Jay-Z and Beyoncé find their way to each other at the water’s edge.
On Beyoncé’s last surprise record, the landmark 2013 self-titled visual album awash in references to her husband, the two are “Drunk in Love” by the third track. She writhes in the sand while singing about her now-famous “surfbordt”; he joins her for his verse, rapping away from both the camera and his companion. In Lemonade, Beyoncé’s lush 2016 opus, Jay-Z isn’t pictured until “Sandcastles,” the saccharine (and oft-maligned) ode to forgiveness.
“Baptize me now that reconciliation is possible,” the singer breathes as the camera pans out over women standing in water with hands clasped and arms raised toward the sky, then reveals her lying with an arm outstretched into the water. “If we’re gonna heal, let it be glorious.” Nearly three minutes later, Jay-Z’s disembodied hands reach out toward Beyoncé’s face and shoulders. Gradually, more of him appears; the camera zooms in on Jay caressing her ankles, Bey gingerly palming the back of his head or kissing him on the cheek. “I know I promised that I couldn’t stay,” she sings forcefully, before ending the song with the premise that has come to define their marriage: “Every promise don’t work out that way.” Even as Lemonade disinters the pain wrought by Jay-Z’s infidelity, Beyoncé yokes her fate to his. She works through anger with an eye toward empathy, suturing her own wounds with the promise of Jay’s healing.
Two years, one celebrated (if also maudlin) atonement album, and half a joint tour later, the first track of the Carters’ new collaborative album finds the couple once again submerged in the profitable abyss of their own love. “Summer,” the sultry opener, begins with a quick reggae horn–inflected intro from producers Cool & Dre, then quickly pivots to Beyoncé singing amorously about her husband: “Let’s make love in the summertime, yeah / On the sands, beach sands, make plans / To be in each other’s arms, yeah.” He hypes her up as she sings (“Let it breathe, let it breathe”), then proceeds to rap lazily about watches and how Bey tastes (“like Corona Light / Sweet, even the lime gotta squeeze”). These are hardly Jay’s most profound bars, but the song’s outro presents a thesis for the entire project: “Love is universal / Love is going to express itself as a form of forgiveness and compassion for each other.” Bey and Jay are now a few years—and one set of twins—removed from the tumult of Lemonade, and this new project is a testament to the commercial (if not artistic) power of their reconciliation.
After years of teasing its existence, Beyoncé and Jay-Z dropped the joint album Saturday, during the London stop of their “On the Run II” tour. The duo surprised their fans by premiering a new video for a joint track titled “Apeshit” and releasing the entire album immediately thereafter. Conspicuously titled Everything Is Love, the nine-track project comprises the third installment in the de facto trilogy of their marriage-inspired records. Everything Is Love employs breezy, trap-adjacent production to suggest that the chaos and confusion of Lemonade and 4:44 have been calmed.
From its opening track, the album presents love as an unassailable pursuit, a salve for any transgression imaginable. (It also provided welcome distraction from the release of the previous day, Nas’s evasive Nasir, the rapper’s first project since his 2012 post-divorce confessional Life Is Good, which comes less than two months after ex-wife Kelis recounted details of his alleged abuse.) Everything Is Love doesn’t make the case for forgiveness so much as it assumes the inevitability of Jay-Z’s public redemption. Listeners are reminded repeatedly that Beyoncé has forgiven Jay-Z for his indiscretions, that they are Blue and Rumi and Sir’s adoring parents as much as they are each other’s lovers. Everything Is Love, much more than even the second “On the Run” tour during which it was first shared, assumes that the Beyhive has either already welcomed Jay back into its graces or will do so swiftly.
But Jay has done little to reenter skeptics’ good graces beyond releasing an album on which he, a middle-aged man, admits that he was once less mature than the wife 12 years his junior. Of course Jay doesn’t need to invite fans to sit alongside him on a therapist’s couch, but it’s not unreasonable to wonder what has changed. Does going platinum strengthen the soul of an apology? Fan responses have varied. Tour footage of Bey and Jay lying in bed naked was swiftly mocked on Twitter; any time Bey has posted a photo in which Jay appears to be aging, commenters have been quick to suggest that his comparatively haggard look is the direct result of his philandering. Memes about refusing to forgive Jay-Z continue to circulate even as “On The Run” presumably racks up sizable profits for both spouses. Some of the Hive has gotten back on board, but it’s clear that Everything Is Love still has a lot of work to do on the Carters’ behalf.
