Wednesday, June 20, 2018

album review: 'EVERYTHING IS LOVE' by the carters (jay-z & beyonce)

You'd think this would feel bigger.

That's been the thought that's lingered in my mind for the past few days in the wake of the surprise album from Jay-Z and Beyonce,  their first as a couple and already hailed by some as the triumphant conclusion to a multi-year arc where hip-hop's most notable power couple lay their grievances to rest and celebrate their love amidst overflowing stacks of money and fine art...

Huh, maybe that's what's it, the larger culture and especially the younger generation unable to relate to the dizzying heights of Jay's business ventures and wealth that they've given up and stopped paying attention altogether. I'll freely admit that was a major niggling issue that ran through my coverage of 4:44, but it has run deeper, with numerous black publications and essays being circulated on how in the larger American class war Jay and Beyonce wound up on the wrong side. And that's not to take away from their success or even their cult of personality - both are great artists and I really do love both Lemonade and 4:44 - but it's been increasingly difficult to overlook how said cult of personality has been assembled through black artistic associations that aren't their own, or that for as much as Jay has sought to pass along aspirational advice or for those to bask in Beyonce's mere presence, it's always come with a hefty price tag. And yet for me it's always been the more grounded and human moments of their relationship that's pulled me back, when the pinnacle has fractures or outright collapses that we have actual stakes in the drama. So yeah, I wasn't exactly lining up for the victory lap that some have said EVERYTHING IS LOVE represents - they rented out the goddamn Louvre for their video, for god's sake - but again, they're both great artists, I had the hopes this would be at least good. So what did we get?

Well, I'll say this outright: if you're enamored enough with the Beyonce/Jay-Z cult of personality that you're willing to accept them making a lightweight victory lap record that barely even attempts to have the insight or heft of previous releases in favour of autotuned triplet flows and trap production... you might enjoy this. But to be blunt, it's hard for me to consider this anything more than Magna Carta Holy Grail Pt. 2, an inconsequential follow-up that relies more on legacy for any gut punches or flair while parroting modern styles that do very little to flatter either artist. And it lends evidence to why EVERYTHING IS LOVE is not being as celebrated: it's not nearly as good.

And the first thing that needs to be considered is how this album is being pushed - at the very least by some elements of the music press - as a conclusion to a trilogy started by Lemonade and 4:44, and I'd argue that's about the worst possible connection you'd want to create, because it sets up stakes that EVERYTHING IS LOVE cannot possibly match. It also misses the reasons why both those previous records connected so strongly, most importantly with Jay-Z and Beyonce themselves as performers. Maybe I'm in the minority here, but the reason why there was such tension and pathos at the core of Lemonade and 4:44 were how much both artists knew was at stake and how close they came to the brink, which forced both of them to be more vulnerable and human than either had been in decades. Beyonce can be a force of nature as a singer, but give the entire picture human consequences and urgency and it grounds and intensifies those emotions. Same with Jay - while more of his record is coaxed through an increasingly tangled picture of black capitalism, the songs that truly cut like the title track come with the acknowledgement of how much was nearly lost, which forces him to rap with the most frantic emotion he's ever brought to the table. But on EVERYTHING IS LOVE... well, the battles are won, and while they might get a token reference on 'LOVEHAPPY' there's little-to-no sense of greater stakes or sense of drama. Yes, Jay might be tangled in legal issues with the SEC and they are both acutely aware of being black in America, but it's hard to ignore with the increasingly overstuffed flossing that they can skate away from any greater consequences - hell, both are aware that organizations like the Grammys and the NFL need them more than the other way around.

