On The Run II is bracketed by a pair of slow dances. OK, technically it’s bracketed by Jay-Z’s “Holy Grail” — with Beyoncé taking over Justin Timberlake’s hook duties and thrashing her hair in circles during the Nirvana interpolation — and “APESHIT,” the rousing Migos-powered lead single from the Carters’ new collaborative album Everything Is Love. But the setlist’s second song, and its second to last, are moments of marital intimacy in front of a stadium full of onlookers. (In my case, it was Ohio Stadium in Columbus last Thursday.)
Up front we get Bey and Jay swinging their hips to “Part II (On The Run),” the grandiosely misty pop-rap hit that expanded the mythology of early collaboration “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” and subsequently lent its name to two co-headlining tours. “Two-step with us!” Jay exhorts the crowd. Embracing as they dance, the happy couple locks eyes with adoring glances. She touches his hair tenderly. Whatever part of you is vulnerable to Hollywood romance will surely buckle at the sight.
Later, after two-plus hours of luxuriant empire maintenance, Beyoncé contributes the show’s penultimate number, her late-breaking guest part on Ed Sheeran’s lovey-dovey prom theme “Perfect.” (Lest we forget, this was her first #1 hit in over a decade.) By this point in the show a platform has detached from the main stage and carried both artists across the field several times over, gliding between the pair of catwalks that give the performers ample opportunity to parade around any given colosseum. Face to face, Bey and Jay hold hands as she serenades him from atop this moving contraption. Meanwhile the giant video screens onstage broadcast home movies of their family life. At the song’s conclusion, they kiss. The screen reads: “THIS IS REAL LOVE.”
In case the messaging didn’t bludgeon you hard enough, we’re to believe these two are still crazy in love after all these years. It’s believable. Now, this is show business, and at least one of these performers has been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award, so any display of affection may well be scripted. Certainly all the night’s exceedingly glamorous video interludes depicting some sort of lovebird crime saga in the Caribbean are fiction. But from the stands these personal exchanges sure looked and felt authentic, as if they’ve come out of their highly publicized turmoil with a sense of peace.
Four years ago, when Jay and Beyoncé launched the first On The Run Tour, the cracks in their facade were beginning to show. The elevator incident was a fresh memory. The infidelity that has defined their public profile since then was still a tabloid rumor, not the narrative fodder for a series of blockbuster albums. This was two years before Lemonade, three before 4:44. Beyoncé, only a few months out from the surprise visual album that redefined her career, was a human tornado. Jay, who was touring behind the expensive and inert Magna Carta Holy Grail, was the embodiment of corporate bloat. They were co-headliners, but even at his own hometown gig, he seemed like a sideshow.
OTR II feels more equitable. Like last time, Jay tends to be on his own for his songs, walking around doing rapper things, whereas Beyoncé performs intricate choreography with a small army of dancers. But coming off his best album in a decade and a half, Jay has regained a good deal of his luster, jet ski memes notwithstanding. And although Beyoncé’s stature has only continued to rise thanks to richly conceived marvels such as Lemonade and her astounding Coachella performance, she carries herself more casually on this outing. She grooves to the music. She lets herself be a human being. Factoring it all in, Jay is no longer dwarfed by his wife’s larger-than-life presence. Most of the night’s best moments were the ones where they were on stage together, basking in each other, enjoying this wild existence they share.
This is a weird thing to say about a production as massive as this one — with its gargantuan stage, pyrotechnics you can feel from half a football field away, double-digit costume changes for both Bey and Jay, a parade, two guitar solos, what looks like a multi-tiered parking garage full of dancers, singers, and musicians, and interludes ranging from opera to modern dance to Oscar-quality art films on titanic screens — but compared to the first On The Run, this tour is chill. Like Everything Is Love, it is a victory lap and an expression of marital contentment. And like that album, it’s not as epic as I’d hoped despite all the excess.
Some of that has to do with the artists’ decision to thread bits and pieces of other songs into their hits: Drake’s “Trophies” woven into “Flawless,” for instance, or “Countdown” undergirded by bits of DRAM and Lil Yachty’s “Broccoli” and Boyz II Men’s “Uhh Ahh.” Taylor Swift pulled a similar trick at her own stadium tour this year, but they were overt mashups of her own hits, which amounted to a pleasing barrage of hooks. This tour’s more understated stabs at musical collage usually dulled the impact of the original arrangements, replacing key musical flourishes with moments that left me wondering whether I had properly identified which song I was hearing. Early on Thursday, when “Diva” was interspersed with portions of Bey’s own “Irreplaceable” and Jay’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” (which got its own uncluttered reading later) plus tracks by Drake and O.T. Genasis, it sounded more like a jumble than the mega-mix they presumably intended.
