Couple strays slightly from the typical Hollywood ending, and the show is stronger for it
In recent years, Beyonce and Jay-Z have navigated storms within their marriage, documenting the sometimes-bumpy ride in a pair of his and hers albums (Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter’s contrite 4:44, from 2017, and Beyonce Knowles’ audacious Lemonade, from 2016). So a forecast that threatened actual storm clouds — ones that never materialized, thankfully — did little to deter the A-list couple during a hit-heavy, two-and-a-half hour performance at a packed Ohio Stadium on Thursday.
Following a prerecorded intro that played like a Hollywood film trailer, the two worked both solo and in collaboration, reigning over a stage equipped with two catwalks, a massive video screen and a four-story, industrial, scaffolding-like structure that served as the stomping grounds for the army of nearly 30 musicians and dancers who supported the couple.
Emerging hand-in-hand, both dressed in white, it initially appeared as if the two were set to renew their vows in public. Rather, the pair traded increasingly revealing tunes that documented a marriage in all its complexity, full of missteps, miscommunications, apologies, backsliding, resentments and renewal. “One day you’re screaming you love me,” Beyonce sang on the tone-setting “Holy Grail.” “The next day you’re so cold.”
This unraveling accelerated as Beyonce delved deeper into Lemonade, with its songs heavy on betrayal. On “Sorry,” the singer waved two lyrical middle fingers in the air — not quite the act of contrition offered in the title. Elsewhere she leveled accusations (“You lied!” she repeated on the tender-yet-tough “Resentment”) and hinted at her husband’s flings with other women.
Despite the upheaval, Beyonce never retreated or moped, and her defiance only grew as she surveyed past indiscretions. The message was clear: I love you, but I don’t need you. I’m enough. (There’s little doubt Beyonce audibly snickers when she stumbles upon “Jerry Maguire” and its “You complete me” scene while flipping through cable channels at home.)
While Jay-Z spent much of his time onstage unaccompanied, Beyonce reveled in sisterhood and community, the singer and her cadre of dancers moving together with military precision on songs such as “Formation.” She addressed the women in the audience frequently, belted out straightforward-but-effective feminist anthems (“Run the World (Girls)”), and, on "***Flawless,” celebrated female beauty in all of its forms.
Jay-Z, for his part, carried himself with detached swagger for much of his solo time onstage (this is the man who penned “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” after all, a Teflon track he brushed aside early in the set), only dropping his guard as he worked into 4:44 songs like “I Care” and the title track, on which he confirmed and apologized for the thinly veiled accusations Beyonce levied on Lemonade. “Look, I apologize, often womanize,” he rapped, later following, “Took me too long for this song. I don’t deserve you.”
In one striking transition, a video played onscreen, showing Mr. and Mrs. Carter at home with their three children. These scenes of domestic bliss were interspersed with footage of Jay-Z standing outside a burning house, further hinting at the damage done by his actions. As the clip ended, the rapper launched into a booming, bombastic “99 Problems,” its opening line, “If you’re having girl problems I feel bad for you, son,” playing like a bit of self-laceration, whether intended or not.
Jay-Z also flashed some rare social commentary on “The Story of O.J.,” pivoting from one type of chain (just one song earlier he bragged of his link to Beyonce, rapping, “Got the hottest chick in the game wearing my chain”) to the lingering effects of casting off another, coolly delivering blunt verses imbued with the ghosts of the plantation.
The concert culminated, as all big Hollywood films do, with the couple making amends, folding portions of Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” (“Darling, you look perfect tonight”) into “Young Forever,” which played like the renewed couple’s first dance.
“Let’s dance in style/Let’s dance for a while,” Jay-Z rapped, the two standing practically cheek-to-cheek.
Under the surface, however, doubts lingered. “Hoping for the best,” Beyonce countered with slight hesitancy, sounding like a woman more aware than ever of the countless calamities every lasting relationship is forced to navigate, but no less eager to continue the journey.