpse of the more vulnerable traits of the mystical artists behind them. The Carters zoomed in close enough to show the cracks—to hear a man struggling to find maturity and a woman searching for clarity. Through those albums, we were allowed to see their flaws and we formed deeper connections to them because of it.
Their surprise joint release, Everything Is Love, completes the arc. It’s a testament to how a complicated love survived through self-reflection, compromise, and ruthless honesty. The quintessential power couple has reemerged to stunt on everyone—haters, mistresses, America itself—while serving up a spectacle of romance and opulence like make-up sex on a bed of money. The Carters’ final episode of a presumed trilogy packages truth in a way that makes it more captivating than any lie or tabloid fodder.
Elevator fights, rumors of discord, and marriage counseling swirled around their initial “On the Run” tour in 2014. It took another two years to confirm the suspicion, and by then, it was near impossible to look away from their turmoil. But even now, with drama in the rear view, the return of marital harmony still holds a thrill. Opening track “SUMMER” picks up where Lemonade’s “All Night” left off, a slow dance with the warm sensuality of forgiveness. Above a soulful live band, Beyoncé croons sweetly about making love to her husband, but it’s one of the few times she’ll play the part of the mellifluous singer. This is “don’t think I’m just his little wife” writ large and there is little room for honeyed words; Bey is fired up and in rare form. The couple’s happily ever after is a celebration of both resilient black love (to the chagrin of those for whom infidelity is irredeemable) and proud black extravagance (to the chagrin of those who for whom money is not freedom).
As quickly as the opener’s majestic strings fade out, the thunderous “APESHIT” rumbles in. And so continues the second life of Beyoncé, your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper. She kicks triplet flows all over Pharrell’s club-ready production, accented by Quavo and Offset ad-libs. She raps in double time, crashing the syllables into each other: “Put some respeck on my check/Or pay me in equity/Watch me reverse out of debt (skrt!).” Jay is an afterthought on the song despite seamlessly integrating Chief Keef’s “Faneto,” The Lion King, and some well-placed Grammys and NFL shade in the span of his verse: “Every night we in the end zone/Tell the NFL we in stadiums too.” And what audacity to film the video for a trap banger in the Louvre—the pinnacle of violent colonial history presented as high art—and to call it “APESHIT,” and to fill the place with black creators who are rarely revered on the walls. Each frame of melanin situated against white space is a gorgeous piece of art unto itself.
Everything Is Love largely doubles down on the status symbols, generational wealth, and sustainability put forth in songs like “Family Feud” and “Legacy” from 4:44. Bey’s line on “BOSS”—”My great-great-grandchildren already rich/That’s a lot of brown chil’run on your Forbes list”—is the best of many flexes on the album. Likewise, Jay’s assertion on the same song that “Over here we measure success by how many people successful next to you/Here we say you broke if everybody is broke except for you” echoes a form of cooperative economics. Communal connections thread the album, coming to a head on the sinuous “FRIENDS” which finds the Carters recognizing comrades (and frenemies, probably) as the bedrock of their prosperity. When “did it on my own” rhetoric is still the go-to for success stories, Jay and Beyoncé pausing to honor those in their orbit who ground them is as admirable as it is relatable.
By and large, though, they hold the focus on themselves, staying in one another’s sight and playing off each other in a manner far removed from the honeymoon phase of “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” or “Crazy in Love.” He doesn’t even need to say anything else when he beams “it’s Beyoncé nigga, oh my god” on the synth-pop jam “HEARD ABOUT US.” Their peak synergy and star power make Everything Is Love an event, but Jay is the moon to Beyoncé’s sun. He has shown his spectacular bravado for 20 years, but we’re still getting accustomed to Bey, a woman of action over words, really talking her shit. She’s radiant here, a balladeer and trap rapper, an around-the-way girl and reigning queen all rolled into one. She works in nods to the stoner comedy Half Baked, Notorious B.I.G., Shawty Lo/Young Jeezy, and Dr. Dre by singing the hook of “Still D.R.E.,” a track her husband helped write. Her limberness on the album makes one of the best rappers to ever live look like a one-trick pony by comparison.
The Carters remain billionaires who are not interested in leaving their blackness behind, and that, in some ways, is renegade—even if capitalism isn’t salvation. It’s what makes a song like “BLACK EFFECT,” an explicit ode to black excellence set to a soulful soundscape courtesy of Miami producer duo Cool & Dre, so powerful. They’re still using their platform to acknowledge the history—through the names Kalief Browder, Trayvon Martin, Sarah Baartman, MLK, Malcolm X—and the current condition of black people through affirmation and critiques of appropriation and police brutality. As director Ava DuVernay wrote in 2011 of Jay and Kanye’s Watch the Throne: “Tell me who has ’made it’ to the highest heights and then started speaking the truth about the beauty of us, Black Folk, our souls, our bodies, our brains.” Of course, Kanye has reneged, but Jay and Bey remain committed to championing our lives and experiences.
Everything Is Love is a compromise between the spoils of Lemonade’s war and the fruits of 4:44’s labor. Jay and Bey extend an invitation to join their very public vow-renewal victory lap because we now know what it costs to get here and how expensive having it all can be. It may not be collective liberation (and why should it be?), but it is theirs. When Beyoncé declares, “We came and we saw and we conquered it all” on playful closer “LOVEHAPPY,” it’s her final exhale, her reclamation of her throne of love pulled straight from the tongue of colonizers. Within this complex, messy and beautifully black display, the Carters find absolution.