More of Beyoncé’s tunes underwent this treatment, which may be why Jay’s parts seemed to pop so much more than last time around. And man, the best of them popped. “Niggas In Paris” was so electric that I didn’t mind hearing it twice in a row. A triad of Black Album hits, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” “99 Problems,” and “Public Service Announcement,” approached the same fired-up majesty. Even his more meditative 4:44 material came off surprisingly well in this blown-out context, especially the racially charged “The Story Of O.J.” and its provocative music video.
The lot of them were reminders that Jay-Z is not just a collector of amazing beats but a truly powerful rapper, a guy whose forceful finesse can send tens of thousands spinning in an attempt to match him bar for bar. Even plastic latter-day singles like “Holy Grail,” “Run This Town,” and “Young Forever” made more sense on such a grand stage. Still, when he found room in the set for snoozers like “Song Cry” and “Beach Is Better,” it was hard not to grumble about the omission of early to mid-career hits such as “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Nigga What, Nigga Who,” and “Can I Get A…”
As for Bey, she may be a victim of her own excellence. After beholding the first On The Run four years ago, the stunning VMAs medley two years back, and the glory that was the Beychella livestream this past spring, this was the first performance I’d encountered in years where she didn’t find a way to outdo herself. In other words, I am spoiled. And it’s not like Bey’s portions of the show lacked for “wow” moments. Staring down a handheld camera, she marched down the catwalk and ripped into a thunderous “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” That just about burned the stadium down, as did “Freedom” later on. On the other end of the spectrum, B’Day ballad “Resentment” took on heartbreaking new resonance in the post-Becky era. Seated at the end of the catwalk, Beyoncé cried, “I gotta look at her in her eyes and see she’s had half of me/ How could you lie?”
From “Baby Boy” to “Upgrade U” to “Mi Gente” to “Run The World (Girls),” her hits kept us moving. Even the numbers that sounded muddy, like “Formation” and “Feeling Myself,” were compulsively danceable. Like her husband, she compiled a setlist full of classics and still had plenty of jams left over. And even more so than Jay, Bey remains a tour de force. To merely sing with such ferocity and grace, or to pull off such elaborate gyrations in time with an ensemble, would be talent enough to seal someone’s legend. Beyoncé does it all at once. (Plus, unlike her husband, she didn’t stoop to egging on the crowd with the “O-H!” football chant nearly every celebrity musician trots out in Columbus.)
Where the first On The Run presented an unevenly divided kingdom, Bey and Jay are united equals this time around — or as close to equals as you can be when one of you is Beyoncé. This reduced the dramatic tension significantly, but it also meant the best parts of the night were the ones that brought the two of them together. “Drunk In Love,” “Crazy In Love,” Everything Is Love’s “Nice” and “Black Effect” — these were venues for flexing, flossing, and fêting each other. “Apeshit” did in fact have the crowd going apeshit, but with its “I can’t believe we made it!” hook, it also worked as a final blow in the Carters’ campaign to convince us their life is a movie. (When it was all over, credits literally rolled.) These two have enough beloved songs between them to put on two gigs this long, but at this point they themselves are the show: two superstars whose romance appears to have survived serious trials and emerged stronger than ever. Forget a concert — watching them exhilarate each other is exhilaration enough.
Oh, what a contentious week it’s been on the Billboard 200 albums chart. As you may have heard, despite all manner of hijinks on Nicki Minaj’s behalf, her new album Queen debuted at #2 behind Travis Scott’s Astroworld, which remains at #1 for a second week. As you may have also heard, Minaj was not happy about it, accusing both Scott of artificially inflating his stats and Spotify of rolling back her promotion as a punishment for playing Queen tracks early on Apple Music. Fair or not, Billboard had the final tally at 205,000 equivalent album units and 78,000 in pure sales for Astroworld versus 185,000 units and 78,000 sales for Queen.
After Drake’s Scorpion at #3 comes the #4 debut of Trippie Redd’s Life’s A Trip, with 72,000 units/15,000 sales. Post Malone and Juice WRLD are at #5 and #6, and Aretha Franklin’s 30 Greatest Hits hops back to #7 in the wake of her death. Between Cardi B at #8 and XXXTentacion at #10 is Jason Mraz, debuting at #9 with 33,000 units/26,000 sales for Know.
Over on the Hot 100, Drake’s still holding down #1 with “In My Feelings” for a sixth straight week. According to Billboard, he’s now owned the #1 spot for 25 weeks this year, third-most all time behind 26 for the Black Eyed Peas in 2009 and 28 for Usher in 2004. So it’s very realistic that Drake could tie or break that record this year. Drake is also up to 45 weeks at #1 all-time, just two behind Usher for the most all-time among solo males. He’d still be behind Boyz II Men (50), the Beatles (59), Rihanna (60), and Mariah Carey (79).
