EVERYTHING IS LOVE
[Roc Nation; 2018]
Several publications have said that EVERYTHING IS LOVE is the finale of a trilogy of albums that also includes Beyoncé’s Lemonade and JAY-Z’s 4:44. It’s true, but the trilogy isn’t about marital triumph; no, it details the despair and the gradual flattening of a once-interesting relationship. Unlike other penetrating relationship sagas — Richard Linklater’s The Before Trilogy comes to mind — EVERYTHING IS LOVE is about the veneer of a successful marriage, and it plays like a press release, a publicity stunt designed to communicate to the world how great Beyoncé and JAY-Z are doing. In other words, this album plays less like an artwork and more like an advertisement for the lives of its creators and the world they live in.
Everything about EVERYTHING IS LOVE feels superficial, from the artists’ constant pronouncement of their love for each other to their engagement with topics like fashion, art, watches (this gets its own category), social issues, how great their friends are, sports, and, indeed, their own lives. The most boring aspect of the album is its centerpiece: the couple’s obsession with their wealth. In their relentless discussion of their finances and the things they own, they lose the magic that threads through so many other fantastic rap songs about money and the things money can buy. In most rap, there’s a degree of irony or at least authentic pride in one’s money and success, with the artist feeling that they’ve worked hard to transform their life for the better. This is one of the reasons that rap has always been deeply intertwined with the neoliberal fantasy that money and upward mobility can transform the quality of our lives. Many of those songs are interesting and sometimes even encourage critical reflection; the billionaire JAY-Z’s lyrics about his assets, which basically read as an itemized list of purchases that should have gone to his accountant instead of winding up here, are extremely dull and legitimately unrelatable because of how one-note they are. There’s no depth here, nothing to invite us to actually think about his and Beyoncé’s experiences as rich people.
Beyoncé’s “APESHIT” line “Bought him a jet/ Shut down Colette/ Philippe Patek/ Get off my dick” just feels lazy, as does JAY-Z’s “713” chorus, “Cash, hit deposit, 24-carat faucets/ Louis V and Goyard trunks all in the closet/ Ain’t shit change, the streets is still watchin’/ And my little baby Blue is like ‘Who gon’ stop us, huh?’” In “BOSS,” it’s “Hundred million crib, three million watch, all facts.” This isn’t even inspiring in a neoliberal way — it feels like walking through a store that’s too expensive for you to be in. As we’ve heard from countless other rappers, money does not make everything better. Future’s half a million on a coupe needs to be coupled by enough pink mollies that he can barely move. Kanye’s hundred grand has to go to hospital bills instead of a watch — money ruins his relationships, it turns his best friends to opps. Haters come out of the woodwork for Dr. Dre when he can finally afford to provide his family with groceries. It’s mo money, mo problems, not mo money, no problems. EVERYTHING IS LOVE is music by, for, and about rich people who are guided by the belief that money cures alienation.
For Beyoncé and JAY-Z, everything is experienced through the lens of money. This is how they see art, which becomes reduced to private property, a set piece, a status symbol. Everything that’s potentially meaningful about art becomes lost for them, whether it’s in JAY-Z’s tepid listing of artists in “Picasso Baby” (from Magna Carta Holy Grail) and his subsequent performance art takeover of New York City’s Pace Gallery, or the “APESHIT” video, which essentially amounts to being the most elaborate museum selfie in history. Indeed, like many today, they care more about who stands before an artwork than what the artwork itself is trying to tell us. The Carters’ fetishization of art and its museums is emblematic of their commitment to the status quo. Art is supposed to be thought about, contemplated, criticized — it’s supposed to point toward ways that we can live better lives. To simply put it on the shelf and take photos of it is to affirm all the history that’s gone into its creation and to recognize none of the social issues that it once aspired to give voice to and change. To be sure, this is also a condemnation of museum culture in general, which the “APESHIT” video glorifies, uncritically, to no end.
The Carters work so hard to sell their problem-free life that it almost feels dystopian. “SUMMER” is a lush, maudlin song about going on vacation and having sex, where Beyoncé and JAY-Z purvey the magnificent feeling that they’re the only people in the world, hiding in the hills and among the sheep, losing track of time. “I don’t have no concept of time/ Even with a rose gold Concept on me,” JAY-Z assures us. Isolated, these notions and activities would seem romantic, but it’s a feeling that threads through the entire album. Their world is deeply solipsistic, a place where nobody else exists, even in “713,” a supposed homage track that ends up shoehorning references to Beyoncé’s hometown (Houston, TX) between romantic reveries of trips to Cancun, Saint-Tropez, and Rome. If this album is supposed to be about love, it feels secondary. It feels more about partitioning, about JAY-Z and Beyoncé sectioning themselves off from everyone else, making us painfully aware of how different they are from us. But is it lonely at the top?
“My friends, real friends, better than your friends,” Beyoncé sings in “FRIENDS.” “That’s how we keep poppin’ out that Benz, yeah/ No foes, real friends, we ain’t even got to pretend, yeah.” JAY-Z boasts, “I’m pullin’ up on my dog, make sure he okay, I don’t even have time/ He copped me a Porsche with butterscotch seats/ This ‘fore they had meals/ Life better than rappers and they don’t even have deals/ That real.” Nothing feels emotional about these experiences; they read like obligations and transactions, a tale of stoic hangouts set to a weirdly melancholy beat, one that never really justifies its existence. It’s no secret that JAY-Z and Kanye have been beefing for a while now, and I presume “FRIENDS” is a passive-aggressive response to Kanye’s “Real Friends,” a pretty interesting and sad song where Kanye explores his bad relationships in light of his own failures: “Who your real friends? We all came from the bottom/ I’m always blamin’ you, but what’s sad, you not the problem,” he raps. Even the real-talk moments of EVERYTHING IS LOVE feel contrived and flashy, those passages where infidelity and commitment are actually brought up, as if The Carters are working overtime to avoid dealing with anything negative at all. By comparison, Lemonade and 4:44 read like sessions with Freud himself, and that’s depressing.
There are some fine moments in this album, too. JAY-Z sounds hungry and focused when he enters in “APESHIT” with “I’m a gorilla in the fuckin’ coupe/ Finna pull up in the zoo/ I’m like Chief Keef meet Rafiki/ Who’s been lyin’ “King” to you?” His flow through the song is one of his best in years, even if the rest of the song feels like a mishmash. Beyoncé is vocally intoxicating in “FRIENDS,” and her rhythm and her bars are good throughout, in a technical way. Listening to her sing is always a treat. But overall, the songs and their beats feel too produced. No, that’s not the right word — they feel too calculated. By the time “LOVEHAPPY” rolls around, with the couple talking about how rich their kids are going to be and assuring us that they’re still perfect for each other, it seems like not much at all has changed, that nothing meaningful has really been revealed. But what else would you expect from people with $3 million watches and no concept of time?