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Pay Me in Equity: On Beyoncé’s Gradual Transformation Into the Alpha Carter

‘Everything Is Love’ confirms Beyoncé’s role opposite her husband and musical partner Jay-Z: She’s the queen and the king

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the video for “’03 Bonnie & Clyde,” Jay-Z is driving. “She’s right back to being my soldier, cause mami’s a rider and I’m a roller,” he raps on his first collaboration with Beyoncé, a song that poured a full tank of premium gasoline all over persistent rumors that they were secretly dating. (And they were; they just hadn’t gone public yet.) The lead-off single from Jay’s seventh album, The Blueprint 2, “Bonnie & Clyde” became Beyoncé’s first top 10 solo hit—it’d still be months before the smash “Crazy in Love” and her blockbuster solo debut album. She softens the edges of “Bonnie & Clyde,” embroiders its Tupac-nodding hook with her signature vocal trills. On hiatus from Destiny’s Child, she was already a star in her own right, but she wasn’t yet the hip-hop titan that Jay was, especially in the afterglow of his triumphant The Blueprint. And so in the video—their first of what would become many riffs on the lovers-on-the-run motif—Jay only lets her behind the wheel when they’re pulling through a tollbooth, so she can flash a placating smile at the unsuspecting attendant. She’s 20 years old.

This weekend—almost 16 years later—Jay-Z and Beyoncé dropped their first collaborative album, Everything Is Love. The nine-song release is, among other things, a defiantly braggadocious display of black wealth and power, a completion of the she-said, he-said Reconcilable Differences Trilogy begun with Beyoncé’s Lemonade and continued with Jay’s 4:44, and a jewel-encrusted middle finger at Tidal’s rival streaming services and the artists who declined to join its ranks (“If I gave two fucks about streaming numbers woulda put Lemonade up on Spotify,” Bey raps on “Nice.”) But perhaps most strikingly, Everything Is Love is a testament to a transformation we’ve been watching in slow motion over the past decade: Beyoncé is now, so obviously, the Alpha Carter. She’s not only driving, she’s blown right through the tollbooth without even thinking about paying.

In the beginning of the video for “Apeshit,” they stand side by side in front of the Mona Lisa—like a Kehinde Wiley take on American Gothic. “Pay me in equity,” Beyoncé spits, her flow a machine-gun staccato, now too direct to need the gloss of a melody. Equity: Like so many things on this record (see also: “I can’t believe we made it”), she means it two ways. Of course in one sense she’s talking stocks, giving the sort of long-view black-billionaire’s-club financial advice that Jay-Z espoused on his most recent album, 4:44. (“My great-great-grandchildren already rich,” she boasts on the next song, “That’s a lot of brown children on your Forbes list.”) But Everything Is Love is also a meditation on equity of a different kind: It’s about the struggle and yet the possibility of reimagining a partnership of incredibly successful equals, one in which traditional gender roles aren’t as fixed or as meaningful as they used to be.

That Bey seems, on almost every track on this record, to be working harder than her husband will come as no surprise to anyone who’s even seen so much as a GIF of her performing live—she has the kind of showbiz work ethic that makes James Brown look like he was giving only about 75 percent on a good night. But the labor she’s doled out to Jay on this record is largely emotional, freeing her up to handle the swag. Consider the disparity between each of their most talked-about lyrics: For Jay-Z, it’s an admission that when their marriage was on the rocks, he thought about dying (“Ty-Ty take care of my kids, after he done grievin’”). Beyoncé, meanwhile, gleefully quotes the stoner comedy Half Baked: “Fuck you, fuck you, you’re cool, fuck you—I’m out!” Bonnie & Clyde ’18 is a different kind of story.

Around the time of Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled surprise album, while the rest of the world was bowing down to “Queen Bey,” some of Beyoncé’s biggest fans started referring to her as “King B”—in homage to a message she’d scrawled in lipstick on the cover of her single “Best Thing I Never Had.” The King B nickname really took off in the Beyhive after the release of “Bow Down/I Been On,” a hard-edged track that puzzled some people at first, but now feels prophetic: In the second half, Beyoncé raps in a deep, masculine tone that’s been pitched down to sound a bit like Tyler, the Creator’s demon voice. “She’s toyed with gender roles before,” BuzzFeed noted in 2013, “but elevating herself to the level of ‘King’ seems like Bey making a clear statement about notions of gender and power.”

Beyoncé rapping would soon not be such an anomaly. On singles like “Formation,” “7/11,” and her Nicki Minaj collaborations “Feeling Myself” and “Flawless (Remix),” Bey has proved herself to be a skilled MC, pivoting nimbly from hooks to a whole Rolodex of flows. Everything Is Love is an album-length coming-out party for Yoncé the Rapper, emphasis on party, because the most infectious part of it is that she sounds like she’s having a blast.

