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On the most explosive song off Beyonce’s 2016 album Lemonade, she flips the expectations for a song called “Sorry” in the accompanying video by dancing on a party bus with an all-female crew, and grinding all over a mansion with none other than Serena Williams, in heels and a bodysuit, wagging her finger at an absent, male betrayer. The song was immediately adopted with a kind of frenzy by women online as mantra, clapback, and proverb; her pain was our pain, the resounding reaction was I’ve been there.
Caught up in a doomed half-relationship with an absent man of my own, I remember putting the song on infinite loop, fascinated by the song’s anger and pain, but also by its unapologetic celebration — there is real joy in the video as these women dance out their freedom: I ain’t thinkin’ ‘bout you. I hypothesize the power of “Sorry” was part of what made the eventual forgiveness and reconciliation of Lemonade so confusing. Why keep the pin in the grenade?
Anger is a secondary emotion. If you’ve been to therapy (sup Jay), this phrase might ring with a certain familiarity. The point is not to dismiss the validity of anger but instead recenter its power. Anger is also a destructive emotion, one that tears other people down and inflicts pain back on those who hurt us, a cycle of wounds and woundedness that never stops. At the core of anger is sadness, pain, rejection, anger is a response that seeks to cover up those more vulnerable feelings with annihilation. Beyonce could’ve done that, if she stuck in “Sorry” mode.
Even after forgiving her husband, and choosing to keep her marriage to him intact, hordes of her fans refuse to offer him the same grace. Imagine a world where Beyonce used her anger as a weapon against Jay, Louis slugger all day? Annihilation barely begins to cover it. On the final track of the pair’s eventual joint album, Everything Is Love, you can almost hear her getting started on “LoveHappy,” a snarl, demurred, then reframed: “My love is deeper than your pain / And I believe you can change.” Or earlier, back on Lemonade: “They say true love’s the greatest weapon.”
“To forgive is the highest, most beautiful form of love,” wrote Robert Muller, a French civil servant, and former refugee and soldier best known for his decade-spanning work with the United Nations. Intent on achieving the actual goal of world peace, Muller worked tirelessly with wartorn countries and global factions in pursuit of what he considered to be a tangible possibility. Forgiveness was the cornerstone upon which he built his philosophy.
Though Beyonce and Jay-Z are not quite nation-states, the rarefied level where they operate is impossible to ignore in the context of their relationship. There’s a reason devoted fans are often referred to as “armies,” and to deploy the power of such devotion at a moment’s notice is a privilege and a responsibility that’s hard to ignore, as lesser pop stars are constantly revealing on Twitter, and elsewhere, in moments of anger, sometimes justified, sometimes not.
Unlike anger, forgiveness is not something that is commonly seen in 2018. Certainly, it’s rare to see online, even rarer to see in celebrity relationships, and probably one of the rarest subjects to make an entire album about. Yet, on their new joint record as The Carters — an intact unit defined by a third, larger family name — Beyonce and Jay-Z lounge in the lush, unbelievable grace of just that. Forgiveness, to stop feeling anger. Since Beyonce is arguably light years ahead of other pop stars and public figures on her level, it’s certainly apt that her emotional intelligence outstrips her peers, too. Who, being this powerful (and so clearly in the right) would forgive someone that wronged them? This unthinkable, highest and most beautiful form of love is exactly what defines this new record from The Carters.
Because of this, Everything Is Love is a rare and exuberant kind of triumph, not because it celebrates the romantic love of two partners, but because it publicly establishes forgiveness as the root of this kind of success. It might unwittingly become the most high profile piece of pop culture that tackles the subject of forgiveness head-on. We’ve seen enough celebrity divorces to know how those shake out, but we barely know what might be possible when the family stays together. And in that way, this record grows on the listener slowly, like the memory of a family moment that didn’t feel significant at the time, but keeps building, until suddenly it’s this towering event you can’t define the unit without.
