To fully appreciate Everything is Love, it helps to think about the past.
Like much of Beyoncé’s most fascinating work of late, the album—a collaboration with her husband JAY-Z—emphasizes the unique intersection of what New Yorker writer Doreen St. Felix describes as her Southernness and the global black vernacular. Heralded and received as the long-anticipated event album from one of the most-surveilled couples in contemporary popular culture, the joint effort displays the couple’s (particularly Beyoncé’s) unique talent for reframing Black history—while making some of their own—with stunning acuity.
In her biography of Sojourner Truth, Nell Painter writes about the slave mentality and how it didn’t occur in a vacuum:
Everything Is Love celebrates the hard-won absence of these qualities 153 years after the Emancipation Proclamation declared all enslaved persons free. One way of gauging how free The Carters are on Everything is Love is comparing them to Painter’s definition. Anger is turned outward, at the appropriate targets (JAY-Z takes swipes at the NFL and the Grammys, for example). Self-confidence and autonomy are in abundance on every track, especially “Nice,” which showcases Beyoncé at the height of her rapping prowess. As for a desire to please the powerful at any cost, Beyonce’s answer is “get off my dick.”
Whether she’s talking about her metaphorical dick or asking us to stop hounding her about JAY-Z’s snowballing mediocrity in the face of her much more obvious evolutionary leaps and bounds doesn’t matter much. This is, as Black love and Black family is and has been in America, a matriarchal gift—her name comes first on all tracks, followed by his, then The Carters.
“Summer,” the album’s opening track, sounds like a standard sultry anthem. But knowing what Beyoncé understands about history—hers, Black families, Black lovers—when she sings, “Let’s make love in the summertime, yeah/On the sands, beach sands, make plans/To be in each others’ arms,” she’s fully aware of the luxury her ancestors didn’t have, since slaveowners often made enslaved people work as long as the sun was up—which in the summer could be 14-hour days, according to the Monticello Foundation. We take for granted that Black people can make plans now like everyone else, but for enslaved people, time was not their own and the future wasn’t, either. Black couples, as property, were often legally forbidden from marriage. So the first crooning of this chorus is more than just a sweet affirmation—it’s a healing from traumatic history.
“This is, as Black love and Black family is and has been in America, a matriarchal gift.”
Until our fairly recent Black Renaissance, featuring the groundbreaking Black Panther and A Wrinkle In Time narratives at its center, the American imagination seems to have been most comfortable with Black relationships steeped in Black suffering and pain (think 12 Years A Slave). Like the best artists in history, Beyoncé uses these tropes and archetypes to make new work that becomes its own kind of inside joke and artistry, a sonic way of playing the dozens with her enemies.
This alchemy is at the heart of the “Apeshit” video. It was shot in the Louvre amidst a host of deep artistic and visual references that nod at space, ownership, and autonomy. It feels too easy that JAY-Z is rapping about gorillas and apes since he’s been maligned about his appearance forever, but anyone who paid attention to Roseanne’s racist tweet—referring to Valerie Jarrett using the ape trope—feels a particular vindication seeing another wealthy Black woman taking back the word.
The whole time, Beyoncé and JAY-Z seem to both assert and flip the definition of apeshit—wild excitement—in the midst of what represents to many the height of sophistication and refinement. There are other notes of this in the video, too, even if they aren’t sung or spoken: A flash of Portrait of a Black Woman (Negress) by Marie-Guillemine Benoist—likely one of few portraits in the famous museum of a Black person not explicitly featuring a slave—and Beyoncé centering herself, in a line of Black women dancing seductively, under the coronation of Queen Josephine in Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon.
Just as there are multiple ways of hearing and listening to Everything is Love, there are different ways of seeing how Beyoncé and JAY-Z assert their wealth, and what it’s for. A simple interpretation is the couple is throwing their repose and decadence in our faces. A more complex, likely rendering, would be that their freedom could be—perhaps as these works of art are for them—inspiration for us to seek our own freedom.
Because, yes, it’s over the top to shoot your video in the Louvre. It’s incredible to be featured with your husband essentially as decoration, as a commodity of your own, while in possession of a sacred space in which you are not laboring, during a season when your ancestors would have been toiling. You can just, like, stand there. Or, like, dance.
This, too, is freedom. At least it is for Black people, for whom the full range of basic human experiences—like, say, sitting in a Starbucks waiting for a business meeting without fear of getting arrested, or BBQing on Lake Merritt without someone calling the police—have often been denied. This is why it’s dope to hear Beyonce sing on “Boss” that her “great, great great grandchildren already rich/that’s a lot of brown children on your Forbes list,” and then follow up, proud that she can drop her daughter off at school in the morning. She knows the privilege of not having to worry about the future stems from the sacrifices of women who came before her. Not only did Black mothers not have the ability to stay with their children in the days before freedom, but they certainly didn’t have the luxury of educating them, or even dreaming about the next generation. But Everything is Love reminds us that as much as some days it feels like we live in the past, a true genius is always creating work with her eye on the future.
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