Everything Is Love (Sony)
Beyonce and Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter just know how to do this.
While I’ve never really been a fan of the idea that success is the best revenge (I’m old fashioned, retribution-laden, ex-Catholic enough to believe extreme suffering and a life lived long enough to regret in exquisite detail the original sin, is the best revenge) I do get that success is a raised finger and fuck you grin in the face of your bete noire.
In many ways, for many good reasons, much of Everything Is Love is a raised finger, a fuck you grin, and a we aren’t going anywhere so deal with it, to the Carter’s bete blanc, Donald J Trump. Or more broadly, more accurately, Trump, the racist component of the Republican party, Fox “News”, evangelical hypocrites, the wishing-they-were-plantation-owning proprietors of football teams, brutalising cops, and the white supremacist horses they all rode in on.
This is a record about black success – commercial, social, personal - that is more than survival and much more like supreme reward. “I can’t believe we made it,” Beyonce sings in the stuttering, powerful, angular Apeshit. “This is what we’re thankful for.” To which Jay-Z adds, a few verses later: “Motorcades when we came through/Presidential with the planes too … I said no to the Super Bowl: you need me, I don’t need you/Every night we in the end zone, tell the NFL we in stadiums too.”
And the album, leaning slightly more to hip hop than R&B (with Beyonce proving again that she can rap as well as she does everything else), that rubs that success in. Not so much to boast – though they do that, of course, with Jay-Z offering in one song that “it’s disturbing what I gross” and Beyonce telling us that “my great-great-grandchildren already rich/That’s a lot of brown children on your Forbes list” - but to display the kind of strength and defiance that speaks louder anyway.
For a visual representation, take a look at the video for Apeshit, filmed in the Louvre (because, well, they can) and packed with enough black lives references, and black lives’ reflections of the arts of antiquity, to match Donald Glover/Childish Gambino’s recent This Is America filmclip (which is itself referenced at one point in Apeshit’s video) paired with what might be called the overwhelming odour of real money. The kind of money which says, we will because we can.
Yes, the album begins and ends with songs addressing the other elephant in the room whenever the Carters are mentioned: their marital story of infidelity, hurt and anger already told in brilliant painful detail (Beyonce’s Lemonade) and the sequel of guilt, confession and atonement (Jay-Z’s 4.44).
And those two songs, Summer and Lovehappy, are as bright, loved-up, lustful, soulful, and even in moments amusing, as their titles suggest, as the pair make it clear things are very ticketyboo in the Carter living room, bedroom and pretty much any surface you care to name. So much so they can even joke about a certain Becky with the good hair and, in Heard About Us, deliver the hard to argue couplet “no need to ask, you heard about us/Already know you know about us”.
However, between those points the emphasis is on matters external, though never peripheral, to the Carter mansion, a place that isn’t immune to those very American moments where it’s “time to remind me I’m black again”. Or even brown again, if you’ve seen any footage of kids locked in cages as punishment for their parents’ assumed sins by the aforementioned racist overclass.
Among these topics, there’s connections to roots (the retro soul 713, named after the area code for Beyonce’s hometown of Houston, throws some love to “mothers that put up with us” as well as one of several shoutouts to junior Carter, Blue); friendship (Friends has Beyonce telling those who would slight them “my friends, real friends, better than your friends”); and solidarity or community, even if you have a “hundred million crib, three million watch”, as Jay-Z drops in the slow grooving, brass-enhanced Boss.
“We measure success by how many people successful next to you/Here we say you broke if everybody gets broke except you.” And you know damn well that anyone associated with the Carters – such as Australian jazz/hip hop band Hiatus Kaiyote, who have a song sampled on this album, the second time one of the Carters has tapped them – do pretty well.
Throughout all this, even with the sharp lines and the even sharper bite of the delivery (especially from Beyonce who now is a master of the spat-out correction), anger is channelled not just exploded. In Black Effect, with references to the falsely accused Kalief Browder and murdered Trayvon Martin, nods to Mos Def and Lebron James, and mixture of Malcolm X, clichés of black womanhood reclaimed and the chitlin circuit, the tension and fury is controlled and all the more pointed for it in a song that is halfway between gospel and throwdown.
Everything Is Love does not have the audacious range of Lemonade, or the singular focus that defined it and 4.44, but it is pretty damn good really as a state of play/state of the nation update masquerading as a song collection. It is also a further reminder that while Jay-Z does more than hold his end up, he is not the star of this package.
There does not appear to be a brake on Beyonce in this, her imperial phase. And that may just be the ultimate revenge.