Beyoncé and Jay Z AT&T Stadium, Arlington Tuesday, July 22, 2014
For the first half of her and Jay Z's appearance at AT&T Stadium on Tuesday night, it looked like this show was all about Beyoncé. Every time she was onstage, Bey's presence trumped that of anyone else in sight -- including the Greatest himself. She danced, shook and sang like a woman on a mission, every movement authoritative, every moment used to assert her supremacy. Jay Z was left to feel like a glorified hype man.
But by the time the night had ended, the On the Run Tour had become something different altogether.
If this was supposed to be a performance by the biggest power couple in the music biz (if not all of the entertainment industry), then Mr. and Mrs. Carter did everything in their power to prove it. It was undeniably a spectacle, a barrage of bright lights, choreographed dancing, occasional real fire and bone-rattling beats that stretched out nearly two-and-a-half hours and 45 songs. As a production, it was breathtaking, something that might even be called "an event."
In fact, it was more than just a concert. It was the story of Jay Z and Beyoncé, the evolution of their lives and their relationship. To that end, it was more effective than the storylines of most arena shows, as it wove the setlist together with skits and video montages that were their own little works of art, each one its own one- to two-minute black-and-white homage to Tarantino or Godard.
As the show stretched on, however, the plot became more cumbersome. Sure, it was touching to see Bey and Jay's old home movies (with a healthy dose of baby Blue) flashed up on the big screens after the show had gone through its rockiest portion, complete with Mrs. Carter singing a teary-eyed "Resentment" in a wedding dress. By the time they'd reached the last handful of songs, the biggest hits had all passed by, and what was left was mainly there to tie the plot together.
Yet the happy ending and marital bliss was largely beside the point. After all, for all their collaborations over the years, what makes these two special is their independence, their sense of self. They don't need each other to be stars, but together they're that much bigger and badder. What was thrilling was to see each assert themselves -- especially Beyoncé.
It wasn't just because of the performance, either. Sure, Beyoncé has a crazy set of pipes that could well serve as its own horn section if need be. But what mattered most wasn't just how fully she owned it, with her flowing hair blowing in the fans or the moments of pure joy when she slipped out of character and cracked a smile. No, it was the message she was delivering through it all.
"If you have your own life," she declared at one point in the show as she and her backup dancers took formation for "Run the World (Girls)," "if you make your own money, then sing with me tonight."
The room duly erupted in the biggest applause of the night. (Well, at least half of it did. Every woman in the room made noise for that one.) Beyoncé may have been groomed for stardom from a young age, but she's taken ownership of the role in a way few others have or even could. She's defined herself on her own terms, as an artist, as a woman and as a sex symbol. When Beyoncé shakes her booty or shows off her body, she does it as an agent, not an object. Seeing her in person reaffirms that fact in its own unique way.
Jay Z, on the other hand, didn't really have the same sort of message. Granted, when he played a song like "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," and addressed the crowd directly, there was real conviction in the way he encouraged people to pick themselves up and make the most of their lives. But he's also so far removed from the young hustler he once was -- more of his career as a full-blown celebrity has been spent in opulence than it was out of it by this point -- that message doesn't carry the same resonance as Beyoncé's.
Instead, there were times where Jay Z felt more like he was coasting. Yes, he may be the greatest living rapper (wait, isn't Rakim coming to town soon?), but bragging about his skills or his wealth or even being married to "the hottest girl in the game" doesn't matter as much in 2014 as it did in 2004. If anything, there was an underlying feeling that Jay would have more to lose if the couple ever parted; his marriage has arguably been the one steady achievement through the leaner later years of his career, while Beyoncé's star has only continued to rise.
Not that the crowd necessarily cared. What Jay really had going for him, besides some nostalgia and a bunch of mega hits (however old most of them may be) was audience participation. The whole room threw its arms up and sang along to songs like "Big Pimpin'," "99 Problems" and "Niggas in Paris," something that even Beyoncé couldn't say for her songs. Again, it was the performances that counted most, and rarely did they disappoint.
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Inevitably, there will continue to be rumors about the state of the Carters' marriage -- Is Jay cheating? What does Bey mean about "Even the greatest can fall?" -- and no world-beating tour or story arc will change that. What's true, though, is that they've managed to make their relationship into a real, if suitably imperfect, work of art, which is more than most people (celebrities included) could ever dream of.
Setlist: '03 Bonnie & Clyde Upgrade U Crazy in Love Show Me What You Got Diamonds from Sierra Leone I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me) Tom Ford Run the World (Girls) Flawless Yoncé Jigga My Nigga Dirt Off Your Shoulder Naughty Girl Big Pimpin' Ring the Alarm On to the Next One Clique Diva Baby Boy U Don't Know Ghost Haunted No Church in the Wild Drunk in Love Public Service Announcement Why Don't You Love Me Holy Grail Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit Beach is Better Partition 99 Problems If I Were a Boy Ex-Factor Song Cry Resentment Love on Top Izzo (H.O.V.A.) Niggas in Paris Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) Hard Knock Life Pretty Hurts Part II (On the Run) Young Forever Halo Lift Off