And look, there's a more philosophical argument to be made surrounding black capitalism and Jay and Beyonce's place in that system that I'd like to set aside here, mostly because I'm not the one to be making that case. And besides, neither have claimed to be doing anything but amassing vast sums of money and power and providing that legacy for their families and extremely tight circle, and I'm not expecting either artist to put forward a revolutionary agenda. Well, I'd like to set all of that aside... until Jay-Z starts trying to compare himself to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X who were both a fair bit further to the left than he is, and this is where the Magna Carta Holy Grail comparison comes in earnest, because this record is less about interpreting the ideas of those great men and more an association with them because they represent power and prestige. In fact, if you dig deeper into the content there's little of the aspirational pathos and insight that gave 4:44 its weight, with the gap filled in with brand name flexing on triplet flows that amount to about the least interesting thing that either Jay-Z or Beyonce have made. A lot of critics have given Beyonce credit for delivering solid flows, but her increasingly flat monotone in this range has little of the intensity or flair of her sung vocals - so you can imitate the Migos flow, how is that innovative or interesting, especially when you're going to tack on Autotune on songs like '713' and 'FRIENDS' - she's a great singer, she doesn't need this! And it fares even worse for Jay-Z - many said with Magna Carta Holy Grail that he didn't need to hop on choppy new flows, that he was a better MC, and that's just as true five years later, because he keeps trying to jam more words in to make the rhymes connect and it comes across as increasingly awkward, with him sounding more out of breath than normal! And that's before you get to the contradictions in the content - I can appreciate Jay saying that you're broke if the folks around you are going broke on 'BOSS', but how does that square with all of the obscene wealth sprayed across the rest of the album that we clearly don't have, or how Beyonce stresses her friends are just better than yours on 'FRIENDS', where we do get one legitimately great line from Jay with 'tight circles, no squares, I'm geometrically opposed to you'. But beyond that, does it feel all that populist for Beyonce to brag about Lemonade not being on Spotify, or how you reference shooting videos in the Louvre - at some point the bragging needs to either be more interesting on a lyrical level - which given that the majority of it is brand name flexing it's clearly not - or not at the expense of an audience who'll never get to that point, that's all I'm saying.

So fine, is the presentation at least interesting or gripping from a production standpoint? Well honestly, while I could say that the easy answer for that is how on the opener 'SUMMER' they interpolate a song from Magna Carta Holy Grail in some naked recycling of ideas... but the truth is that 'SUMMER' is one of the few songs I like a fair bit: the soulful guitars, rich bass, live horns and strings, it lends the track a distinctive opulence that sadly isn't all that common on the rest of the project, as a song later on 'APESHIT' we get jagged, rubbery synths, sandy snares, Migos adlibs, and smoky reverb that makes for a solid trap banger but little more. Oh, they try to hit a medium with the richer horns on 'BOSS', but the undercooked hook and oddly cheap-sounding snares don't really help any greater sense of cohesion, which becomes all the more true with the hi-hat skitters and overweight bass beats of 'NICE', or the incredibly underwhelming muted melodies and bassy trap skitter of 'FRIENDS'. Hell, there's no excuse for how sloppily mixed the percussion is on '713' against the pianos, where half the cymbals and snares sound buried midway to the back, or the cheap lumpy skitters of 'BLACK EFFECT' - for as much as you two flex you couldn't spend the extra ten grand to get this mixed properly? And again, the issue here most is inconsistency: the gleaming keys and more refined groove of 'HEARD ABOUT US' might be cribbing from Biggie - what else is new, Jay - but it feels more cohesive at least, and the soul sample groove of 'LOVEHAPPY' with the lo-fi drums and rich arranged textures is a really damn solid way to end the record, showing some great back-and-forth chemistry between Jay-Z and Beyonce which if this record seriously tilted into that instead of forgettable trap flossing, I'd probably be a lot kinder to any 'conclusion of the trilogy' takes.

So look, as someone who has never bought into either cult of Jay-Z or Beyonce, I'll freely admit that a project like this is not for me - but at the same time, especially coming after what they both delivered apart, there's no way to consider this as more than a serious step down. It's not innovative or creative, it shows both artists at their least compelling as performers, the production is slapdash with haphazard momentum, and if it wasn't for the fact that they both have tons of natural charisma and can string together some bragging that connects even for me, I'd be panning this outright. But as it is... I'm thinking an extremely light 6/10 and only recommended for the fans - and really, judging by the response I've seen, you all knew that already.

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