Critic's Notebook: Beyonce Makes Jay-Z Better on Surprise Couples-Therapy Album 'Everything Is Love'

Beyonce and Jay-Z 'On the Run II' Tour Opener - Getty - H 2018
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images For Parkwood Entertainment

The surprise collaboration is a crisply produced, sometimes fun, flawlessly calculated and occasionally tone-deaf celebration of the power couple's extravagant wealth and romance.

Jay-Z and Beyonce are that couple you know that's broken up more times than you can remember. The last time was messy, but now they're stronger than ever. At least that's what they want you to take away from their new surprise collaborative album, Everything Is Love, which dropped Saturday afternoon in peak 2018 form. 

What they think you think about their relationship is just as important as the substance of the relationship itself, and this is a lavish commercial for happiness (and a Tidal subscription): a Christmas card in aural form to showcase the domestic lifestyle of America's most famous musical couple. 

Everything Is Love finds the billionaire duo distilling the essence of their archetypal relationship in a set of duets that feels intended as a statement — though what that statement is still feels a little murky. 

Like most supergroup projects, the collaboration rarely transcends the sum of its parts. But the record will likely please fans of each: Jay fans will be happy to discover him not in full-on embarrassing dad rapper mode, and the hive will get more of the Afrocentric, overtly political Beyonce who has emerged in the last few years — the one we know from Lemonade

This is clearest in the video for "APESHIT" — the song that likely will get the most club rotation and feels like it belongs on a different record — where the couple seizes the Louvre, bastion of white colonial art history. The video is a criticism of the lack of inclusion of people of color in Western art history, which is certainly valid and worth underscoring. It also nods to racial justice figures like Colin Kaepernick.

But like much of her and Jay's work, the "APESHIT" video feels above all like a celebration of obscene wealth and lifestyle porn, which overshadows issues of identity and the carceral state and ultimately doesn't really pose any truly challenging questions outside of, "What's better than one billionaire?" There are more interesting matters that might have been explored. For example, instead of who can acquire the most wealth, what if there were no billionaires? Or how does private wealth accumulation contribute to racial profiling? 

For Beyonce, the gesture or the theatricality of staging supersedes the political. In May, she stunned the daisy-crowned hordes at Coachella with a set that was hailed as an instant classic for its scale and ambition. But perhaps the most puzzling and underwhelming moment of that performance was when she revealed Jay as her surprise guest, which garnered a collective "meh" even from her base.

This new album feels in many ways like a response to that moment, as if Beyonce and Jay-Z wanted to prove that the two of them as a couple is as engaging — or more so — than each of them as a discrete unit. The project is their effort to posit Jayonce, and their entire family, as the ultimate brand and the true American success story. 

It's also the audio equivalent of the couple renewing their wedding vows and telling you that their last breakup was their last breakup, and that they're in this for keeps. But is that an interesting enough conceit to hang an entire album on? 

The record itself — following a lot of recent high-profile rap projects — is pretty lean for an idea that could have easily swelled into a double album. There are only nine tracks here, and they're mostly down-tempo tunes for cruising or parties in the park and less so for the dance floor. "SUMMER" is a languid, woozy opener where Beyonce croons "Let's make love in the summertime" on a beach, which is probably something Bey would never do, but a nice sentiment nonetheless.

"BOSS" is a bizarre song and probably the most tone-deaf of the lot thematically. It casts two of the richest people in music rattling off how stupidly wealthy they are. "My great-grandchildren are already rich" is a weird boasting point when the majority of Americans are living in debt. "Pride always goeth before the fall almost certainly," raps Jay, suggesting that maybe he's aware of his most dangerous trait. (That self-awareness is called into doubt on "Black Effect" when Jay compares himself to Malcolm X, which is kind of like Elon Musk calling himself Karl Marx.)

"Nice," on the other hand, is Jay at his most effective and resembles him as a younger MC. The song also bolsters the argument that Beyonce brings out the best in Jay and that he needs her way more than she needs him; she shows off a sharp sense of humor as she chirps, "My success can't be quantified," before a nod to Scarface in Half Baked with the classic "fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, you're cool, I'm out." We could probably use more secretly weird Bey. 

"713" feels most like classic Jay, a flip of "Still D.R.E." "Friends" is, like most of the tracks here, absolutely fine, if a bit flat. The record's coda is "LOVEHAPPY," probably the strongest track of the bunch and one that may have been even better as the opener. 

The production is crisp and basically like anything else you've heard in the past three years on the radio, which isn't to say it's bad. Indeed, while everything here is fine and very 2018, this feels neither classic nor like a miss. But it fits squarely into that "music for weddings and family BBQs" category.

There's nothing revolutionary or indispensable on Everything Is Love, but in proper Beyonce form, it's flawlessly calculated, released mere days before the official start of summer and timed to make Bey and Jay seem relatively stable in comparison to many of the other exploding stars in their exclusive public strata. The cynical reading is that this is the ultimate commodification of a relationship, or love as product. After all, they're crossing romance and commerce in a way that hasn't historically worked out too well for people this wealthy or this famous. 

The optimistic reading is that this couple weathering the storm of a turbulent relationship is a story of hope. It's a nice fantasy for all of us normals living in the hell-world: a window into what it's like to be rich and in love. Most of us would kill for either, let alone both. 

Who knows? Maybe they're going to make it after all.