Spectacle, heartbreak, sex, grit, glamour, romance—Wednesday night’s Jay-Z and Beyoncé show at U.S. Bank Stadium had it all. If anything, maybe it had too much.
As overstuffed as a superhero blockbuster, the latest entry in the Knowles-Carter cinematic universe was a hit-‘em-with-everything-you-got affair. Then again, you’d have felt cheated if they’d skimped on any of the 40 songs they crammed into their two-and-a-half-hour set, some wedged into medleys, some expanded into tautly choreographed extravaganzas, some barely referenced as they breezed on to the next one.
So no, On the Run II wasn’t as cohesive emotionally or artistically as Bey’s 2016 solo show at TCF Bank Stadium. Nor was it quite the epic celebration of the Jay/Bey union the video interludes strove a bit too cinematically to convince us we were experiencing. Instead, this was a brilliant if oddly paced Beyoncé show with fiery Jay-Z interludes. The straying husband and flawless wife had previously made art out of the struggle to keep their marriage alive; now the most charismatic entertainer of her generation and one of the greatest rappers of all time are trying to figure out how their performance styles can complement one another.
Flanked by larger than life video images of themselves, the two walked onstage, dressed in white, hand in hand, their togetherness as defiant as it was intimate. From the start, the domestic turmoil that had inspired their recent music was at the fore, with Bey taking over vocals on “Holy Grail” originally sung by Justin Timberlake. The song made more sense this way: She and Jay emerged as lovers who seem to be living parallel lives without quite connecting emotionally. (Plus we got to see Beyoncé whip her hair grunge-tastically to a quote from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”) The theme of troubled romance continued with “Part II (On the Run)” (“Who wants that perfect love story anyway?” Bey sang) and the self-mythologizing “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” (complete with its quote from Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend”).
Funny thing is, when they recorded that thug-moll duet 15 years ago, Beyoncé was just playing at gangsta, but now she often sounds more street than Jay. In fact, Act III of their epic domestic drama, the new collaborative album Everything Is Love (credited with meaningful simplicity to “the Carters”) is less about how they overcame the strain of Jay’s infidelity (as addressed on Bey’s Lemonade and Jay’s 4:44) and more a showcase for a rougher, rawer Beyoncé, foregrounding her ability to weave a rap-like flow into her vocals.
The Carters performed just three songs from that album. On “Nice,” with its airy boast of “I can do anything,” Bey floated the sweetest “fuck you”s imaginable toward heaven; “Black Effect” shouted out a shared African-American experience (“I’m good on any MLK Boulevard”) and claimed Beyoncé’s rightful place in it. And the night went into overdrive with the grand finale, the standout Everything Is Love banger “Apeshit”—can you believe we had to wait 20 years to hear Beyoncé sing “get off my dick”?
Of course, thuggery was supposed to be Jay’s forte, so with Bey growing as an artist he’s become the unlikely underdog in their partnership. At his height, Jay thrived on an arrogant effortlessness, a sense that he wasn’t going to unload the full 100 percent because you couldn’t handle it. If it’s not quite fair to say Jay’s best years are behind him, his career-defining years certainly are; his biggest songs of the night—“99 Problems,” “Big Pimpin’,” “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”—reflected past glories.
But if he was thrown back on his heels here, his style grew hungrier to compensate. And his newer, more contemplative material was maybe even more striking than the oldies. “The Story of O.J.,” Jay’s meditation of the inability of fame and wealth to dissolve racism, was preceded by a stylish solo modern dance routine set to Nina Simone’s “Story of Four Women,” and “Family Feud” offered a disquisition on dynastic black capitalism, hardly your standard arena rap fare.
Still, the ease with which Beyoncé could upstage Jay was comically unfair—a slight hair flip and it was like “Jigga who?” She strode the stage in pantsless splendour, modeling a series of thigh-flaunting, booty-flattering leotards, the least ostentatious of which was probably worth the GDP of the state of Alabama. At one point she wore a plaid hood that made her look like she was ready to solve the sexiest crimes in Victorian London; at another a purple robe/cape number adorned a glittery gold tunic.
What’s more, the setlist was stacked against Jay. After he ripped through “99 Problems,” with mug shots of everyone from Jesse Jackson and Jane Fonda to Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Snoop Dogg flashing behind him, Bey tore into “Ring the Alarm” and a truly terrifying “Don’t Hurt Yourself” as though to say, “Don’t even try it.” And after Jay bore his soul on “Song Cry,” she emerged in a goddam zillion-dollar gown like the Queen of the Universe to bestow her own show-stopping ballad “Resentment” upon us.
And let’s face it: Jay was outnumbered. Beyoncé had a full army of dancers with her, synchronizing with a combination of military discipline and round-the-way jubilance whenever it was time to get in formation or for girls to run the world. This stadium was her hive, and it was buzzing for her. When Jay and Bey did the old “do the fellas run this motherfucker?” and the “do the ladies run this motherfucker?” crowd response schtick, it was no contest. Beyoncé smiled sweetly and said “Exactly.”
Even during their shared non-competitive moments onstage, Jay’s comparative discomfort, demonstrating the effort it takes to stand onstage next to Beyoncé, accentuated their chemistry and intimacy, especially when they rejoined each other for a climactic duet of “Young Forever.” After Bey redeemed Alphaville’s nuclear winter Gen X prom ballad, she then serenaded the rapper with Ed Sheeran’s millennial prom ballad “Perfect,” and all you could think about was that each of them had recorded an entire album about how far from perfect he is. And he had to just stand there and take it. Beyoncé’s love forgives all. And forgets nothing.
Click here to see to see a photo slideshow of Beyoncé and Jay-Z's fabulous subjects arriving at U.S. Bank Stadium
Part II (On the Run)
‘03 Bonnie & Clyde
Drunk in Love
Dirt Off Your Shoulder
On to the Next One
*** Flawless (Remix)
Run This Town
Mi Gente (Remix)
Ring the Alarm
Don’t Hurt Yourself
Niggas in Paris
Beach Is Better
Run the World (Girls)
Public Service Announcement
The Story of O.J.
Show Me What You Got
Crazy in Love
U Don’t Know
Critic’s bias: I named Beyoncé my Artist of the Year in City Pages in 2000. Rest of y’all get a late pass.
Overheard in the crowd: Boyfriend walking up the stairs behind his dangerously short-dressed girlfriend: “Don’t worry, nobody can see nothing.”