Principality Stadium, Cardiff
On the opening night of their collaborative world tour, the biggest couple in pop are glorious and charismatic – even if the romantic story arc plays down their trauma.
As self-mythologising couples go, not many come close to Beyoncéand Jay-Z. The pair’s first collaboration, ’03 Bonnie and Clyde, was a tale of devotional love accompanied by a video featuring Beyoncé as the ride-or-die moll to her rumoured boyfriend’s gangster. It’s a story they’ve stuck to over the years – this is their second On the Run tour, and the theme remains intact: the film that punctuates this first night show introduces “the gangster and the queen” and keeps returning to an image of a hotel room carpeted with cash. Yet the intervening decade and a half – and an infamous few seconds of CCTV footage from an elevator – has complicated what was once a straightforward way to bolster each other’s brands. Far from living in codependent bliss, theirs is a relationship now defined in the public eye by betrayal and rage. As the pair detailed on their respective recent albums – Lemonade and 4:44 – Jay-Z was unfaithful, almost letting, as the guilty party put it, “the baddest girl in the world get away”.
So the narrative has been recalibrated: the pair begin proceedings by hammering home the deathless nature of their love rather than its perfection. On a colossal screen, footage and slogans reinforce this idea of resilience, taking in a staged argument between the pair and never before seen pictures of their baby twins. The effect feels remarkably intimate for a stadium show, but also scrupulously posed – a tone that can feel disorientating as Beyoncé switches between songs about crazed lust and ballads about romantic betrayal (most starkly on 2006’s newly relevant Resentment).
But anyone hoping for this psychodrama in cartoonish panto format would have been sorely disappointed. The pair gaze at each other moonishly from the get-go: a vision of matrimonial love that, considering they are explicitly cashing in on their interpersonal trauma, can come off as slightly one-dimensional.
Which is not to say the show that services this message isn’t staggeringly impressive. The Beyoncé-mania that has gripped pop culture in recent years isn’t just poptimism gone mad: this is a woman who matches increasingly sophisticated and trailblazing material with once-in-a-generation onstage charisma. Her swagger is such that it can feel like the power dynamic between the two performers has been upended – once the sidekick, nowadays she’s the one taking her rapper husband for a ride as he hitches his wagon to her staggering cultural capital.
At first, this shift is writ large: Jay-Z initially seems as though he’s keeping the stage warm for Beyoncé while she gets her breath back. By the end though, he’s not been outshone – mainly because of his arsenal of glorious modern classics (99 Problems, Niggas In Paris, Big Pimpin’) and perhaps partly because of his excessive costume changes, which put Beyoncé’s meagre half-dozen sequined leotards in the shade.
Where Jay-Z does his hits justice, Beyoncé provides both the little treats – mouthing along to Jay’s raps; showcasing a peerless range of screwfaces; mercilessly barking “sing it” to her apparently lax fanbase – and a couple of heartstopping one-offs. She’s chameleonic, segueing from an imperious rendition of Lemonade’s Led Zeppelin-sampling Jack White collaboration Don’t Hurt Yourself to operatic singing, flanked by her dancers in a renaissance tableaux. During Sorry, she pauses midway through to turn the lyric “suck on my balls” into a faintly chilling haka-style refrain (hilariously, the song is followed by Jay-Z’s deeply-ironic-in-the-circumstances 99 Problems).
While Beyoncé’s recent shows have been characterised by identity and politics – her Coachella performance celebrated black college culture; her Superbowl show paid tribute to the Black Panthers – that’s not the MO here. But the slivers of material in that department are worth waiting for. Excerpts from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists speech gets pride of place on the massive screen; Sorry is punctuated by Beyoncé asking women in the audience whether they’ve “had enough”, in highly charged fashion. Jay-Z takes the mantle when it comes to race, airing the video for 4:44’s The Story of OJ after a female dancer twists and turns to Nina Simone’s Four Women.
The pair bow out with their evergreen 2003 hit Crazy In Love, a rendition of Jay Z’s Young Forever, and a film that sees them reconvene at the altar. It is hard to digest this smooth romantic arc when everyone knows how fraught their relationship has been – but that feeling is offset by the sheer majesty of their creative partnership, which surely only death could do part.