More star wattage than you can shake a stick at, the Carters light up Lon­don.

Q (UK) - - Contents - JAZZ MON­ROE


Mo­ments be­fore Bey­oncé and Jay-Z’s en­trance, gi­ant screens tow­er­ing be­hind the Lon­don Sta­dium stage broad­cast a slightly de­fen­sive dec­la­ra­tion. “This Is Real Life” it reads, an an­nounce­ment that, by virtue of need­ing to be said, rather un­der­mines it­self. Yet for all the frip­peries of their Lon­don show – a pro­duc­tion, we’re to be­lieve, that rep­re­sents the cou­ple’s rec­on­cil­i­a­tion – it’s the cracks in the façade that make the Carters shine. “I stop the world… stop!” Bey­oncé yells on Feel­ing My­self, abruptly halt­ing the band, and you catch her grin as the world dan­gles in her el­lip­sis. When her bassist dips into Dawn Penn’s You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No), she suc­cumbs to its glo­ri­ous menace, face con­tort­ing into a dirty scowl. “Suck on my boss balls!” she de­clares later, and again the mu­sic clam­ours into si­lence, whiplashed by her ring­mas­ter aura. The in­ter­play be­tween dom­i­nance and sub­mis­sion speaks to her in­ex­haustible power, the heart of this On The Run II tour. Mean­while, Jay-Z shuf­fles around the stage, hands in pock­ets, with a guilty-school­boy non­cha­lance. It’s a grand au­dio­vi­sual spec­ta­cle, com­bin­ing a se­ries of short films, var­i­ous sym­bolic al­lu­sions to sin and re­birth, and African-Amer­i­can art and dance. This is a rare treat: not only to wit­ness such an art­ful mix of pop in­no­va­tion and tra­di­tion, but to do so in Strat­ford, a pin-board of cul­tural in­ep­ti­tude. Sur­round­ing the Olympic Park is an ar­ray of neon-lit sky­scrapers, labyrinthine roads to com­pli­cated shop­ping cen­tres and an adult slide de­signed by Anish Kapoor and Ce­cil Bal­mond. For ev­ery de­nun­ci­a­tion of Bey and Jay’s va­pid celebrity em­pire, there’s a bet­ter ar­gu­ment that On The Run II is the most soul­ful thing to come around here in years.

As ever, the Carters’ epic vi­sion re­quires a match­ing pro­duc­tion, for which they’ve en­listed Stu­fish, a stage pro­duc­tion com­pany known for fu­tur­is­tic in­ven­tions, strik­ing vi­su­als and over­size satires of con­sumer cul­ture. This par­tic­u­lar set-up in­cludes a pair of par­al­lel cat­walks ex­tend­ing from op­po­site sides of the stage, which rep­re­sent the cou­ple’s emo­tional dis­tance. When the con­cep­tual arc re­solves, the stage rises into the air to bridge the op­pos­ing cat­walks, and their sym­bolic re­union is com­plete. The con­text, for any­one who wasn’t pay­ing at­ten­tion, is the rup­ture caused by Jay-Z’s sup­posed in­fi­delity, an af­fair doc­u­mented on two ugly, sexy, fiercely lit­eral al­bums: Bey­oncé’s Lemon­ade and Jay’s 4:44. On Bey­once’s For­ma­tion tour in 2016, her hus­band was the shad­owy vil­lain who fu­elled her emo­tional reckoning. For his mea culpa LP, Jay-Z bor­rowed from the next wave rap of Ken­drick La­mar and Chance The Rap­per, artists who learned to weaponise in­se­cu­rity, not con­ceal it with ma­cho pos­tur­ing. It worked: the day af­ter tonight’s show, the Carters sur­prise-re­lease a col­lab­o­ra­tive al­bum im­mor­tal­is­ing the story played out in these con­certs. There are con­cep­tual lay­ers to these pop records, im­pres­sively pre­served through­out the show. At his sharpest, Jay-Z links his re­morse nar­ra­tive with moral pro­nounce­ments dis­guised as brags, like his pen­chant for “100 per cent black-owned Cham­pagne” on Fam­ily Feud. He recog­nises here that the Carters are in the busi­ness of tra­di­tion-mak­ing, which re­quires money. To waste the mar­riage would im­peril not just his fam­ily, but a dy­nasty so vast that its for­tunes are en­tan­gled with the for­ma­tion of a black Amer­i­can dream. As Bey­oncé raps on new song Boss, “My great-great-grand­chil­dren al­ready rich/That’s a lot of brown chil­dren on your Forbes list.”

