Beyoncé and Jay-Z Steal the Spotlight With Surprise Album ‘Everything Is Love’

Leave it to Jay-Z and Beyoncé to drop an album in the middle of a Kanye West hip-hop storm. Earlier this week, hip-hop fans worldwide stared at a still of the Queensborough bridge for hours waiting for the Kanye West-produced Nas album listening party to begin. In the end it did, following with a delayed release of “Nasir” Friday night, leaving Nas likely feeling like the king of New York. Needless to say, complacency is a dangerous mindset in the game that is hip-hop. The very next day Jay-Z and Beyoncé released surprise album “Everything Is Love.” It’s a joint album from the Carters, and they make it pristinely clear why they are hip-hop’s definitive power couple.

The opener, “Summer,” has a “slow jams” vibe, with ‘70s soul backing band samples, and all the emergent associations. It wastes no time in dropping the listener headlong right in the middle of Jay and Bey’s smooching and swooning. It’s steamy in a decidedly summery way with bits of sexual innuendo. It also serves as a statement of intent, encapsulating the message of the album with the closing lines, “Love is universal / Love is going to express itself as a form of forgiveness and compassion for each other.” Beyonce famously chronicled the couple’s struggles, due to Jay’s infidelity, on “Lemonade,” and Jay opened up on his album “4:44,” showing a vulnerability and unguarded contrition unprecedented in the hip-hop world. “Everything is Love” seals the deal, showing the couple having overcome everything, and flaunting it with both an irresistible sincerity and a bona fide swag that sets them apart from much of the lubby dubby fare that you might expect from an undertaking of this nature.

“Apeshit” is an absolute banger, the obvious choice for a lead single. Beyoncé transcended the safe and tasteful realm of pop R&B back on her 2013 self-titled album, embracing her southern roots and assuming a new, unabashedly raw hip-hop sensibility. It’s a testament to the apocryphal ideal of a couple bringing out the best in each other, and Beyoncé has skyrocketed ever since, seeming to steadily accrue more confidence and grow more daring at every turn, yet always pull it off without seeming to try too hard. “Apeshit” finds her continuing this trend, and its title accurately presumes the response that it will elicit. They rented out the Louvre for the music video — take a moment to digest that. Imagine the choreography of Beyoncé’s Coachella performance combined with Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby” video, and you’ll have a faint idea of the spectacle. As for the song, Bey delivers her line with excessive twang, and at one point straight-up raps. Moreover, she sounds better than most rappers doing it. There are some trap stylings, with deliciously cluttered high hats and triplet snare fills. Jay-Z calls out everyone from the Grammys to the NFL, whom he turned down in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick.

“Boss” is the type of pastel-wearing, wide-grinning, good-time fare that characterizes much of Jay-Z’s output. There are masterfully panned “ooh” backing vocals and jubilant horns. The song is about making it clear who’s the real “boss.” Jay raps, “Niggas rather work for the man than to work with me,” likely in reference to Jay’s streaming company, Tidal. Drake turned down the service in favor of an offer from Apple and Kanye seems slaphappy to be unhindered by any contractual obligation to it. Of course, “Everything Is Love” is available exclusively on Tidal, and Jay seems to be truly relishing the moment in this song. Next, “Nice” starts with the refrain “I can do anything,” as if alerting you to brace yourself for a hackneyed, self-empowerment cringefest. But not at all. The next line, “Hell naw,” conveys the nature of the sentiment effectively. “Hell yeah” would be some stargazing parody-ready community outreach drivel, but “Hell Naw” reframes the opening line in context, bringing it much closer to Lil Jon’s “I Don’t Give a Fuck” than R Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.” Beyonce gets extra playful and silly on this one, with half-pronounced words, comically exaggerated voicings and intonations, and several successive lines singing, “Fuck you.” The following song, “713” finds the couple recasting the chorus of Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.” —  little known fact: Jay-Z actually wrote most of that song. Beyoncé magnifies the chorus tenfold with her ridiculous phrasing. The beat also nods to that of Dre’s song, and Jay borrows a line from Common’s “The Light.” One thing that sets hip-hop apart from other genres is the staggering number of inside references to predecessors and counterparts, and this album certainly delivers in that regard.

