How Beyoncé and Kanye Made Marriage Cool Again

Lemonade and The Life of Pablo showcase surprisingly conservative ideals about the seriousness and irreversibility of wedlock.

Matt Herring

In 2014, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian wed in Florence in an event that reportedly featured a “golden toilet tower” and seating assignments carved directly into an enormous marble table. A few months later, a reporter for GQ asked West why he had gotten married. “People think that I have the ability to make things cooler if I’m doing it,” the rapper said. “This stuff’s starting to be cool … Family is super cool. Going home to one girl every night is super cool.”

“Starting to be cool” was right: As the battle for gay marriage headed to the Supreme Court, the hidebound and battered institution was looking newly hip. Still, the notion that West might deploy his star power to champion monogamous matrimony was not obvious. Conservative critics, who have laid plenty of blame on pop celebrityhood for the decades-long slide of marriage rates, could be forgiven for pinching themselves. Their regular calls to “engage Hollywood in a conversation about popular culture ideas about marriage and family formation”—the National Marriage Project’s phrasing in 2012—have gone mostly unheeded. Certainly pop radio has ignored them. The airwaves are littered with odes to profligate hooking up and breaking up, many performed by West himself.

Yet this year something different happened. The Kardashian-Wests, along with their friends Beyoncé Knowles and Shawn Carter, a k a Jay Z, represent a new class of celebrity supermarriage, rooted in the business and art of memoir-making through rap, pop music, and reality TV. Their forte is selling their lives as aspirational myths, yet a close look at two of the most influential albums of 2016—by one spouse in each couple—reveals an unexpectedly complicated picture of imperfect yet committed monogamy. On Lemonade and The Life of Pablo, Beyoncé and Kanye give voice to the struggle of reconciling marriage with cultural forces and personal urges at odds with it—forces and urges both stars’ careers have until now often exemplified.

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Some of pop music’s bedrock stereotypes about sex and gender can be summed up in the dichotomy between Jay Z’s and Beyoncé’s defining hits, “Big Pimpin’ ” and “Single Ladies.” “I thug ’em, fuck ’em, love ’em, leave ’em,” he boasts. She flaunts her hotness, taunting the guy she wishes had “put a ring on it.” But in the years since the two stars started dating (sometime in the early 2000s), Jay Z’s lyrics have aimed to graft his previous playboy swagger onto a relationship—“I used to bag girls like Birkin bags / Now I bag B.” Beyoncé has all along tended to leverage her bombshell status into songs about being sexy for one man alone, as when she performed an erotic dance before an audience of just Jay Z in her video for “Partition.” In 2014, six years into their marriage, the two promoted their worldwide “On the Run” tour wearing ski masks and toting guns, extending a metaphor they had introduced more than a decade earlier in Jay Z’s song “ ’03 Bonnie and Clyde”: monogamy as outlaw chic.

Marketing the traditional as transgressive would seem an ideal tactic for the marriage-advocacy mission, but Beyoncé and Jay Z’s message had a ways to go to win over the missionaries. As recently as the 2013 release of Beyoncé’s self-titled album, she was portraying domestic bliss with enough pornographic gusto to offend the likes of Bill O’Reilly, who denounced her for encouraging out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Beyoncé’s routine also tapped into a more modulated complaint about Hollywood: Escapist pop just doesn’t lend itself to conveying, as Reihan Salam wrote in National Review, the “cultural knowledge that marriage can be both difficult (and disciplining) and satisfying.” The happily-ever-after glow, or glittering-prize aura, that crowns star unions like hers—and romantic comedies, and reality shows like The Bachelor—has a way of fueling fantasies no reality can live up to: not what a fragile institution needs.

But Beyoncé stunned audiences this year with a marital portrait that, while drawing on escapist conventions, made a point of subverting them. As the first few minutes of Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade unfolded on HBO one Saturday night in April, viewers took to social media to express shock: She seemed to be announcing her divorce. “Are you cheating on me?,” Beyoncé asks before she erupts in anger, smashing car windows with a baseball bat and later throwing her wedding ring at the camera. The music offers a taxonomy of breakup-song tropes: from glassy-eyed denial (“Hold up, they don’t love you like I love you” in the muted reggae of “Hold Up”) to hot rage (“Who the fuck do you think I am?” over Led Zeppelin samples in “Don’t Hurt Yourself”) to cold hauteur (as when she sneeringly identifies a presumed mistress as “Becky with the good hair” in the hypnotic “Sorry”). But as she vents, she seems to reevaluate the philosophy of romance implied by her previous public striving to be #flawless (the hashtag that went viral in the wake of her feminist anthem “Flawless”). All the shimmying and sweating to global domination doesn’t, it seems, make for marital serenity; loyalty cannot be ensured through perfection of the self alone. “Know that I kept it sexy, and know I kept it fun,” she sings. “There’s something that I’m missing.”

A breakup this is not: About 40 minutes into the film, Jay Z shows up to cuddle with Beyoncé in bed—a dramatic swerve, yet easy reconciliation is not at hand. The dreamy electronica of “Love Drought” describes the hard work of trying to move on with someone who has hurt you—“I know you’re trying / So I’m trying to be fair.” Later on, the queasy noise collage “Forward” features the British singer James Blake describing a tentative period of renewal—“Now we’re going to hold doors open for a while / Now we can be open for a while.” Romance finally reappears on the jaunty croon-along “All Night.” But even then Beyoncé’s promised affections are conditional on “some time to prove that I can trust you again.” These are songs about forgiveness not as a mystical ideal but as a practical goal, achieved by discipline, work, and a willingness to expose weakness.