After “In My Feelings” comes Maroon 5 and Cardi B’s “Girls Like You” at #2, Cardi’s “I Like It” featuring Bad Bunny and J Balvin at #3, 6ix9ine and Nicki Minaj’s “Fefe” at #5, Post Malone’s “Better Now” at #5, Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams” at #6, Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” at #7, Tyga and Offset’s “Taste” at a new #8 peak, Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up” at #9, and DJ Khaled’s “No Brainer” (featuring Justin Bieber, Chance The Rapper, & Quavo) at #10.
Janet Jackson & Daddy Yankee – “Made For Now”
Of course Janet’s comeback move is a revved-up reggaeton jam featuring one half of team “Despacito.” I guess they don’t call it “Made For Now” for no reason. But don’t let the song’s extreme on-trend status distract you from the fact that it’s ridiculously fun. (I also love that Daddy Yankee took Janet on the first subway ride of her life this week.)
Calvin Harris & Sam Smith – “Promises”
It’s not “Latch,” but this ocean-brisk house track is proof that Sam Smith should only release dance music (with a few heartrending, percussionless ballads for good measure).
Noah Cyrus & Lil Xan – “Live Or Die”
I did not expect Cyrus and Xan to date, and once I learned they were dating I did not expect them to make such a nice little trap-pop love song. Full of surprises, these two!
Marshmello – “Happier” (Feat. Bastille)
Bastille haven’t had a proper hit since “Pompeii” four years ago, and hopping on a Marshmello track seems like an easy way to rectify that. If you’ve ever wondered what a Mumford & Sons EDM crossover would sound like: Here you go.
Fall Out Boy – Lake Effect Kid EP
Fall Out Boy’s new surprise EP is a tribute to their Chicago hometown. The opening title track splits the difference between Journey and Weezer, which works pretty well. Closer “Super Fade” is Fall Out Boy’s attempt to mimic Yeezus (“Blood On The Leaves,” specifically), and although it makes me cringe I admire its ambition. The middle number, “City In A Garden,” seems to be the single but is the least distinctive of the bunch.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Post Malone fans descended on a small NY airport on Tuesday after a private jet carrying the rapper blew two tires and had to make an emergency landing. [AP]
- Reese Witherspoon interviewed Kacey Musgraves for her DirecTV series Shine On With Reese. [YouTube]
- Travis Scott announced his Astroworld: Wish You Were Here Tour dates. [XXL]
- Adam Lambert, who has performed with the surviving members of Queen, praised Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury. [WAAF]
- Britney Spears has been ordered to pay Keven Federline $110k a month in child support. [E!]
- Liam Payne’s debut EP First Time is out tomorrow. [Twitter]
- Backstreet Boys had to cancel a show in Thackerville, OK on Saturday after a storm knocked over a metal entrance structure resulting in the hospitalization of 14 fans. [CNN]
- Drake dissed Kanye at his Chicago show, changing his “Know Yourself” lyric from “then Kanye dropped” to “Kanye flopped.” [Twitter]
- David Guetta’s new album 7 will feature Justin Bieber, Lil Uzi Vert, Nicki Minaj, Sia, J Balvin, Jason Derulo, Anne-Marie, Bebe Rexha, Black Coffee, Chris Willis, G-Eazy, Jess Glynne, Madison Beer, Martin Garrix, Stefflon Don, Steve Aoki, and Willy William. [YouTube]
- Nick Jonas teased a Robin Schulz collaboration “Right Now,” out tomorrow. [Instagram]
- Here’s Ed Sheeran playing “Vincent” with Don McLean. [Twitter]
- The Chainsmokers and Emily Warren shared a video for “Side Effects.” [YouTube]
- Zedd released a video for his Elley Duhe collab “Happy Now.” [YouTube]
- Florida Georgia Line released a video for “Smooth.” [YouTube]
- Tiffany Haddish roasted Fifth Harmony at the VMAs. [Vulture]
- “Redneck Woman” singer Gretchen Wilson was arrested for disturbing a flight. [Daily Mail]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
Travis Scott got the number 1 album in the country and dressed like a minion at the #VMAs
— Tyler Conway (@jtylerconway) August 21, 2018
HOLD ON, WE’RE STILL GOING HOME
— Dolly Parton (@DollyParton) August 20, 2018
OK, WE’RE REALLY GOING HOME THIS TIME
Me: It's weird that #Madonna is doing a tribute to Aretha Franklin, but what's the worst that could happen?
— Brittany Stephanis (@bmstephanis) August 21, 2018