It’s tempting to view Everything Is Love as the conclusion of a trilogy begun with Lemonade, Beyoncé’s revelatory 2016 exploration of JAY-Z’s infidelity. But that narrative didn’t need a sequel, let alone a trilogy; it was self-contained, resolution and all. Jay told his side of the story on last year’s sober, soulful 4:44, and the two barely mention the saga at all on their new surprise release. Everything Is Love feels, rather, like the latest installment in a story we’ve all been fitfully watching since 2003, when the two began coyly playing footsie in the press—an obscured shot of Bey in Jay’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” video; increasingly unambiguous allusions to each other across a series of songs; discreet matching tattoos after they quietly tied the knot. On Everything Is Love, Jay’s dalliance with “Becky” is presented as just one of many storms the duo has weathered together, including dating, parenthood, miscarriages, paparazzi, being friends with Kanye, the fashion of the early 2000s, whatever’s going on with Tidal, and so on. It’s not behind them. It’s part of them, along with all the glories that followed.
Everything Is Love makes room for all of this by going tonally gargantuan, an album announced by a video shot in the motherfucking Louvre that is also frequently about being able to shoot a video in the motherfucking Louvre. While its nine tracks often cover the keys to a successful relationship—good sex (“Summer”); respect for each other’s lives (“713”); a healthy social circle (“Friends”)—much of the rest of it traffics in monolithic statements of dominance, via one-percenter name-dropping (Patek Philippe, Alaïa boots) and the sort of effortless, let-me-let-you-in-on-the-joke boasting that’s been Jay’s primary product for two decades. He’s as good at it here as he was on last year’s surprise return to form, and yet, there’s no question whose album this is.
Part of what makes Everything Is Love so much fun is watching Beyoncé beat Jay on his own turf, letting him make literal dad jokes over a bunch of airy, throwback Cool And Dre and Pharrell beats while she belts, grinds, and coos—and straight-up out-raps him, bar for bar, front to back. The bouncing “Nice” was tailor-made for Jay, but Bey drops its most newsworthy line (about Spotify), its funniest line (the Half-Baked quote), and its best line (“That’s word to Blue”), all in sequence. Elsewhere she sweetly promises to stomp on your throat and take a baseball bat to your car if you fuck with the Carter family. She effortlessly segues from the pyrotechnic chorus of “Boss” to its cool, low-key verses. She interpolates Biggie and Dre with the same grace with which she glides through art history in the “Apeshit” video.
Everything may lack the emotional depth of Beyoncé’s last two solo records, but it more than makes up for it in holy-shit-Beyoncé moments. Throughout, Jay doesn’t really try to compete with her, which is probably its most revealing insight into their marriage. The past few years have seen a flood of megawatt, full-length team-ups, but only Jay’s own work with Kanye (and Drake and Future’s collaborative 2015 takeover of rap radio) even approach what the Carters have done here, at least as far as fusing their disparate personae into an appealing whole. Both have built vast personal myths across their sprawling discographies, filled with recurring characters and motifs, mothers and hometowns and tragedies. They bring all of that and more into Everything Is Love, an album that deliciously fills in backstory (Jay brought a friend to their first date?), raises the specter of every beef the two have ever had (apologies to Nasir), and demands art history explanation alongside tabloid speculation. It’s tempting to compare it to Kanye’s ugly, emotional Ye, but it feels in practice more like the big-tent, shared-universe blockbusters that dominate our pop culture landscape, with the couple reteaming to celebrate its love and mutual success on the largest stage possible.
As with The Avengers, your previous investment in the Carters will dictate your current enjoyment. But it’s hard not to feel something when the duo—which previously declared itself “Crazy In Love,” then “Drunk In Love” a decade later—ends its impossibly luxurious extravaganza by simply repeating that the two are “happy in love.” It’s a pop fairy tale just real enough to believe in. It also feels incomplete and far from over, which is probably the most moving thing about it.