The New Beyoncé and Jay-Z album: I Don't Like It
I don't like the new Beyoncé and Jay-Z album. It sort of sounds like a synchronized yawn from a pair of jaded billionaires; like two aristocrats rubbing my pug nose in a Persian rug; like the kind of album that Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI would have made—if they had survived the Revolution to dance atop the graves of their peasant enemies* (royalist French trap sound like the wave).
The debacle opens with SUMMER. A song about the beach, the beach and love. It's deceptive and cruelly so; listening, one is tricked into thinking that the beach in question is a public beach, a democratic beach, where one may stand waist-deep in the brilliant surf and kiss the cheek of one's middle-class sweetheart (partaking in the titular love fest)—a few dolphin-beaks away from the two luminaries. But then there's talk of Lamborghinis, skin rugs and Concept watches, followed by the slow, sinking realization that this is a private beach—in Bel Air—and that one is, in all likelihood, an unwitting intruder soon to be hauled off by seashore security.
(Hasselhoff escorts the interloper off the sand.)
Song two is the lead single: APESHIT, where the facade comes raining down—and unapologetically so. There's more talk of Lamborghinis. Equity. Expensive fabrics and expensive habits. Icy ornaments and icy tournaments (whatever that means). Beyoncé's verse reads like a nursery rhyme for privileged white kids, while Jay-Z employs animal metaphors to pander to his brutish audience, ostensibly patronizing me, the poor, naked ape, who possesses neither the means nor the good sense to cover his pale husk with Chinchilla fur.
Then there's BOSS: a masturbatory ode to The Carter's themselves, disguised, perhaps, as a theme song for the upwardly mobile middle-class consumer (I suppose). Beyoncé makes reference to having real problems, "just like me," and while my life, on a global spectrum, is relatively good—I still spend eight hours a day standing at a desk because my back hurts, and recently booked a preemptive appointment with an optometrist because I think my eyes are falling out. I'm not entirely convinced that "balling-on-these-bum-whores" Beyoncé can relate to my struggles—and then, just as the cut of being called a "bum whore" stops smarting, Jay-Z comes along to sprinkle salt in the wound: "You're not a boss, you have a boss," he quips, and he's not wrong, however, his verity certainly makes for a strange species of art: the kind that functions as a persistent reminder of one's humble station in life; it's neither universal nor unifying (traits that I admire in art), but instead rather exclusionary and alienating.
But maybe they're not addressing me. Maybe it has nothing to do with me; after all, why would they care for some anonymous Icelander with a lifelong affinity with rap music (it's difficult, however, to differentiate when the operative pronoun is the indefinite "you"). Maybe the Carters conceived of EVERYTHING IS LOVE as retribution in record-form: as their way of thumbing their noses at racist American white folk. Maybe the whole thing is a nine-song middle finger to historical oppression, to explicit and implicit racism—an ode to a rare feeling of black triumph against all of America's violent odds. I can understand that, and there's some evidence for it on NICE. "Time to remind me that I'm black again / All this talking back: I'm too arrogant," Jay-Z raps.
NICE is followed by 713 (a reference to Houston, Beyoncé's home town) and although the song opens with more gratuitous extravagance ("Cash, hit deposit, 24-karat faucets / Louis V and Goyard trunks all in the closet") it gets better. In fact I'm convinced that 713 is the best track on the album. On it, Jay-Z recounts his lengthy, stammering courtship of Beyoncé, and here the thoughtful listener—like an intergalactic space probe registering a combination of hydrogen and oxygen—discovers the first signs of life, of humanity, for most listeners will be able to relate to Jay-Z's familiar romantic missteps: the folly of bringing a friend, a useless third wheel, to a first date; the difficulties of opening up emotionally; the fear of perceived weakness:
"My first time in the ocean went exactly like you'd expect / meanwhile you going hard, jumping off the top deck:" a poignant reference to Jay-Z's aquaphobia, juxtaposed with Beyoncé's oceanic intrepidity.
The next three songs are FRIENDS: yet another I'm-better-than-you affair, where Beyoncé boasts that her companions are "better than (my) companions," a claim substantiated by their habit of emerging from Benz vehicles, for apparently friendship is to be measured by a German metric (it's not a bad song, not entirely). Then there's HEARD ABOUT US, the most breezy track on the album—a jaunty re-affirmation of the power couple's stature and celebrity: "No need to ask, you heard about us," is the song's slogan. There's talk of "laughing all the way to the bank," "Aruba in the middle of the winter," "Shooting videos in the Louvre:" the kind of thing that makes a person with modest means dream of the guillotine (speaking of France). Then there's THE BLACK EFFECT, the album's penultimate track, which is about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. but also Lexus-es and necklaces.
I'm not sure that I get it.
All of this brings us to LOVEHAPPY: a candid recapitulation of the pair's past struggles, over a nice beat. There's talk of change and improvement and forgiveness—admirable ideals, most certainly—but there's also the occasional reference to "custom dresses," "designer suits," and "Alaia boots." Why is it that every lyric sounds as if it's been scribbled between items on a luxury shopping list? Jay-Z raps: "Fake news / y'all choose / we no lie: No photoshop / just real life." But only if there was some substance below the presumed removed filter.
The thoughtful reader may remark, of course, that I am biased—and she is right; as a journalist and a writer, I tend to hone in on the words, the ideas, the message: if they don't hold up, I'm afraid that the entire musical edifice comes tumbling down. Also, perhaps it's unfair of me, to write out the lyrics without the music for even Bob Dylan sounds ridiculous when his words are separated from their melody. However, the album doesn't exactly impress musically. Having spent a considerable time listening to Ye, Daytona and Kids See Ghosts, EVERYTHING IS LOVE a bit of a letdown, and although Jay-Z remains one of the great rappers of our time—perhaps of all time—his shtick, that of the hustler-turned-millionaire, grows increasingly stale. Likewise, Beyoncé, stooping to imitate the style and exaggerated bravado of modern mumble rappers, comes across as gimmicky.
I may be biased, but I refuse to believe that with everything that's going in the world—the presidency of Donald Trump, the threat of nuclear war, Climate Change, inequality, technological oblivion, the grand injustice that is the American prison system—that two consummate artists intimately familiar with struggle and hardship can do no better than EVERYTHING IS LOVE; the whole album is a mess.
It sounds like two aging capitalists affirming the status quo—in poor verse.
*The Carters, unlike their imagined counterparts, did not come from privilege, and though the comparison may seem crude, it's hard not to feel like much of the album stems from the same blind vanity.