What’s most con­vinc­ing about Jay-Z’s the­atri­cal re­pen­tance, in this grand set­ting, is that he’s sort of in the back­ground for a lot of it. The songs of 4:44 can fill sta­di­ums, but how much air­time does an apol­ogy de­serve when its sub­ject is Bey­oncé, and she’s here, in the spot­light, mak­ing hearts flutter in the £ 100 nose­bleed seats, sim­ply by an­gling her el­bows just so? He has al­ways oozed af­fa­bil­ity, but his co-star’s charisma could power a Bit­coin farm. It’s part of their chem­istry, this mis­match in grav­i­tas. The gen­er­ous Jay-Z of 2018 – solemnly mid­dle-aged, a pen­i­tent bad-boy – can equal the love of 10,000 fans in a shy glance across the cat­walk. Bey­oncé is never more real than when mouthing along to his raps, like a proud wife hu­mour­ing her man’s fish­ing hobby. When they first walk on­stage – in­tro­duced by a cin­e­matic mon­tage, “the gangsta and the queen” – she’s in leop­ard-print, him a white suit. Every­body is scream­ing, but the mu­sic has stopped, and for a long time the Carters are quiet, their smiles alone fill­ing the sta­dium. They open with a ma­jes­tic Holy Grail, then snap in the first verse, ex­pand­ing Jay’s lyri­cal nod to Smells Like Teen Spirit with a four­bar grunge break­down. Drunk In Love per­fectly har­nesses their elab­o­rate setup – two drum­mers, three gui­tarists, two synth mae­stros, body-pop­ping dancers and a healthy brass sec­tion, all in head-to-toe red – turn­ing ev­ery full stop into an ex­cla­ma­tion mark. Even the more lan­guid cuts man­age to at­tain Su­per Bowl-size pro­por­tions.

While the prospect of a 40- odd song set seems risky, the only per­son in the sta­dium look­ing ex­hausted is Jay-Z. On Dirt Off Your Shoul­der, he ad libs about “sell­ing out Lon­don” but is phys­i­cally breath­less, strug­gling to keep pace with his own flow. His like­able stum­bles go some way to­ward off­set­ting the op­u­lence else­where. For Fam­ily Feud they emerge like new­ly­wed roy­als, back­dropped by screens of stained glass and an or­nate lat­tice. There’s a funk break­down, and Bey­oncé riffs on the song’s “Higher!” mantra while the stage mag­i­cally rises and drifts over the crowd. It’s floated for­ward 20 me­tres by the time Jay-Z fires up Nig­gas In Paris, sta­tioned above our heads. Dry ice fires out and sets off a mini-rave un­der the stage. Dur­ing Run The World (Girls), the screens light up with text from Chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Fem­i­nists. The word “FEM­I­NIST” flashes in big let­ters, elic­it­ing the kind of teen hollers usu­ally re­served for heart­throbs un­but­ton­ing their shirts. Jay-Z rein­tro­duces him­self for Black Al­bum clas­sic Public Ser­vice An­nounce­ment, yet his chau­vin­is­tic boasts – “Got the hottest chick in the game wear­ing my chain” – seem, in this con­text, like own­ing up for old hubris, an ironic con­ces­sion to Bey­oncé’s supremacy. Only in the fi­nal act does he in­dulge in some stock-tak­ing. On U Don’t Know, from 2001’ s The Blue­print, he boasts that he’ll keep prof­it­ing from Def Jam till he’s “the 100 mil­lion man” – a one-time brag that be­came an un­der­state­ment. Po­si­tioned near the show’s fi­nale, it’s a re­minder of the dream the Carters are liv­ing. They’re reap­ing re­wards now, but sights were set long ago. The evo­lu­tion of this dream is ev­i­dent in their canny se­quenc­ing, com­pris­ing a con­cept setlist culled from their great­est hits. At the show’s end, when Bey­oncé sings the mantra of Jay-Z’s Young For­ever – “Do you re­ally want to live for­ever?” – the line no longer lusts for the eter­nal in­no­cence of youth. In­stead, it evokes more fa­mil­iar kinds of im­mor­tal­ity: to be re­born in one’s off­spring, cush­ioned by enor­mous wealth, cul­ti­vated within the con­tin­uum of African-Amer­i­can art. “This Is Real Love” the screens read now. For each other, sure. But that love projects out­wards, too, in their rare vi­sion of what it means to pre­serve a cul­ture, and to dream into be­ing a new one.

The songs of 4:44 can fill sta­di­ums, but how much air­time does an apol­ogy de­serve when its sub­ject is Bey­oncé, and she’s here, in the spot­light, mak­ing hearts flutter?

Get Carters: Bey­oncé and Jay-Z (p98).

All the nim­ble ladies: (above) Bey­oncé and com­pany kick into gear; (be­low) Jay-Z ser­e­nades his co-star, Lon­don Sta­dium, 15 June, Strat­ford, 2018.

“It’s just a stage I’m go­ing through”: (above) Jay-Z heads down un­der; (be­low) the Carters’ “epic vi­sion”.

“Form an or­derly queue!” Bey­oncé and her dancers soak up the spot­light, Lon­don Sta­dium, 2018.

The royal cou­ple: Mr and Mrs Carter en­sure the em­pire keeps grow­ing.

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