It can seem like a whole day’s worth of dialogue has been exchanged in Auto-Tune, with how ubiquitous the effect has become. “Friends” is an example of it actually contributing to a song. There’s a self-aware levity to the song that seems to acknowledge the ridiculousness of it all, and Beyoncé simply sounds badass doing whatever she’s doing here. The song extends the “love” of the album title from romantic love to love for one’s friends, and comes across as a laudably genuine ode to friendship, delivered with a verve that keeps it well above the quicksand of sanctimony. Jay-Z has some slick lines about fake friends, like “Y’all switchin’ sides like NBA teams just after halftime,” and “Tight circle, no squares, I’m geometrically opposed to you.” It sounds like Jay and Bey must have made their way to the modern art section of the Louvre. Kanye has spoken in interviews of how he feels his relationship with Jay-Z revealed itself to be more of a business partnership than a true friendship, but that the two are “cool” now, although they haven’t talked. The nature of this beef is not well-documented — call it “mystery meat” in the spirit of brilliant hip-hop word play. At any rate, there must be something going on, as Jay-Z chose to drop his surprise album the one weekend when the Kanye-produced Nas album was released. The virulent Jay-Nas beef is very well documented, as anyone who’s heard Nas’ “Ether” or Jay-Z’s “The Takeover” knows, but is generally understood to be a thing of the past. Perhaps this is just cooked-up drama for publicity. Whatever it is, it seems to be working.

“Heard About Us” suddenly goes back to the ‘80s with a throwback beat, and the song is as lighthearted and jokey as the ‘80s musical treatment warrants. By the end of the song, Beyoncé is basically making an opera out of the line “If you don’t know, now you know Nigga.” It’s very “Trapped In the Closet” R Kelly in all its over-the-top silliness, and it’s pretty amazing. Next up, Jay-Z claims the spotlight on “Black Effect.” While he plays something of a supporting role, at least vocally, for the greater part of the album, he comes through booming here, double-tracked, and meaning business. At one point, he makes an excuse for being late, claiming he “got slowed down by the weight of (his) necklace.” Anyone who’s seen the “Apeshit” video can vouche for him. Another particularly memorable line is “The FCC, the FBI or the IRS / I pass the alphabet boys like an eye test.” Hats off to Jay — and glasses off too, as they’re clearly not needed. One especially appealing quality of this album, at large, is how it manages to be socially conscious by flipping the script and dangling it in front of the identified opposition with a smirk and a quip, and billions to show for it, instead of wallowing in unbecoming self-pity and aggression. At one point, Jay calls, “Get your hands up high like a false arrest.”

“Lovehappy” brings the album to closure in a supremely satisfying way. It has a beat with some early ‘90s flavor, which serves to imbue it with a tinge of the nostalgia that you would expect a song with such a title to evoke. The track finds the two lovebirds continuing to make light of problems, and come out shining, as they have throughout the record. You can’t help but smile upon hearing the playful banter between the two. Beyoncé famously brought us “Put a Ring On it,” and Jay-Z addresses this here, mentioning that he “went to Jared,” to which Bey retorts, “Yeah, you fucked up the first stone, we had to get remarried.” You can hear Jay nervously laughing as he butts in, “Yo, chill man.” There aren’t many husband and wife duos that make music together without coming across as excruciatingly saccharine and sappy, so the ability to pull this off is truly a remarkable feat. The song ends with the line, “We came, and we conquered, now we’re happy in love.” And so, you have it. “Everything Is Love” is love crazed, sincere, and positive, while still being swagged out, cheeky, and larger-than-life, a one-of-a-kind album from a one-of-a-kind couple.  

Everything Is Love is available June 16 on Tidal.