The pitch-black, football field-sized LED screen cracked open at the middle and slowly spread apart. Two figures, two of the most famous human beings on the planet, dressed from head to toe in all white descended from the top of the screen to the floor on an elevator, just like angels presaging the rapture. With their hands clasped tightly around one another’s, they advanced from the rear to the lip of the stage; unspeaking, unwavering. 60,000 people stood on their feet, screaming and stomping and even tearing up at their mere sight of them, ready to receive whatever good news they might bring. Then she drew the microphone to her lips.
“You’d take the clothes off my back and I’d let you,” Beyonce cooed, reprising the opening line of the song “Holy Grail,” originally sung on record by Justin Timberlake. “You’d steal the food right out my mouth and I’d watch you eat it / And I still don’t know why… why I love you so much.” As she sang, her paramour, her business partner, the father of her children — Rumi, Sir, and Blue Ivy – the man who won her heart when she was only 19, then years later shattered it in a million pieces with an act of seemingly unforgivable indiscretion, one of the greatest rappers of all time, Jay-Z stood holding that hand, gazing around at the dark void where thousands of curious faces looked down upon them both.
The key of the song changed, and he turned to face her. “I just can’t crack your code,” she admitted in the next stanza. He turned to look out at us. “You ready?” he shouted. Then all together, “Sippin’ from you cup ‘til it runneth over / Holy Grail!” An explosion of fireworks ripped into the sky as Beyonce ran her fingers through her hair, looked out and glowered. Welcome to On The Run II.
The first On The Run tour, which kicked off four years ago back in 2014, was a concert the likes of which had never really been seen before. In the wake of a leaked video which showed Beyonce’s sister Solange attacking Jay in an elevator after a Met Gala afterparty, the couple hit the road for a 19-date swing through some of the largest and most prestigious sports arenas in North America. I caught their show at Safeco Field in Seattle and ended up dedicating an entire chapter to their capstone appearance in Paris for my book Lighters In The Sky: The Greatest Concert Of All-Time. It was an incredible show filled with ornate vignettes, dancers, fireworks; everything you could want from a combined live performance staged by two of the most important and popular artists of the 21st century. Nevertheless, the drama that played out in front of the masses each and every night paled in comparison to the real-life turmoil going on behind the scenes.
We, as spectators, back in 2014, assumed that Beyonce, must have been going through it, but the real depth of her anger, betrayal and sadness didn’t fully reveal itself until two years later when she dropped her earth-shattering sixth solo album Lemonade. That’s when we learned all about “Becky with the good hair.” When we heard her say in exasperated tones, “What a wicked way to treat the girl that loves you.” When she proudly declared, “You ain’t married to no average b*tch boy.” That last sentiment might just be the understatement of the century.
To his credit, Jay made amends, both in real life and on record. His 2017 album 4:44 is close to one of the best Jay-Z album — nothing can unseat The Blueprint in my mind — but it certainly remains his most revealing. Over ten tracks, Jay cops to everything – “You almost went Eric Benét / Let the baddest girl in the world get away” – and essentially begs for forgiveness. “I apologize,” he raps in the opening track. “I suck at love, I think I need a do-over,” before contemplating the seemingly inconceivable. “What if you over my sh*t?”
Of course, it never came to that. Beyonce did get over Jay-Z’s sh*t and they remained together, as friends, lovers, parents, and partners, which is pretty great, because the world is a more interesting place when they’re both conquering it together. In 2018 they even rolled out a joint album Everything Is Love, seemingly completing a gripping, emotional, narrative circle that began with Lemonade. And what better way to celebrate the end of this up-and-down era than a proper tour? The kind that would make their first tour feel like a community theater production.
Let’s just get this out of the way right here: Though Jay-Z is arguably the most skillful and commercially successful rapper in history, most of the people inside Soldier Field in Chicago on this warm August evening would’ve shown up whether his name was on the marquee or not. Actually, they did just that on back to back nights, at this very venue when Beyonce brought her Formation world tour here just two years earlier. It appeared that the majority of the crowd was made up of women, reflecting Beyonce’s hard-earned status as a feminist icon, which shone through most poignantly when she played a portion of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s poignant essay “We Should All Be Feminists” right after her song “Run The World (Girls).”
Despite all of that, Jay’s presence was an immensely welcome addition and across two-and-a half hours, the pair regaled the crowd with a near-nonstop showcase of some of the biggest hits of the last two decades. The phrase “awe-inspiring” gets thrown around pretty casually, but On The Run II quite literally inspires awe. I spent the majority of the show with my brow raised, my eyes widened, and my mouth alternating between a broad smile and a slackened hang; that’s when I wasn’t screaming out the choruses to “Drunk In Love,” “Run This Town,” “Big Pimpin,’” or “99 Problems.” The addition of many of the musicians from Beyonce’s now-iconic headlining set at Coachella — especially the horn players, but also the drummer, and two different guitarists — also did so much to enhance the actual music blasting out of the dozens of speakers at triple-digit decibels.
As opposed to the first On The Run tour, this second iteration featured fewer solo spots between Jay and Bey, and a lot more time spent on stage together. With a joint album out, this naturally makes a lot of sense, but even in moments when their respective presences weren’t required, they each remained in plain view of the crowd, often acting as a hype person for whoever happened to be taking the lead at the moment. Though, I do believe Jay disappeared more often for outfit changes — I couldn’t tell you exactly how many headbands he used, but it had to have been more than five — Beyonce’s were far, far more impressive.
As a writer, the great gift of Beyonce is that there is no string of adjectives I could use to describe her abilities that could ever be accused of being overly hyperbolic. The way she belts out “Freedom,” the way she dances during “Crazy In Love,” the way she plays with the camera during “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” the way she full-on sprints from the top of the catwalk to the back of the stage in a massive orange dress after “Resentment,” the way she raps a mile a minute during the set-closer “Apesh*t,” is all constantly astonishing. There is seemingly nothing she can’t do better than anyone else. She is genuinely the Michael Jackson of the modern era; an artist whose music and performance acumen has literally defined a generation.
The denouement of the show, the emotional climax, came near the very end with a performance of Jay’s song “Young Forever.” As Beyonce serenaded the masses, and Jay rapped his ass off, a montage of tender, candid footage from their personal lives broadcast on the big screen behind them. We saw their children. We saw their trips around the world. We saw them renew their wedding vows. They actually pulled this exact same move before during the first On The Run tour, promising at the time just beforehand that “This Is Real Life.” We only know now how much of that joy was a shame. Tonight however, the disclaimer wasn’t even necessary. We knew.
There’s a massive canon of breathtakingly terrible follow-up efforts in the world of popular art. Speed II: Cruise Control and Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV spring to mind as particularly egregious examples. Sequels, by their very nature, are always judged against the quality and impact of the original, and most often fail to measure up in either regard, usually because they sacrifice poignant narrative and basic character development in the service of outlandish spectacle.
Jay-Z and Beyonce’s second On The Run tour definitely had more flash — where have we seen that floating stage before? — more pyro, and more pizzaz than the original, but it also had something even more important: a stronger central theme. In 2014, Beyonce and Jay-Z were actors pretending to be outlaws trying to outrun their own personal turmoil. In 2018, they were real partners hand in hand, ready to take on the world together. One where, at least for now, everything is love.
Everything Is Love is out now via. Get it here.