Marriage may be a traditional institution, but the Carters present it almost as a weapon of revolution, allowing them to strike out against other institutions—first among them racism and its pernicious symptom, black poverty. In the high-concept-yet-visceral “Apeshit” video, the couple critique the overwhelming whiteness of the holdings at the Louvre—the actual Louvre—with a troupe of black dancers. And amid the wafting reggae of the opener “Summer,” the first of the aforementioned throat-tightening moments arrives when Jay-Z’s mind wanders from his present reality of sex on a plushly appointed beach to the gunfire that rang out in the projects where he grew up. Today, by contrast, “it’s not lost on me, music has my kids sound asleep.”
The notion that a flourishing career can mean a safer home deepens even the pettier score-settling on the album. Within the entertainment industry, the Carters have steadily tried to build their own fiefdom to compete with the old order established by white men. On the lyrical diss list are the Grammys (which invites black stars for ratings while denying them the biggest prizes) and the Super Bowl (Jay-Z says he declined a halftime gig, and in light of the NFL’s anti-protest policy, he doesn’t have to elaborate on his contempt). The album arrives exclusively on Jay-Z’s streaming service, Tidal, and though that company hasn’t enjoyed much positive buzz, it’s clear that any hope for success it does have rests on the combined draw of the Carters. “If I gave … two fucks about streaming numbers / Would have put Lemonade up on Spotify,” Beyoncé spits. Jay-Z vents about peers who’d “rather work for the man than to work with me,” likely referring to Apple partisans such as Drake.
The emphasis on it taking two people—two superstars, no less—to thrive in both their public and home lives may be read as a subtle sociopolitical stance in the face of rising single-parenthood across America (and in light of how much scrutiny gets placed on the black family in particular). Elsewhere in hip-hop, arguments about domestic obligations are playing out in intra-rapper beef: It’s hard not to think about the accusation that Drake is “hiding a child” when Jay-Z now raps about a supposedly spurious paternity suit (“Billie Jean in his prime / For the thousandth time, the kid ain’t mine”). But the Carters here don’t make any out-and-out statements about the right way to maintain a family. They only describe, in various ways, that they feel stronger together—and that they have decided, even after personal betrayals, “the ups and downs are worth it.”
Indeed, there’s an air of bets-hedging about the album. Beyoncé’s recent work electrified audiences with an expansive, experimental sensibility that has, alas, been squelched for Everything Is Love. To be sure, it’s still high-quality stuff: “Boss” boasts a subtly tricky interplay of grinding rhythm and defiant horns, and “Heard About Us” mixes uptempo shuffle with downtempo pensiveness nicely. Generally, though, the songs aim to please crowds with sharp executions of familiar pop-rap sounds, lacking the hairpin turns of Lemonade or Beyoncé. “Apeshit,” for example, drives with intensity but little novelty, echoing the cadence of recent hits and chasing currency with ad libs from members of Migos. Even the weirdest song—the gravity-free “713”—interpolates a famous chorus Jay-Z wrote for Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.