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.