One wishes that Beyoncé would wreck a hotel room or drink herself under the table or drive a Rolls-Royce into a swimming pool, just so we had evidence that she is, at heart, immoderate and slightly wicked, like all the best pop stars are. But that seems unlikely. In 2016, she gave us Lemonade, setting her own troubled marriage against the history of American race relations. It was a brilliant audio-visual exploration of conflict that was conceived, composed and marketed – this being Beyoncé – with maximum deliberation and control.
There followed 4:44 (2017), an apology in the shape of an album from Jay-Z, Beyoncé’s cheating husband, and now, to complete the putative trilogy, Everything Is Love, released in June as a joint album from the still-married couple, who have billed themselves as The Carters. It’s their first full-length collaboration, though they have been recording together, semi-regularly, since “’03 Bonnie & Clyde”, a song that appeared on Jay-Z’s 2002 album The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse. Along the way they have posed as conspirators, lovers, rivals, best mates and, increasingly, as business partners.
Everything Is Love is clearly meant as a survey from the summit of pop domination, but in being so it’s also an apogee of indulgence, tedious despite lasting only 38 minutes, and lax notwithstanding the minimal arrangements that suit Beyoncé’s voice so well. Not since John Lennon and Yoko Ono released Double Fantasy (1980) has a pop couple, so preposterously famous and obscenely rich, given us such a self-satisfied performance of marriage – enthralling to them, maybe, but so remote from the rest of us as to feel useless, if not insulting. “It’s disturbing what I gross,” raps Jay-Z on “Boss”. No doubt it is. “My great-great-grandchildren already rich,” adds Beyoncé, a little later. “That’s a lot of brown chil’ren on your Forbes list.” Okay, but dynastic inheritance is hardly the same thing as economic justice, and we would be wise not to confuse the two, as Beyoncé and Jay-Z repeatedly do.
Everything Is Love is a defensive record (though no less pleased with itself for being so) from two people who, commercially speaking, have nothing left to prove, and whose chart success has tended, more and more, to make them immune from any criticism of their music. “If I gave two fucks, two fucks about streaming numbers / Would’ve put Lemonade up on Spotify,” raps Beyoncé on “Nice”, over a sour piano sample. Forgive me, Mrs Carter, but I suspect you do give two fucks, and several more, if you’re bothering to tell us this in a song. And what a dull, po-faced lyric. Everything Is Love gives the distinct impression that, rather than do anything fun with their time and money, the Carters spend the better part of each day reading through Google alerts on their own names and conferring with their stockbroker.
Nor are Beyoncé and Jay-Z currently alone in trying to pass off such scraps from the multimillionaires’ table as meaty pop statements. June also saw the Carters’ long-time frenemy Kanye West release a new album, titled – because of course it is – Ye. Mercifully, it’s even shorter than Everything Is Love: 23 minutes and change. It’s horribly bleak, because by any human measure West has had an awful time of it over the past year or so, including a psychiatric hospitalisation, and it’s also bleakly inert – this from an artist whose fire-starting productions have blazed an indelible path through the past two decades of pop music. (May and June also saw the release of no less than five other albums on which West has a producer’s or writer’s credit. The best of them, Kids See Ghosts, is a collaboration between West and Kid Cudi – it’s actually interesting.)
“I said slavery a choice, they said ‘How, Ye?’” West raps on “Wouldn’t Leave”, the midpoint of Ye. “Just imagine if they caught me on a wild day.” The arrangement, with guest vocals by PARTYNEXTDOOR, Jeremih and Ty Dolla $ign, is a syrupy approximation of West on an alright day. As for the lyric, it refers to a public-relations disaster that West visited upon himself in May, when, during a video interview with the entertainment website TMZ, and having already signalled his approval for Donald Trump, he went on to say the following: “When you hear about slavery for 400 years – for 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” Coming from anyone, such a statement could do nothing but distress and offend; coming from an African-American man who has been, in the past, one of pop’s most astute commentators on race, it was also confounding.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that fame, at the level Kanye West lives it, has caused West to lose his mind. The signs have been there for a decade, since 808s & Heartbreak (2008), though West’s previous two albums, The Life of Pablo (2016) and Yeezus (2013), were also powered by an energy as dazzling as it was disquieting. No one but West could have pulled off a song like “Ultralight Beam”, the opening track to The Life of Pablo: a 21st-century hymn so audacious, combative and beautiful that I hope to be listening to it when the Day of Judgement finally does arrive.