On “Apeshit”—a song so instantly classic that a few days after its release it already feels as though it’s always existed—she sinks her teeth into the Migos flow with such relish that Takeoff should probably be a little bit nervous that he’s not on the track. There’s really no reason for anyone to base a chorus off a song as ubiquitous as “Still D.R.E.” (other than the fact Jay might want to remind people that he wrote it) but on “713” Bey brings such exuberance to lines like, “Still dippin’ in my low-lows, girl!!” that it doesn’t matter. Jay, to his credit, doesn’t come off as threatened by his wife’s veering into his lane so much as enamored of her cultivation of yet another superpower. “Talk that talk, B,” he says from the background of “Heard About Us,” with an affectionate laugh.

One of the most memorable parts of her masterful Coachella set earlier this year came during the Lemonade anthem “Sorry,” when she paused the song and commanded an entire marching band to let her and her female dancers chant “SUCK ON MY BALLS” for an extended period of time. (Could your favorite male rapper do the opposite?) Beyoncé has toyed with androgyny before, in more benign ways (“If I Were a Boy”), but as she’s started asserting herself as a more fluidly “alpha” presence in her songs, she’s begun to take this provocation further and further, playfully transcending ideas about biological sex, gender, and power. “Get off my dick,” she mutters into the camera in the “Apeshit” video. The internet responded in kind.

As Beyoncé’s edges have sharpened, Jay’s have softened, compatibly: Hov has come a long way in expressing emotion since “Love! I don’t get enough of it.” On “713,” he flashes back to the first vacation he took with his future wife, which foreshadowed the many ways she’d push him to grow: “My first time in the ocean went exactly as you’d expect / Meanwhile you goin’ hard, jumping off the top deck.” The opening track “Summer” (which lays the foundation of the record’s many ocean-as-relationship metaphors) finds him juxtaposing his own turbulent upbringing in Brooklyn’s Marcy Houses (“I remember summer nights in the projects / Bullet rounds interrupting my Chi”) with the kind of safety his success has allowed him to provide for his own children (“It’s not lost on me, music has my kids sound asleep”).

Like Jay’s recent 4:44, Everything Is Love is a meditation on legacy—particularly the financial fates of his and Bey’s progeny. In the closing track, they even talk about inheritance: “I let my wife write the will,” Jay raps, “I pray my children outlive me.” Of course all this talk about wealth can come off as alienating or even tone-deaf: A recent tweet from the On the Run II Tour asking, in Jay’s words, “What’s better than one billionaire?” prompted many people to respond “none” or “redistributing wealth to the masses.” Still, there is something encouraging about how future-focused Jay-Z and Beyoncé are, in a time when so many people are having a hard time feeling hopeful about what’s ahead. On Everything Is Love they’re imagining a better life for their kids, a more diverse vision of power, and, on the most intimate scale, a more open and equitable partnership.

Watching Lemonade live for the first time, the video for “Sandcastles” made me scream at my television. The first seven videos of Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album were a stunningly personal indictment of Jay-Z’s infidelities—upon hearing “Sorry” for the first time and still not knowing how the story ended, who among us could resist wondering if Lemonade was just the world’s most artful divorce announcement? But midway through the visual for the eighth track, Jay’s hand appears, caressing his wife. The remaining videos, most warmly “All Night,” focus on healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. The first few times I watched and listened, it seemed to me like a rushed happy ending. The embers of “Hold Up” were still crackling; I wasn’t yet ready to forgive him, even if Beyoncé was.

Of course we’ll never know the truth of the Carters’ relationship; we’ll only have the carefully composed snapshots they provided, the stories they tell us. In the two years since Lemonade, what Jay-Z and Beyoncé have shown us is a candid—or at least selectively cropped—portrait of a flawed but enduring union. You can be famous enough to shut down the Louvre, yet your marriage can still be work. They speak most directly about it on Everything Is Love’s closing track, “Lovehappy,” a song on which Beyoncé presents herself clearly as the one who is in control of what is being disclosed:

Beyoncé: Yeah, you fucked up the first stone, we had to get remarried …

Jay-Z: Yo, chill man

Beyoncé: We keepin’ it real with these people, right? Lucky I ain’t kill you when I met that b-

Jay-Z: Nah, aight, aight

Jay’s discomfort in this moment feels like an ongoing part of his penance, the visible work he is putting into reestablishing her trust. “Long way to go, but we’ll work it,” Beyoncé sings in the final moments of an album that has, in its way, served as a postscript to the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie quote she used in “Flawless”: “We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much … Otherwise you will threaten the man.’” Everything Is Love is a rebuttal to this old-fashioned worldview. She sounds unwilling to shrink herself; he sounds open to change. Beysus, take the wheel.