Critic's Notebook: Beyonce and Jay-Z Unleash Fierce Melodramatic Fireworks at Rose Bowl

Courtesy of Parkwood Entertainment
Beyonce and Jay-Z

The sold-out show provided first-rate theatrics and a coherent narrative, even if — as has come to be expected — Beyonce stole much of Jay’s thunder.

On Saturday night, Beyonce and Jay-Z rocked the Rose Bowl for one of two sold-out shows on the last leg of their summer make-up tour, On the Run II. Tickets to the concerts were not cheap, of course, but the crowd got its money’s worth. The level of spectacle and production value was top-shelf, and the narrative arc they built throughout the program was largely successful, even if hampered in parts by too much Jay and an overscripted feeling to all the beats. But it was a crowd-pleasing smorgasbord nonetheless.

The crisp first evening of fall under a near-full moon was a perfect backdrop for camp and melodrama of the highest order that felt like it could be a permanent fixture on the Las Vegas strip. Earlier in the week, Beyonce had formally been accused of witchcraft by an ex-drummer, and the witchy vibes were in full effect (perhaps made even more pronounced by the nearby occult landmark Devil’s Gate Dam?) as Bey assumed the role of spiritual guide for the evening. An anecdotal appraisal suggested fans of Bey’s heavily outnumbered those of her husband, as the grounds were filled with Beyhive members dressed in her signature mustard or in black athleisure, as if Pasadena had been overtaken by goth gym rats for the weekend.

Sisters Chloe x Halle opened the evening with their vocal gymnastics rooted in Destiny’s Child. DJ Khaled — the world’s least impressive bar mitzvah DJ and the night’s second act — however, was largely unnecessary and didn’t seem to fit the vibe. His “djing” (hitting play for 12 seconds from a preset mix) is cartoonishly bad and redeemed entirely by the talents of others, in this case cameos by Nipsey Hussle, Big Sean, coco-loving O.T. Genasis and fellow dad rapper Busta Rhymes with hype man hall of famer Spliff Star. His goofy buffoonery felt misplaced in an evening that was more successful when it was playing emotional chords rather than party-rocking.

And then, finally, the piece de resistance: a several-hour, several-dozen-song setlist with numerous wardrobe changes, interstitial films, dance numbers, set pieces and pyro all built in service to tell their story of relationship redemption after a disastrous patch — like some sort of Sonny & Cher variety show for the '00s. Along the way, they played the hits of their individual and dual catalogs, everything you’d expect from “‘03 Bonnie & Clyde” to cuts from Lemonade, Watch the Throne and their Everything is Love album from earlier this summer.

In between, they hit on a variety of styles from reggaeton to reggae, gospel to rap, Ashford & Simpson-esque R&B vibes to funk and jammier Prince-like moments. There was even a prerecorded children’s chorus moment (which truly signifies one has made it to the double-album phase of their career).

The whole set (which didn’t include an intermission) felt like a struggle session for Jay-Z, a way for him to publicly atone for cheating on his wife, and concluded with a sort of understanding and redemption for their family. In that sense, it was like going to a couple’s second wedding or renewal of vows. Their last album already felt like couples therapy. And this tour feels like watching some sort of true-life version of A Star Is Born — where Beyonce, the younger artist, eclipses her older famous lover. There’s a section at the end of the set where you’re literally watching old Carter family home movies. Their whole blurring of public and private life, for a couple once so famously guarded, felt intimate but also bizarre at points, like something out of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

It was like watching a well-oiled theater company roll in late in a run with everything firing on all cylinders, the most impressive element probably being the dancing and choreography. The filmic elements — de rigueur for productions of this scale — felt Godardian or even Bergmanesque in patches, which was a bit silly but on-brand for Beyonce’s aesthetics of curation. The whole program was akin to an animated Pinterest board — perhaps slightly overstyled but effective and polished nonetheless.

The dramatic peak of the night came late as Beyonce cut into the heart of things, sitting down at the end of the catwalk to ask, “Where are all of my beautiful queens? Have you ever been lied to?” before reaching catharsis on “Resentment.”

The show, however, was light on spontaneity, in classic Beyonce fashion. The interplay with the crowd felt generic and robotic. Jay and Bey could have used more moments of banter between them or with the crowd, which would have helped make the show feel a little more intimate and genuine.

It must be grueling to work on any Beyonce production, but this one — where every show, the couple has to relive every peak and valley of their turbulent relationship history — has got to be truly exhausting for the headliners. Who would want to re-examine their dysfunctions and imperfections night after night in this sort of public, intensive manner? (A masochist. Or perhaps someone who’s in the dog house indefinitely.)

The concert did have its saggier moments in the second half and could have cut four or five Jay-Z-centric moments (or as someone in the crowd said, “More Bey, less Jay!”). Wearing a bulletproof vest, Jay-Z performed “99 Problems,” which felt misplaced, as did “Big Pimpin’” (and who wants to hear “Big Pimpin’” without UGK, anyway?).

They closed the evening with “Apeshit,” which — sure, you gotta play the big hit off the new album, but… — felt like a strange note to end on and not one that was as emotionally resonant as it could have been. Niggling aside, the ambitious night surely pleased fans of both Carters, but proved what we already know: She’s superhuman; he’s a mere mortal.