Beyoncé Knowles and Shawn Carter, America’s most culturally relevant power couple, are in a unique position when it comes to their place in popular music. On the one hand, they are opulent, gorgeous millionaires, the last vestiges of an American Dream that seems currently as broken as it’s ever been. On the other, they have become avatars for the universality of the African American experience. Reminders that, no matter how privileged their lives may be, they are in no way immune to the effects of being black in a country built on systemic oppression.
Every one of their moves is premeditated, but instead of retreating into fame and wealth, the Carters calculate all of their releases to highlight the fact they are still a part of that community. Formation, with its images of cop cars submerged in flood waters, was a tipping point, and The Story of O.J. set a new bar for black masculine self-reflection. Everything Is Love, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s first collaborative album, is the logical next step in a partnership that transcends the dichotomy between their public personas and private lives.
Lead single Apeshit, which dropped on the same day as Everything Is Love, is a revelation in blackness, a subversion of racial oppression as stunning and powerful as anything the Carters have released, separate or together, in the past few years. The video, which immediately went viral, depicts Bey and Jay waltzing around the Louvre, lounging in poses reminiscent of baroque tableaux, in front of priceless works of art harking back to eras of brutal colonialism. The fact that anyone could pull off a stunt like this is incredible. That it’s the world’s two leading R&B and hip-hop artists is downright empowering.
It’s no coincidence that Apeshit was released a month after Roseanne Barr was unceremoniously kicked off of television for referring to a former Obama advisor as an “ape” – on his verse, Jay-Z quotes Chief Keef by referring to himself as “a gorilla in the fuckin’ coupe,” before extolling the use of “‘nana clips for this money business” and “smoking gorilla glue like it’s legal.” The rallying cry of “have you ever seen the crowd going apeshit?” doesn’t just refer to the Carters’ throngs of adoring fans, but also to their enthusiastic and categorical rejection of institutionalised racism – and truly, have we ever really seen anything like it?
It would be enough for the Carters to make their point with sly references and double-entendre, but what makes Everything Is Love so impactful is that it’s musically on-par with anything else either artist has released in their careers. Here, Beyoncé and Jay-Z are on top form, firing on all cylinders. If you’ve ever doubted Bey’s abilities as a rapper, listen to her match Jay-Z rhyme for rhyme on Apeshit, and in double time, no less. In fact, Beyoncé’s performance on the album is so strong – both vocally and in terms of, for lack of a better word, swag – Everything Is Love almost runs the risk of veering into Crazy In Love, Beyoncé-featuring-Jay-Z territory. However, the Carters are intent on presenting themselves as equal parts of a whole, as evidenced on Heard About Us, which might as well be the coolest renewed wedding vows in history. As maximalist as anything on Lemonade or 4:44, Heard About Us also feels like a peek into Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s world, blown up for the cameras but brimming with joy and camaraderie.
Even though the Carters’ creative lives are highly choreographed, something must be said for the way they have been able to parlay their union into an exceptional canon of music. Every track on the album serves to strengthen their self-made mythology. Lovehappy weaves the timeline of Jay’s much-talked-about infidelity in between old-school breakbeats, and Black Effect, which features Beyoncé exclaiming “I’m Malcolm X!”, would sound absolutely crazy coming from any other artist. Whether Everything Is Love is meant to open a new chapter in the Carters’ shared oeuvre, or simply exist as a standalone creative effort, it’s an astonishing expression of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s joint identity as both African American icons and complex married couple, and could only work if both parties had already climbed to the very top of their respective games.