By Courtney E. Smith
The holy matrimonial “On The Run” tour of Jay Z and Beyoncé came to MetLife Stadium in New Jersey on Friday night (July 11), which is as close to home as Papa Carter will get to his Brooklyn. Of course, most of the crowd hailed from his home city had migrated across the Hudson to see the spectacular.
No doubt there were men attending this show, but the train from Penn Station to the Meadowlands complex I rode was packed with women, mostly aged 21-35, in cotton dresses or rompers carrying clutches. Their conversations with each other were peppered with lyrics — references to Yonce and citations from “***Flawless” among the most popular. It may be Jay Z’s home, but it was about to be Beyoncé’s night.
As the show began, it became clear: A Bey & Jay show is exactly the theatrical event you’d expect. It takes the minimalist design of Watch the Throne (and Jay’s following Magna Carta tour) and splices it with sensory overload of Beyoncé’s 2013 live events, including using her signature short films between songs to keep things moving between costume and set changes. The setlist is also a Girl Talk inspired affair, with snippets of Jay and Bey hits circling around each other. It’s also of the variety show tradition — no songs were played in full, but a few choruses and a verse would be trotted out before morphing into a new song. There were a few B-sides, but mostly hit after hit after hit.
Rumors have swirled since the tour’s launch in Miami that the duo may be headed for divorce when Beyoncé changed the lyrics of her song “Resentment,” (widely considered to be a song about infidelity) to reflect the number of years she has been with her husband. Beyoncé’s performance of the same song at the Philadelphia show on July 5 closed with a video in which her voice over told the audience, “Love is an act of endless forgiveness.”
But none of that angst was on display at this show. In fact, the pair seemed to be at their best when they shared the stage. During their solo material Beyoncé stayed in character and Jay Z depended heavily on vocalizations from the audience. But when they shared a performance, every single time, Bey would let her guard down at a flirty or jokey something Jay did to bait her. They were the perfect image of a couple genuinely enjoying each other’s company.
While Jay Z’s songs focused mainly on the safe, self-bolstering anthems, Beyoncé leaned into her new material and, by extension, the progressive ideas that her female fans identify with. The much-anticipated performance of “***Flawless” came early in the set and the song’s landing was announced by the playing of the full speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that the track samples. It ended with a slight remix, causing the word “feminist” to be the last one said. It was met with a huge round of applause. She is perhaps the only female pop artist who would not only self-identify as a feminist but make the audience’s participation in that identification an aspect of a stadium tour.
The show’s interstitial videos add more of a political flair, portraying Bey and Jay as culture vultures and citizens of the world in equal parts. At different points in the show they touch on the Bonnie & Clyde mythos; offer political reimagination of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, cast exclusively with black people (including Kanye West, Rita Ora and a surprising cameo from Josephine Baker); an homage to Kill Bill with Beyoncé as The Bride; and the lead-in to her performance of “Haunted” was clearly inspired by early Kate Bush.
Equally surprising are some of the wardrobe choices. The most notable each being Jay Z’s Rodarte designed football jersey with the number 99 and the word Problems written on the back and Beyoncé’s oft-written-about assless leotard. Feminism is in line with the Beyoncé brand, but never at the expense of her sexuality. And, for whatever reason, her back side was a particular focus during this show, being thrust into the spotlight in multiple songs.
On the surface, the show is a retrospective of their relationship, covering music written and released in the 12 years they’ve been together. But that’s only the elevator pitch of what happens on the stage. Seeing how Jay cracks Bey’s carefully constructed persona with a cocked eyebrow; seeing the range of their repertoires, from Bey’s Steve Nicks-inspired black lace dress to Jay’s interest in religious iconography; and watching the whole crowd scream along to the controversial lyric, “eat the cake Anna Mae.”
It is a show that is as much about the fans as it is about Jay and Bey. Their perfect choreography gives us a story and their appropriation of other stories helps us to frame who we think they are.
But, as the words on the screen before the show began told us, this is not real life.