But why forgive? The answers Beyoncé gives in song are near-tautologies: “Only way to go is up,” “a winner don’t quit on themselves,” “forward / forward … forward.” She clearly wants her listeners to believe she has made a conscious choice in staying with her husband. At the same time, she wants them to know that, on some level, there was only one right choice. The song “Sandcastles,” paired in the film with a child’s drawings, uses a mournful tone to counterintuitive effect: Beyoncé wails not about separation but about the inability to separate. Similarly, the title of the triumphant “Freedom” coincides not with the end of a union but with its reaffirmation. After she has sketched the range of her hurt so vividly in the first half of the album, it is hard to imagine this narrative of determined healing ringing true outside the context of marriage and children.

In lyrics alone, Lemonade might sound like a well-constructed but less-than-groundbreaking he-strays/she-stays narrative. The film brings a political charge to an old tale, interweaving the poetry of the London-raised Somali writer Warsan Shire, the words of Malcolm X, and scenes featuring former plantations and the faces of mothers who have lost children to police violence. Lemonade evokes the emotional side of the statistical truth that many black communities have been robbed of the stability and prosperity on which long-term monogamous relationships are most readily built. The film seems to suggest that Beyoncé’s husband mistreated her just like her father mistreated her mother—and other black men have mistreated other black women—because those men have not been made to feel worthy of love. The knowledge of shared female struggle seems to embolden Beyoncé to try to break the “curse,” and her solution is not a post-marriage vision of extended families raising children. Instead she advocates social progress (footage in Lemonade shows a black man talking about how President Obama inspired him to be a better father). And she endorses a personal recommitment to commitment (one part of her voice-over: “I ask him to look me in the eye when I come”—pause for a beat—“home”) in solidarity with a community.

For a male perspective, the year brought Kanye West’s latest release, The Life of Pablo, a jarring, unintentional companion. West has long played up exaggerated versions of some of the macho attitudes that Lemonade reacts to—fear of commitment, obsession with romantic conquest, brittle pride tied to material success. His first album’s first song, “We Don’t Care,” announced the racial lens through which his perennially outspoken persona should be interpreted: “We wasn’t supposed to make it past 25 / Joke’s on you, we still alive.” West’s career from there could be heard in part as a long rage against monogamy. His biggest hit, 2005’s “Gold Digger,” spins a cautionary tale about women who try to trap men in fatherhood. His seminal album, 808s & Heartbreak (2008), mourns a failed engagement, yet alongside the bachelor’s lament are complaints about girlfriends snooping through his phone. The acclaimed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy of 2010 and Yeezus three years later are filled with decadent odes to sexual freedom (“Hurry up with my damn ménage!”), though the latter finishes with a soul song about settling down with someone.

The Life of Pablo is the first album West has recorded since tying the knot with Kim Kardashian, another unconventional candidate to be a marriage icon. (A leaked sex tape kicked off her über-fame, and she filed divorce papers 72 days after her second wedding, to the NBA player Kris Humphries.) It is a manic, fragmented work that juxtaposes gospel sound with profane bragging. For every celebration of his new home life—“Superstar family / We the new Jacksons”—there are airings of strain, anxiety, and dread. Some of the angst is familiar to modern narratives of marriage and fatherhood: West invokes his parents’ divorce while worrying that his workaholism is taking a toll, and he angrily describes what he’d do if a coach were ever too harsh on his son. Some of it is classic breadwinner insecurity writ very large: “At this rate we gon’ both die broke,” he recalls his wife chiding in one song. (Just as Pablo was released, West tweeted about being $53 million in debt.)

But the issue at the core of Pablo is sex. The words which/one run across one version of the album cover, a backdrop to a classic wedding photo and a shot of a lewdly posed swimsuit model. On “Freestyle 4,” West sounds crazed while he narrates being at a party and imagining an orgy breaking out, and the baleful “FML” is all about striving for fidelity so as to not “fuck my life up.” In the pitch-black sonic sculpture “Wolves,” before vowing to protect his kids, he imagines himself and Kim as flagrantly nonvirginal versions of Joseph and Mary. The biblical reference, muddled in meaning though it may be, is typical: The album was originally going to be titled So Help Me God, and West often sounds as though he is turning to Christianity for the strength to live within the constraints of his marriage. If a mercenary subtext lurks in the piety, the fear of loss still goes deep: “God, I’m willing / To make this my mission / Give up the women / Before I lose half of what I own.”

For Beyoncé, too, struggle is what appears to define, and threaten, marriage—a struggle by the husband to adhere to the vow of exclusivity, which bequeaths a further struggle to both partners in the face of betrayal. Success requires, first, wanting to succeed—understanding that “Till death do us part” really is an ideal worth striving for and that “For better or for worse” can encompass some very bad things. But success also entails the effort to reach out beyond the self to something larger, not just community and religion but the well-being of children, who figure in both albums. Despite plenty of profanity and sex talk, these artists are modeling surprisingly conservative ideals about the seriousness and irreversibility of wedlock. They’re also proposing that culture can support attempts to live up to those ideals.

Economic realities, of course, can undercut any celebrity-studded summons to marital stability. As they navigate rocky partnerships, the rich and famous can count on cushions ordinary people don’t have. There’s a reason some sociologists say marriage, especially durable marriage, has become a “luxury good.” And who knows whether the narratives Kanye and Beyoncé spin are pure spectacle? Lemonade is powerful as memoir, but it is also, as the feminist writer and social activist bell hooks notes in her commentary on the album, “the business of capitalist money making at its best.” Pledging devotion to marriage may be cool right now, and the feat has propelled both artists in new directions. But time will provide the unequivocal proof of their commitment to the cause. The story of these supermarriages is suspenseful. The title of Beyoncé’s first album is more relevant than ever, and a thrilling warning to anyone who assumes marriage is staid: Dangerously in Love.