Music

Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s New Album Is Like the Satisfying Finale of a Prestige Drama

Even if the Carters’ series already hit its peak.

Beyoncé and Jay-Z in the Louvre from the video for "Apeshit."
Jay-Z and Beyoncé.
Beyoncé/YouTube

Listening to Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s first joint album as the Carters, Everything Is Love, is a lot like watching the series finale of a prestige-cable drama that you’ve been following for years. You could say the series premiered May 12, 2014, with the leak of the infamous Solange elevator video, which first tipped a broader public off to the turmoil afoot among the Carter-Knowles clan. Or you could date it back to whenever you first started investing your own feelings in this royal marriage, one like no other in American pop. Like many such shows, it’s a tale about the internal conflicts and machinations of a high-rolling family, whose story becomes a kind of extended metaphor for the fraught dynamics of American society.

The consensus is that it reached its dramatic and artistic peak in 2016’s Lemonade season, premiered on HBO, in which the female lead unleashed a barrage of charges against her inconstant leading man and the violence of racist patriarchy. A segment of the audience will also stand up for last year’s slower-moving but reflective 4:44 storyline, Jay-Z’s look at black masculine repentance and healing under the pressures of white supremacy. So the question with Everything Is Love becomes the signature one of peak TV: Did they stick the landing? Is it an audacious wrench like the Sopranosinconclusive blackout, a narrative fiasco like the end of Lost, or a Six Feet Under­–style sentimental summation? (Or, more aptly: however Empire turns out to end?)

You’ve probably guessed. It’s the weepy affirmation. What else could it be from these strivers? Like the fifth act of a hip-hop and R&B Shakespearean comedy, Everything Is Love finds our lovers reunited, their misunderstandings resolved, their vows renewed (Beyoncé: “you fucked up the first stone/ we had to get remarried”), and their family looking ahead to decades of more peaceful prosperity. Outrageous, multiple-mansioned, diamonds-and-watches-and-Lambos prosperity, symbolically tied to an agenda of black capitalism as racial uplift and reparations.

The album’s arrival was perfectly calibrated to bring back memories of some of the series’ strongest moments: Saturday’s London stop on the couple’s On the Run II Tour climaxed with a massive, bold projection of the words Album Out Now. Once again a work no one had been sure was even in the works suddenly arrived as an exclusive on the Carters’ own proprietorial streaming service, Tidal. Beyoncé had pulled another Beyoncé, a usage she winks to (with some grammatical wiggle room) on the simultaneous, nonalbum, standalone single, “Salud!,” in which she toasts to “when your name is a verb.”

And of course the release came with a visual component, like Beyoncé’s past two surprise albums. In this case, it’s an eye-inebriating video for one of the album’s best, most invigorating songs, “Apeshit,” with its surefire tagline to generate stadium shrieks, “Have you ever seen a crowd going apeshit?” In the video, directed by Ricky Saiz (who last worked with Bey on 2013’s “Yoncé” video), the couple stages an occupation of the Louvre like a postcolonial Napoleon and Josephine. They frame their radiant presences and their dancers’ beautiful black bodies as the equals and betters of centuries of Western art masterpieces, by extension reclaiming and revenging themselves on a whole history of cultural exclusion and imperialism. Albeit, since this is the Carters (note the consolidated surname), not so much to destroy that heritage as to merge with and overtake it—as Beyoncé sings on “Lovehappy,” the album closer, “We came, and we saw, and we conquered it all.” Veni, vidi, vici, or however that’s conjugated in the plural and pluralistic.

Reinforcing their M.O., beyond the thrilling intelligence and sumptuous beauty of the video, “Apeshit” marks another logistical coup. Not, as some breathless fans have imagined, because it’s such a big deal to rent out the Louvre—movies shoot there fairly often. No, it’s because their team again kept it a total secret despite the Parisian paparazzi on their trail.

That most fans will see the “Apeshit” video before hearing the album creates one minor issue. The rest of the record is not nearly so action-packed. Everything Is Love announces its blissful conclusion from the start. Save a couple of subplots that I’ll return to, there are not many revelations or events left. But this is where music has an advantage over serial drama, because it doesn’t demand so much plot. With the right harmonies, reveling in love and happiness doesn’t get tedious. To make sure, the Carters have wisely kept this record to a tight 38:17—perhaps also inspired by the current “Yeezy season,” the set of five seven-song albums being produced by Kanye West. The Carters’ release just happens to interrupt that cycle, appearing only a day after the new one by longtime Jay-Z rival Nas.

