What a weekend for the Carters. Before Beyoncé and Jay-Z even appear in the London Stadium on Friday, a shout rumbling into a scream ripples through the crowd. “It’s Blue! Blue Ivy’s here.” People point fingers, squeal. I can’t see a thing. Standing a few metres in front of the vast stage, in a sort-of-VIP section where a ticket can cost £480, the stadium yawns out behind me. That the people beside me can pick out Bey and Jay’s first child from ground level deserves its own round of applause. It takes another day for the internet to latch onto one of the photos of Blue from that evening, turning it into an ‘unimpressed face’ reaction meme. And just over 24 hours after she waves at enthusiastic strangers some 20 years her senior, her parents release their first joint album, Everything Is Love.
But I’m here to talk about the show. It’s like an exercise in voyeurism. Well, more so if couples handed Peeping Toms strict two-hour timeframes for when they could peek through their blinds across the road. Watching Beyoncé and Jay-Z play their first London date on this four-month On the Run tour is a dazzling combination of a straight couple’s very sophisticated holiday photo slideshow, a breathless run through the individual hits of two impressively ambitious artists and, in Beyoncé’s solo moments onstage, a set by the greatest living performer in Western music. Bey holds the audience in the palm of her hand. Jay has to work for their attention. The strands of their story as a couple – good girl privately meets bad boy; marriage and a child; the elevator; Lemonade; 4:44 – weave together to create a picture of intoxicating happiness, if you choose to take tonight’s performance at face value. If you don’t, you can’t deny The Carters’ skill at selling an approximation of their relationship to a crowd ready to buy it all up.
Part of the Bey-Jay dynamic has always rested on them seeming like an incongruous match, and on each artist keeping the details of their romantic relationship private. You might remember an interview with Beyoncé from 2003, where Oprah advised her to “keep her mouth shut” about being with Jay-Z. “I don’t actually talk about who I’m dating who I’m not,” Bey said at the time, ”because I think it’s important that I concentrate on the music. And when you start talking about those things, then that becomes bigger than the art.” Oprah reached over, shaking Beyoncé’s hand, saying “it’s nobody’s business but yours and his.” In 2018, that seems a laughable idea. Now, the art is their relationship. This tour functions as a concession to an audience that’s always wanted to know Beyoncé in particular, and about her marriage more broadly too.
Live, this plays out mostly as snippets of interactions between Bey and Jay, in both pre-recorded footage that plays on two huge screens at the back of the stage and in the moments when they duet face-to-face on tracks like “Deja Vu” and “Drunk in Love.” During the latter, Bey appears first, stalking down one of two platforms that extend into the crowd on the left and right sides of the stage. On her own, she carries the song as she does so much of the set tonight. I don’t have the raw data on the crossover in the Venn diagram of ‘people here to see Beyoncé’ and ‘members of the Beyhive who don’t hate Jay-Z for apparently cheating on Beyoncé,’ but judging by how heavily queer and woman-identifying the crowd seems, I’d guess a small minority are here for Hov. That means piercing screams greet the start of songs like “Formation,” “***Flawless Remix” and “Baby Boy,” while at points 90 percent of this VIP-ish section don’t seem to know any of the words to the “Big Pimpin’” chorus. I can only cross my fingers and hope things were different up in the seats, for Jay’s sake.
His now-infamous domestic abuse-referencing “eat the cake, Anna Mae” line elicits a jarringly robust shout-along during “Drunk in Love” but his bars can’t match the excitement Beyoncé generates. At moments like these, it’s clear how different this tour will feel from city to city. Here, to my surprise, a fair chunk of Jay’s singles seem unknown to this crowd. “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” is received like a deep cut throughout the stadium – I assume the reaction will feel nothing like this when the couple play Brooklyn, Atlanta, probably Vancouver too. I make eye contact and do the black nod, relieved, as a man in another section near the stage mouths the words to “Show Me What You Got.”
Really, as far as Jay goes, this crowd is mostly here for “Niggas in Paris” – complete with rewind, absolute chaos – and “99 Problems.” Mugshots of different artists and activists flash on the screens while he jauntily hops through the latter, and I wonder how many of the people here recognise someone like black civil rights academic and figurehead Angela Davis nestled between more mainstream pop culture figures like Bowie and Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes. In general, Jay’s more sombre moments – on a rasp-voiced “Song Cry” or “The Story of OJ” while its powerful video plays in full – are met with applause that feels polite rather than rapturous. People may simply not have known about his most recent 4:44 musings on race and masculinity if they didn’t bother to set up Tidal accounts to stream it.
Ultimately, in front of this predominantly white British crowd, this is a Beyoncé show featuring Jay-Z, and he probably knows that. He shouts her out a couple of times, asking the already-screeching crowd to “make some nooooise” for his wife. They spend a fair amount of the set tag-teaming, showing up for guest verses on each other’s tracks before disappearing down the hidden staircases at the edges of the stage and sliding into their next outfit changes. So in the moments when they do share the stage, you can almost hear the bristle of the Beyhive members who have not forgiven Jay for cheating, thank you very much. It’s clear that the pair want to present a story of rejuvenated love to this audience. At the start of the show, the screens display “THIS IS REAL LIFE.” But it’s not really, is it? As was the case with Bey’s Life Is But a Dream HBO documentary in 2013, you’re actually just seeing a carefully curated version of that “real life.”
I’m close enough to the stage to be able to watch them both without the aid of the screens. And, as they face each other during “‘03 Bonnie & Clyde” at the start of the set, they look relaxed, happy. But this doesn’t feel like a giant gesture of love. It feels like an intense, physically taxing and beautifully choreographed show in which two people could either be working through their shit or just calmly doing their jobs for a few hours each night. I don’t see the gooey, squishy sort of love that Beyoncé used to display when dodging Oprah’s questions about Jay, smiling to herself and giggling like a child without giving away much. Instead, they both navigate the stage like professionals. It’s not clinical, exactly, but I feel more moved by the precision and effort put into the performance – Bey’s tight vocal pitching, Jay side-stepping this way and that, the dancers contorting themselves like gummy worms, a pared-down reworking of the Beychella brass marching band – than by The Redemptive Love Story being sold by the tour.
People often criticise Beyoncé for coming across like an emotionless industry machine. That’s not what I’m trying to say about her joint performance with her husband. Rather, this tour is like the end product of her statements to Oprah all those years ago: to keep their private life private, they may have had to mythologise what they do share with us. In 2003, Beyoncé thought she could make music that didn’t have to directly reference her romantic life. In 2018, all fans want is for Lemonade and 4:44 to be strictly autobiographical, laying out the innards of the Carters’ marriage and setting it to song (and video).
And so this tour feels like a coping mechanism, where Bey and Jay give the fans what they want – more of themselves – while turning those public details into performance. In doing so, they can get up on stage night after night to sing and rap about love and betrayal and surfboards without tearing themselves apart. By 2006, sitting across from Oprah again, Beyoncé put it this way: “It’s important that I keep things that are pure and real in perspective, and that I keep it separate from my performance life.” Who knows what 2006 Beyoncé would make of Everything Is Love, then. Either way, this has likely been a weekend both Carters won’t soon forget.
You can find Tshepo on Twitter.