BEYONCÉ AND JAY-Z
More star wattage than you can shake a stick at, the Carters light up London.
BEYONCÉ AND JAY-Z LONDON STADIUM, STRATFORD FRIDAY, 15 JUNE, 2018 ★★★★★
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.