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Highsnobiety

3.5/5.0

Three things in life are inevitable: death, taxes, and the uncontainable hysteria that stems from Beyoncé or JAY-Z releasing new music. The pair have a rare talent for absconding the traditional promo schedule and dropping new music out of the blue, leading everybody to frantically try and remember their Tidal login details for the first time since, well, either of its two founders last released new material.

It’s strange to think that it’s been two years since the contemporary classic Lemonade dropped, creating a new touchstone in black culture and causing the pop star’s fans to furiously decode who the infamous ‘Becky with the Good Hair’ could’ve been. A year later, and Jay had given us the apologetic and emotionally raw 4:44. It too received widespread critical acclaim, and gained him a cool eight Grammy nods, though he notoriously walked away with none.

Another year, another entry into the king and queen of modern music’s already burgeoning catalog. This time, the pair have linked up to create their first full-length record as a duo. Titled EVERYTHING IS LOVE and released under the moniker ‘The Carters,’ their surprise, rap-focused release is a brash, sometimes brilliant record that feels like the most grandiose kind of marriage therapy money could buy.

The record opens with some woozy and orchestral R&B in the form of “SUMMER,” Beyoncé’s smooth and sweet vocals – “I want to drown in the death of you,” she coos to Jay – dripping over every note like treacle. It finds the popstar in a familiar territory; sonically, not far off Lemonade cuts like “All Night,” but it’s an easy number to segue into the album’s first, more rap-led single.

“APESHIT,” the duo’s descent into unabashed, contemporary hip-hop is pretty much flaw-free. “Put some respeck’ on my check,” Beyonce spits, before bragging about buying Jay a jet and shutting down Colette over a skittish, busy beat, while Jay’s rhymes make reference to his own perspective on the ‘failures’ the media have aligned him with. Once, for his refusal to play the Superbowl (“Every night we in the endzone, tell the NFL we in stadiums too”), and again for his Grammys snub (“Fuck that 0 for 8 shit”). Those hearing tinges of Migos aren’t mistaken, either. While Pharrell headed up the production and songwriting, the brief ticks of Quavo and Offset are peppered throughout it too, and it sets us up for that ‘fuck you’ attitude that shapes the rest of the record.

Artists using their airtime to gloat about materialism is often dismissed as a lazy, overdone hip-hop trope that we’ve heard enough of, but maybe that’s because the level of wealth most rappers are talking about doesn’t hold a candle to the Carter-Knowles family and their singular success. To hear a hip-hop artist rap about jewels and Lamborghinis six months after breaking the big time isn’t interesting to us; Bey and Jay’s trailblazing success, two decades in the making, is the blueprint artists of our time are following. We want to know how they spend their cash.

That outlook appears among the poppier touches of “NICE,” another Pharrell-produced track that seems to embody everything this record is about in the most succinct and impactful way. Pharrell and Beyoncé’s hook, “I can do anythiiiing!” is spliced with yells of “Hell nah!” – something that could be construed as the barriers placed upon black artistry in America. But if anybody can rise above it, The Carters can. Later, Bey brags about her heavenly ability to reject the streaming route with her stuff, rapping “If I gave two fucks about streaming numbers / Would have put Lemonade up on Spotify!”.

There’s a more classic kind of hip-hop in the clashing piano chords of “713,” where Jay’s given the chance to take center stage, while “FRIENDS” sees The Carters take a break from the narcissism to deliver one of the best, most brooding things the duo have done in ages. Taking stabs at the Jenners for their controversial T-shirt line featuring Tupac’s face and alluding to his role in the freeing of Meek Mill, the track is the closest we get to vintage Jay in a record where Beyoncé seems to preside over all.

That’s what’s always fascinating about the musical dynamic between Beyoncé and JAY-Z on record: how much of a hype-man Jay seems when standing next to his wife. Sure, he’s still producing gigantic and consistent work his fans and critics adore, but Beyoncé’s seemingly endless growth creatively makes her ascent seem unstoppable. Whenever her voice crops up on EVERYTHING IS LOVE, she commands attention. She’s never been – and never will be – somebody’s support act, and her transformation from pop juggernaut to rap queen is undoubtedly the most intriguing element of this record.

We know by now that even Jay and Bey in a minor key is a magnum opus for any other artist. This isn’t necessarily the strongest entry into either artist’s work, but it still feels strangely untouchable; an imperfect, if still impressive work of art, as its cover and “APESHIT”’s video – shot in the Louvre – suggests. If Lemonade was Beyoncé’s ode to black identity, and 4:44 Jay’s apology letter to his wife, EVERYTHING IS LOVE acts as the couple’s musical reconciliation. It’s built on the kind of shameless and unnecessary flexing of wealth most artists couldn’t get away with, but this pair isn’t ‘most artists.’

Dwelling on their crazy spending habits belies something greater. This record, as slight it may seem on the surface, is a reminder that in an era of bigotry, right-wing politics, and senseless police brutality, the masters of modern pop culture are two people of color from humble American backgrounds, and the masses are eating out of the palms of their hands. EVERYTHING IS LOVE is a monumental ode to the power of the hustle, and that alone can carry it when it delves into musically unremarkable territory.

Nowadays, the couple with pop culture’s most jaw-dropping bank balances don’t need to prove anything to anyone – except, perhaps, to each other. The fact that this comes off the back of modern music’s most blockbuster back and forth, with the couple airing their deepest marital secrets on an astoundingly public platform, makes us think this is a mere palate cleanser for the inevitable earth-shifter they have under their belt.

Rumor has it, Bey and Jay were putting the finishing touches on this record just three hours before it dropped, while the video for “APESHIT” came together in the days before the ‘On the Run II’ tour debuted in Wales. For two artists known for their meticulous, long-lead planning, culminating in explosive projects paired with music videos, EVERYTHING IS LOVE feels like a rushed release, albeit one with more heft than plenty of hip-hop records we’ve heard this year. We reckon whatever’s next might truly knock us out, and The Carters will be back on flawless form.

The Carters’ ‘EVERYTHING IS LOVE’ is available to buy or stream. For more of our album reviews, head here.

Words by Douglas Greenwood
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