As a musical offering, the album is solidly adequate. It’s neither so mind-blowing as to be entered into either artists’ canon, nor is it nearly as ill-conceived as “Lift Off,” the Beyoncé-assisted track from Jay’s joint album with Kanye West. The “Apeshit” video is luxe and fun to watch, inverting the gaze of white artistic institutions (though notably not going so far as to convey that the institutions’ very existence is a vestige of colonialism). The Carters are nothing if not studied, and “Apeshit” is an artistic flex. Like much of both artists’ recent work, the album makes liberal use of liberation aesthetics, often juxtaposed directly with riffs on bourgeois pursuits. Young men kneel in the museum, mirroring the historic national-anthem protest spurred by Colin Kaepernick; Beyoncé and her dancers body roll in unison with The Coronation of Napoleon as their backdrop.
The cumulative effect is muddied, a sometimes unsavory though not unstrategic comingling. The thematic dissonance is paralleled by the choices in production, too: Bey raps over trap-lite beats while quite literally standing in the Louvre, an artistic statement that could read as either reclamation or capitulation, depending on its audience. “Boss,” “Nice,” and “Heard About Us” are medleys of capitalist braggadocio. They’re neither unpleasant nor revelatory. Beyoncé has long been a proficient, if also reluctant, rapper. If she was always going to release a rap album, it’s perhaps disappointing that her most extensive foray into the genre is weighed down by the lackluster bars of the rapper she married.
Mostly, though, Everything Is Love confounds because of its central goal: the assertion that a record, any record, could do the work of convincing fans that the Carters’ union is stronger now than it was before Jay undermined their vows. “Happily in love,” Beyoncé sings in the opening line of the album’s heavy-handed final track, “Lovehappy.” Jay-Z chimes in immediately after: “Haters please forgive me.” Of course, Beyoncé is entitled to forgive her husband; marriage is a thorny, difficult endeavor. The Carters’ family business, though, has long crossed into the public sphere; Beyoncé trotting her husband out for a redemption tour is not simply a private burying of grievances, but also a public statement, a literal performance of absolution wrought through female suffering. The album’s most frustrating track, “713,” ends with Jay celebrating Bey—and the myriad other black women like her—by praising her ability to endure his misdeeds:
To all the good girls that love hustlers
To the mothers that put up with us
To all the babies that suffered ‘cause us
We only know love because of ya
America is a motherfucka to us, lock us up, shoot us
Shoot our self-esteem down, we don’t deserve true love
Black queen, you rescued us, you rescued us, rescued us
The dedication scans as adulatory at first, especially because Bey spends her parts of the song reminding listeners “ain’t no way to stop this love.” But the suggestion that there is honor in suffering, that women’s pain is the sole vehicle for male redemption, is exhausting. Who rescues the rescuer? In the circus of Jay’s public redemption tour, has Beyoncé found solace? It’s hard for any outside onlooker to know. There are, of course, straightforward commercial reasons why Beyoncé might want her fans to exonerate Jay. What’s better for the Carter estate(s) than two billionaires? Continuing to tour and produce music together, even as Jay has passed his prime rapping years, is a tremendously lucrative endeavor. Each single, album, and tour further line the partners’ pockets.
But fandom, like love, is not an easily manipulated algorithm. For even casual fans, investment in artists can breed entitlement over the facts and failures of their lives. Celebrity is a hallowed but haunting domain, and Beyoncé’s fans are not alone in their acute attachment to—and ardent defense of—an artist of outsize cultural importance. Learning to embrace a duplicitous partner again isn’t a linear process; it ebbs and flows, even if that partner is not one’s own. Bey and Jay may have baptized themselves in the waters of her forgiveness, but fans may not be ready to leave the shore.