There’s nothing so transcendent on Ye, and no intimation of apocalypse beyond the lonely catastrophe of West’s own collapse. (“Sometimes I scare myself,” he sings on “Yikes”, his voice processed as usual, his self-estrangement becoming ever more permanent.) Abhorrent as his comments to TMZ were, I suspect that an earlier Kanye West would have found a way to push through the red zone of offence and into a space of confrontation where we, just as much as he, would be implicated. West has never, until lately, lacked the capacity to gather in all the worst assumptions about himself – that he is a lunatic, a megalomaniac, a cretin – and throw them back upon his audience, in songs that had him willing to face up to his appetite for cruelty, which meant, if you were listening, facing your own.
Only the queasy opener to Ye, “I Thought About Killing You” (yes, it’s that bald), enters into that space again. As for the rest, how little is at stake. On “Wouldn’t Leave”, West continues to describe the fallout from his slavery remarks: “Now I’m on fifty blogs, gettin’ fifty calls,” he raps. “My wife callin’, screamin’, say, ‘We ’bout to lose it all.’” You mean to say that’s it – a risk to the family fortune? A fall in projected quarterly earnings at West–Kardashian Ltd? (The wife in question is Kim Kardashian.) And we’re expected to care?
While the Carters front as if their own status were a moral virtue, West makes a travesty of history and then worries that it’ll eat into his profits. Either way, none of them has anything to offer on these albums that comes close to conveying the erotics of wealth – its attractiveness, its grotesquery, its power to turn us into the biggest worst versions of ourselves. The purpose of boastfully rich pop stars, surely, is for them to act out a fantasy of excess on behalf of the rest of us, who still have to work for a living. Popular music has always been a music for coping with work, or better yet, for escaping it, and that’s been true since the spirituals and field hollers of slavery. The founding connection between pop, black labour and capital has made hip-hop, in particular, compelling, conflicted and indispensable: a theatre of revenge by acquisition and triumph by riches, in which everyone knows already that money changes everything, and fixes nothing. But there’s no conspiracy on these albums for the listener to share in: no rebellion and no make-believe. When the Carters boast about their private jets and $3 million watches, you can be sure, as Jay-Z raps, that it’s “all facts”.
“Apeshit”, the lead single from Everything Is Love, doesn’t even sound fresh, lifted as it is from the trap template – abstemious bass synthesiser, pitter-patter hi-hats, Auto-Tuned vocals – already perfected in recent years by rappers including Future, Migos and Cardi B. (Offset and Quavo from Migos are credited as co-writers of “Apeshit” and both add vocals.) The weary sound of trap, its lack of any musical flourishes or peaks, has tended to work precisely against the opulence that its lyricists describe, rendering tracks like Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” (2016) or Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” (2017) diamond-cold panegyrics to the spiritual void of capital accumulation. But in the hands of the Carters, that sonic style only reinforces the dull, unchanging literalness of their material success. “Put some respec’ on my cheque,” raps Beyoncé, “or pay me in equity.” Coming next to a playlist near you: the hit song “Stock Option”.
At least the film clip for “Apeshit” is mildly provocative. Shot in the Louvre, it shows Beyoncé, Jay-Z and a cast of black dancers arranged in various tableaux, in front of artworks including the Winged Victory of Samothrace and Géricault’s 1818 canvas The Raft of the Medusa. The Méduse, as it was, was en route to Senegal, colonially occupied by the French, when it sank in 1816, occasioning Géricault’s painting. The history of Western art is also a history of colonial exploitation, and black people have been part of that history all along, even, or especially, when they’ve not been pictured, which lends a certain sting to Bey and Jay’s visual iconography. If only the song itself weren’t so damn solipsistic. “Call my girls and put ’em all on a spaceship,” Beyoncé sings, in the one line that reaches outwards, from the self and from the present, the melody taking off from an otherwise fixed grid, towards a history of freedom that could have been and is also yet to come. No one’s getting there on the Carters’ private charter.
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription