In 2016 Beyoncé dropped Lemonade, a culture-quaking song cycle about her troubled marriage to Jay-Z, and more broadly about the black female experience in America. It was her best and most meaningful work, and it was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys. It lost.
In 2017, Jay-Z dropped a response of sorts in 4:44, covering not only his infidelity, but his family, his legacy and his views of America from his spot on rap’s Mount Rushmore. Its overuse of vintage samples made it feel a little monochromatic, but it, too, was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys. It lost.
Now it’s 2018, and Bey and Jay, billed as "the Carters," just surprise-released Everything Is Love, their long-awaited debut album as a duo, in the middle of their On the Run II World Tour (which hits Orlando in August). Surely it, too, will get a look for the Grammys’ top prize.
And this might be the year they take it home.
You can never put any dumb move past the Recording Academy. But Everything Is Love is a worthy and laudable final chapter (maybe?) in the trilogy (so far?) of albums documenting the familial drama between hip-hop’s Queen and King. Turns out there was juice left unsqueezed from Lemonade and The Story of O.J., and on Everything, it’s alternately sweet and acidic, and never less than satisfying.
Everything Is Love debuted on Jay-Z’s streaming service Tidal, then surfaced on Apple Music and Spotify Premium (it will reportedly arrive on Spotify’s free version on July 2). So if you don’t have a subscription, and don’t feel like wading for illicit streams on the web, your intro to Everything Is Love will be the video for lead single Apes---.
Filmed in the Louve — right next to the Mona Lisa! — the exquisite video is an attention-getter, positioning the Carters as living works of art surrounded by more of the same. But strip the song of its visuals, and it’s still arresting: Beyoncé barking Migos-style triplets (with Migos’ Quavo himself yipping in the background) about buying G-8s and luxury watches and "expensive fabrics," while Jay-Z calls out the Grammys and the Super Bowl, telling the NFL, "You need me more than I need you."
Yeah, it’s standard (if slickly delivered) hip-hop braggadocio, but there’s more at play. The phrase Apes---, Jay’s lyrics about "monkey business" and "smoking Gorilla glue" — much like the "going gorillas" line on Jay and Kanye West’s N----s in Paris, the simian imagery contrasted with the exclusionary, historically white luxury on the walls of the Louve reinforces the Carters’ aggressive confrontation and ultimate transcendence of ugly racial epithets and stereotypes.
"The chitlin’ circuit is stopped / now we in stadiums," Jay raps on the furious Black Effect, which name-drops Malcolm X, Trayvon Martin, LeBron James and Sarah Baartman. "I am the culture," he adds; "I made my own waves so now they’re anti-Tidal." No, the Carters didn’t come to play.
Except ... they also sort of did. There’s a classic sexy soul to Summer, which, while not particularly revelatory, is full of adorable Jay lines like "She taste like Corona Light, sweet" and "If I can stay in her hair forever, that’d be fine by me." The breezy, SZA-like Heard About Us is a heartening cousin of sorts to Lemonade’s Love Drought.
Whether they’re coming hard or going smooth, Bey and Jay are fiercely defiant, challenging comers and critics on every song. Beyoncé asserts herself as a killer rapper, gnashing out all the best lines in an often unhinged, at times digitally altered snarl. "My great-great-grandchildren already rich / that’s a lot of brown children on your Forbes list," she snaps on Boss, as an army of horns swell up around her. "If I gave two f---s, two f---s about streaming numbers / would have put Lemonade on Spotify," she spits on Nice, following it with a torrent of eff-yous and an immaculate capper: "I’m so nice, I’m everybody type, g--d--- right / I’m so nice, Jesus Christ, I’m better than the hype, I give you life."
Jay’s lyrics, meanwhile, tend to plunge deeper than his wife’s. On Boss and Nice he makes CEO problems like running a company and getting subpoenaed feel as street-relatable as ills from his dope-slinging days: "After all these years of drug trafficking, time to remind me I’m black again, huh?" And it’s Jay who gets the most personal on Friends, shouting out his longtime real-world pals for their loyalty in difficult times while taking subtle shots at his showbiz acquaintances: "Tight circle, no squares, I’m geometrically opposed to you."
But it is not possible to outshine Beyoncé on a Beyoncé record, and so it’s the Queen who gets the last word. Once again, it’s all about the Carters struggling through a rough patch and coming out the other side, contentious with the world but contented with themselves.
"We’re flawed but we’re still perfect for each other," she sings on LoveHappy. "This beach ain’t always been no paradise, but nightmares only last one night." And finally: "We came, and we saw, and we conquered it all / we came, and we conquered, now we’re happy in love."
The Carters can be oblique, but this is their story, and they’re sticking to it. For three years it’s played out as the greatest hip-hop love drama of all time, which might be enough to bring Jay and Bey that elusive top Grammy. That is, if they even still want it. They sound at peace with this chapter of their lives either way.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.