This is where the subplots come in—or spinoff potentials, if you prefer—because even though a Jay/Bey album has been teased for ages, Everything Is Love clearly got finalized recently enough that Jay can lob some grenades into this month’s Pusha T–Drake–Kanye fracas. He skewers a few of Drake’s empire-building affectations on “Boss,” scowls at some of his past collaborator West’s aspersions on their relationship in “Friends,” and on “Lovehappy” replaces Ye’s name with Beyoncé’s (as “Beysus,” supplanting Kanye’s “Yeezus”) when referring to the two rappers’ 2011 duo album Watch the Throne. But considering everything Jay could have said about his associate’s recent, uh, shenanigans, West gets off pretty lightly (perhaps out of sympathy for West’s admitted mental health issues).

There are also grazing shots at Donald Trump, the backlash to NFL players’ protests, and other topical matters. But those detours are few. The couple’s animus that musicians have not been more faithful to black-owned Tidal as opposed to platforms run by “the man” consumes more energy, for instance. It’s closer to the central theme of this series wrap-up: the Carters’ own trials and ultimate triumph. That’s what this album exists for. Its structural necessity to finish off the saga comes with the danger that it could feel dully automatic. It definitely doesn’t have the innovative vitality of Lemonade, nor the lyrical depth of 4:44. But it doesn’t need to. Finales are seldom a time to start taking new risks.

What it’s got instead, appropriately, is a kind of satiating glow, with more conventional but still replenishing music (lots of it from Pharrell Williams, doing inspired hiding-in-full-view production) than what either partner has done in years. Just what you might expect from an album released in mid-June with an opening song titled “Summer,” about having sex on the beach.

The way it gets passed back and forth between its principals and a few guests (two-thirds of Migos, Ty Dolla Sign, Pharrell, and Miami producers Cool & Dre), Everything Is Love rarely slumps. The exception is its longest and most lugubrious track, “Friends,” despite Jay’s heartfelt tributes there to his posse. It’s produced, to my Canadian disappointment, by several Toronto studio hands associated with Drake and the Weeknd. Boi-1da, among them, does much better with the addicting “Heard About Us,” in which Beyoncé at once reassures supporters that we don’t have to worry about the couple anymore and warns gossips to “watch your mouth when you move around us”—citing Biggie Smalls’ classic admonishment, “If you don’t know, now you know.” (It’s one of many older-school quotes on the album, some of them Jay biting Jay.)

The decision to leave “Salud!” off the official track list contributes to the general zip, while avoiding the Breaking Bad–like conundrum of seeming to have two overlapping endings. Though it might have worked better if they’d held the single for a few days or weeks instead of releasing it at the same time.

Thankfully, too, Everything Is Love only occasionally gets grandiose about the significance of these gazillionaires’ extended makeup make out, as its title, inverted from the more colloquial phrase, might threaten. There is a discourse on love as a prelude to “Black Effect,” but it’s delivered with down-to-earth charm, and a metaphor about broken eggshells, by an unidentified older woman with a Caribbean accent, making the Carters sound like they are still seeking advice rather than presumptuously dispensing it. And Jay’s brag immediately after, “I’m good on any MLK Boulevard,” yanks the question into a broader context that this couple not only can but, I’d say, should boast about: “The Chitlin’ circuit is stopped/ Now we in stadiums, 80 thou a whop.”

Mainly, this record delivers the satisfactions of hearing two excessively talented people do the things they do excessively well, the tastiest perhaps being how much Beyoncé raps here, contrary to the standard practices of rap-R&B, male-female duets. It’s not at all a new thing from the singer, but it’s in more abundant supply than we’re used to, as she approaches her husband on his own stylistic turf. Amusingly and effectively, for a vocalist who’s never needed much help with her pitch, many of her bars even use a smattering of Auto-Tune to import a more contemporary warp and woof. On a couple of songs there are also live horn arrangements that recall Beyoncé’s recent sets at Coachella, where she was partly backed by HBCU-style brass bands.

As a victory lap—while it never forgets the darkness of the plot that landed them here—Everything Is Love laps like morning sunshine on tangled white sheets, like turquoise waves gratefully reaching another shore. It comes in a moment when the news is full of black and brown children being torn from their parents on American borders and confined in detainment camps, among other horrors. This lambent denouement for a family of five that carries so many people’s hopes and aspirations on its well-moisturized shoulders doesn’t feel like something to receive too cynically. Nor to take for granted. These artists’ innate restlessness will be back to challenge and unsettle again, in another season, another series. For now, let them have their deserved happy ending, while we all rewind and binge.