The On the Run tour, Jay Z and Beyonce's first co-headlining tour together, delivered the type of expensive, finely calibrated spectacle one would expect from a Forbes power couple with a corporate sponsorship on Monday night at M&T Bank Stadium.
If the show seemed like a top-shelf Hollywood production, it is because it was. Throughout the roughly two-and-a-half hour set, the sold-out crowd received the soundtrack it expected, but also a highly stylized collection of noir-meets-Oliver Stone vignettes that loosely painted these superstars as bank-robbing, star-crossed lovers.
The clips — filled with voiceovers, stripteases, gunfire and A-list cameos — were entertaining but superficial. We would later find out that was the point.
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They made us wait for the payoff, but none of the roughly 50,000 fans seemed to mind since, first and foremost, Jay Z and Beyonce are still two of our most important pop artists and entertainers today. Their fluid set found the two sharing the spotlight, but also conceding it to allow each other the room to do what each does best.
For Jay, it was the steely, confident lyrical acrobatics that have firmly placed the 44-year-old rapper in the discussion for best rapper ever. For his better half, it was Beyonce being Beyonce, the fully committed performer with devastating pipes and magnetic star power to steal the Super Bowl's thunder. Monday night's setlist of hit after hit was a constant reminder that these two have been on top — of pop, hip-hop, R&B, pop-culture, life — for more than a decade now. Younger stars such as Drake or Lady Gaga have made an impact, but as Jay reminded during "Clique," he and Beyonce remain highest on the totem pole.
As great as they are in relation to pop's ecosystem, Monday night's performance also illustrated the disparity between Jay and Beyonce at this moment in their careers. Singles like "Tom Ford" and "Holy Grail" from Jay's 2013 album, the flat "Magna Carta Holy Grail," were met with cheers (from an audience that included at least one Raven, Ray Rice, who was seen walking in with his wife, Janay Rice) but his finest moments came through older songs like "Song Cry" and "U Don’t Know." His biggest hits, such as "Big Pimpin'" and "99 Problems," were still sung verbatim by many in the crowd, but their familiarity betrayed stagnancy. Jay is too technically proficient to appear like he's going through the motions, but it was easy to wonder if even he is tired of brushing off his shoulders.
Beyonce, on the other hand, is having an artistic renaissance at 32. Last year’s self-titled album gained attention for how it was released — it arrived as a well-orchestrated surprise in December — but it should be remembered as Beyonce's best album thus far. Marriage, motherhood and incredible success enabled her to release the most honest — and therefore most fascinating — record of her career, and those songs retained that powerful intensity Monday night. Feminist anthem "***Flawless," which inspired plenty of homemade outfits, empowered, while the disarmingly honest "Pretty Hurts" felt appropriate and timely.
Overall, Beyonce had only one misstep — a chunky hard-rock version of "If I Were a Boy" — that was quickly forgotten once she passionately covered Lauryn Hill’s "Ex-Factor." Her set was undeniably sexually charged (the silhouette dancing of "Partition" was likely burned in many brains) but Beyonce’s sophistication and grace always prevailed. Jay’s best music is likely behind him, while Beyonce’s future seems more intriguing than ever. This dynamic translated live: Oftentimes Monday night, I found myself wishing Jay would get off stage to give Beyonce more time.
Still, this was a show about a married couple in love, and the most memorable moments came when they shared the stage, which was often. Their rapport was evident during full-fledged collaborations ("Upgrade U," Beyonce filling in for Justin Timberlake on "Holy Grail"), but the subtleties mattered, too. They exchanged quick smiles frequently, as if they were sharing an inside joke. Beyonce pantomimed Jay’s lyrics on “Part II.” He held her hand as she walked up steps.
Then there was the payoff that brought the experience full circle. Before the concert began, white text was displayed on the stage’s main screen: "THIS IS NOT REAL LIFE." What seemed vague at first snapped into plain view during the finale.
After providing the hook of Jay’s "Young Forever," Beyonce began singing "Halo," as her proud husband mouthed the lyrics and draped his arm over her shoulder. The beautiful moment was elevated by rare footage of Jay and Beyonce, an intensely private couple, taking selfies on vacation, getting matching tattoos and playing with daughter, Blue Ivy. The video ended with a shot of "The Carters" written into sand, and then the message: "THIS IS REAL LIFE." The vignettes, which alluded to the public scrutiny these two face on a daily basis, were purposefully over-the-top to underline what truly matters to this family: Love.
The glimpse into their personal lives was powerful yet brief, and just one more reminder that these two control their narrative at all times.