Sequencing is king on this album, kicking off with the sensuality and lust of “Summer” and its forbidden bassline, all that heat, sand, and a divine sunset. When you can go anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat, the only plan worth establishing is “in each other’s arms.” The yacht can go anywhere, so can the chopper, but what good is the richest transport in the world when flying solo? After the deep reflection, sadness, and apologies of Jay’s 4:44, the album opener resets the tone on their relationship.
Redeemed, Jay shows up with romantic rip-your-heart-out lines about staying in Bey’s hair forever, a line that isn’t lost on those who still remember the betrayal of Becky. But let’s be clear, there are two people and two people only inside this relationship. Several times throughout the record, The Carters admonish each other to “let it breathe” like their love is a fine wine they’ve only just begun to get the air into, like better glasses are in the bottle, still to be poured.
From the romantic opener, the two transition to party (“Apeshit) and work (“Boss”), two things they do very well together. The former has Beyonce wielding a Future warble like a blowtorch, filigreeing trap beats and outstripping Migos ad libs when it comes to sheer f*ck-you arrogance, reference track be damned. Later, she’ll step it up by actually telling some people to get f*cked — a b*tch she doesn’t like, Spotify stream bean counters, and three out of four Half-Baked fans (“Nice”). But it’s the way she turns the word “boss” into a sext that lets you know exactly which self-made business mogul she has in mind, when it’s not herself.
The way Bey big ups Jay on adlibs is unparalleled, easily one of the best parts of this album, and reminiscent of the way the best couples anticipate and finish each other’s sentences, but with full understanding and esteem for the power of their respective selves, musical and personal. (“Beyonce, n——, oh my god Jay breathes on “Heard About Us” — he’s as enthralled with her as we are, and maybe just as astounded.) This is relationship economics based on shine theory, for everyone in the building, but above all for the future of these two. And it’s Jay who shares his more intimate memories of their past, like their couple origin story on “713,” how shaken up he was that he actually got with a woman this confident, who knew more than him about something as simple as the ocean, now recurring as a shifting metaphor for the love they share.
Jay opens up again about halfway through the album on the stunning centerpiece, “Friends,” a song about the people who support each of them outside the couple unit, listing names and specific situations where his day one friends have been there, or promised to be if the worst happens. For her part, Beyonce doesn’t list anyone by name, but there’s a level of reverence and melancholy in her delivery here that speaks to just how hard she’s had to lean on her crew, we can assume when Jay was out of the picture. She’s more forthcoming on songs like “Heard About Us,” which doubles as a nod to their fame and their recent marital troubles, the latter, in particular, which she thinks should be kept out of your mouth.
While they tackle the adult subjects of reconciliation, forgiveness, family, and loyalty, the soundscape they set it against is super modern; old people topics situated in young people sounds (provided by industry veterans). This lends an accessibility and a light-hearted feel to the record, a surface those not willing to go deeper can happily skim. And it’s worth noting that Jay is rapping more confidently and succinctly than he has in several album cycles (not counting 4:44, which I thought was a fairly epic comeback), chuckling at Bey, in general at ease as a top-tier rapper, and making dad puns that even a teenager would love. (See “I wrap a yellow jacket around B,” and “Thoughts of jumpin’ the broom, a player never been swept.”)
Like the self-professedly flawed musicians who made it, the album isn’t perfect. There are more than a couple moments tripped up by parent sh*t, as there should be on an album with the starry-eyed, endorphin-heavy, kissing-a-baby’s-head title Everything Is Love. A couple clunky lines at the top of “LoveHappy” (Litty? Did Jay write that bar for Bey?) can’t outstrip the song’s buoyant, generous joy, and even if the speech given on love before “Black Effect” feels a little corny, the song coming after is of such thundering stature it doesn’t matter. Soundbites like Blue’s shoutout to Rumi & Sir closing out “Boss” feel a little random, until you remember this is first and foremost an album by The Carters — that means all of them.
Overall, the impact of this album is a public document on the power of forgiveness that will enter the pop culture lexicon as an example, a goal, and an unparalleled work of love. Everything Is Love is a monument and a weapon, a warning and a reminder, a rider and a roller still at the top of their game, despite it all.
Everything Is Love is out now via S.C Enterprises/Roc Nation/Parkwood Entertainment. Get it here.