Beyoncé took us all to church. That’s really the only way to describe the power of the performance she and Jay-Z brought to NRG with their On the Run II tour stops last Saturday and Sunday nights.
Let’s get something straight: Everything you’ve heard about Beyoncé is true. Every hyperbolic accolade, every dramatic analogy to a goddess or a queen or a superhuman force of nature—all that hype is warranted. The sheer stage presence of the woman is enough to stop anyone, die-hard or skeptic, dead in their tracks.
Then there’s that voice, mighty enough to bring down the house, and the choreography, as good—no, better—as it was in the Destiny’s Child era. Twenty years and three kids later, Beyoncé hasn’t missed a beat, much less broken a sweat. Seriously: Camera close-ups revealed the marathon two-and-a-half hour performance couldn’t even budge her eye makeup.
And what’s better than one billionaire? Two. Jay-Z, legend in his own right, only elevated the evening. “THIS. IS. REAL. LIFE,” the stadium screen flashed, one word at a time, as the lights went down and 70,000 people screamed. And then there they were, two statuesque figures in white holding hands at the top of the arena, descending over the roaring crowd with stoic expressions as if to say, “we built this.”
Their immovable calm, in complete contrast to their wild and bucking audience, was chill-inducing. Suddenly you understood that, while from this world, they are not of this world—not anymore, at least. They’ve transcended celebrity for icon, the rare breed of artist that lives to see their own exaltation in real time.
“Do you think they have friends?” my companion asked later that night upon reflection.
“No,” I said. Their unmatched power would disrupt any social hierarchy, which is why they can only associate with people like the Obamas.
Back at NRG, “Holy Grail” opens Saturday’s show with Beyoncé singing Justin Timberlake’s verses. Still motionless and highly composed, she reaches levels of pitch-perfect vocal power as if she’s simply saying “hi.” She is a vision, her structured pearl-and-diamond-encrusted bodysuit part armor, part angel; her hip-length mane never once tangling or obscuring her face, defiant hair flip after defiant hair flip. Her body is insane, it should be noted, and the crowd reacts accordingly whenever the camera trains on her derrière.
The Carters give the people what they came for straight away, launching into throwback favorites like “‘03 Bonnie and Clyde” and, later, “Upgrade U” and “Crazy in Love.” They make an impressive dent in their respective discographies, cycling through hit after hit from each era of their storied careers: “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” “Big Pimpin'” and “99 Problems” for him; “Baby Boy,” “Countdown,” and “Flawless” for her. It’s most fun when they share the stage and we get to watch Jay watch his wife, awestruck, or when we catch glimpses of Bey mouthing every word to a breakneck-speed Hov verse.
The pacing is just right, from anthems that bring the stadium to its feet (“Formation” and “Ni**as in Paris”) to well-timed political statements that make them sit down and shut up (“The Story of OJ”).
Present through it all is an air of theatrics, as this is more than a concert: it’s a show. With a massive backing band, pyrotechnics, contortionists, a talented dance crew, multiple stages (including twin catwalks and a moving platform), and no shortage of costume changes (for both performers), OTR II pulls out all the stops.
The show is a testament to their talent—unmatched—and, more than anything, to their marriage—unbreakable. That wasn’t a given, though: As revealed on Beyonce’s critically acclaimed Lemonade, there was trouble in paradise; Jay-Z followed up on 4:44, addressing his own infidelity in moments of vulnerability like “Family Feud.”
It’s no spoiler alert that the couple reconciled, but the fact that they stood to make millions off their heartbreak spurred some to ask how legit the whole ordeal really was. Was there ever even a Becky with the good hair?
We’ll never know the inner workings of the Carters’ relationship, but watching the couple interact on this tour is likely the closest we’ll get. It’s impossible to come away from OTR II without believing that this—their anguish and, stronger yet, their love—is real. Despite performing this set all summer long—Saturday in Houston was their 40th show—the Carters appear to relive their ordeal on stage every night, and their fans are the better for it.
If the show follows the trajectory of their relationship—the opening strong and exciting, full of frenetic energy and bangers like “Drunk in Love”—the middle is the climax. It happens somewhere around “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” the angsty, rock-tinged, Jack White-produced track that marks the “damn, she angry” part of Lemonade. “Who the f*** do you think I is?” it begins.
But the mood changes—much as it does in life when this sort of thing occurs—and the defiant, almost taunting vibe of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” gives way to the mournful heartsickness of 4’s “I Care.” “I know you don’t care too much / But I still care,” Beyoncé croons.
Next, we’re in Jay’s head, as he takes the stage to offer his side of the story with spirited performances of “4:44” (“Took me too long for this song, I don’t deserve you,” he spits) and “Song Cry” (“I gotta live with the fact that I did you wrong forever”). Slowly, Beyoncé appears, traipsing down the catwalk in a gown to sit at the edge and pour out her heart in “Resentment,” arguably her most powerful (and vulnerable) ballad.
“Have you ever been lied to? Had your heart broken?” she asks before she begins. By the end, she’s on the verge of tears. “I know she was attractive / But I was here first,” she sings, pausing to visibly grimace at the line and, presumably, the truth behind it. “You took my soul,” she goes on. “How could you lie?”
At this point, it’s unclear how Jay-Z is going to re-enter without a mob forming—we’re on her turf, after all. A long video interlude flashes on the screen, chock-full of symbolism set to a frantic, tribal drumbeat. We see scenes spliced together of the couple in bed and, later, running toward (or is it away?) from each other; of Beyoncé, luggage in hand, boarding a boat that her husband just misses; of Jay-Z kneeling in prayer at a candle-lit altar. By the time it’s over, we’re ready for them to reconcile.
They do, in their best costumes of the night—matching suits reminiscent of the “APES**T” video; cobalt blue for him, impossibly glittery hot pink for her—lifting everyone’s spirits. It’s here that Beyoncé’s gospel roots reveal themselves, and the religious imagery continues with a stained glass backdrop. Beyonce leads the crowd in “Ha Ya,” the chant meaning “eternal life” that’s sampled in Jay’s “Family Feud.”
The moment is complete when, later, they duet with “Forever Young” and “Perfect,” holding hands while home movie footage rolls behind them. That’s nearly enough to bring us to tears as we see intimate scenes of Blue Ivy, Jay dancing with a very pregnant Beyoncé, and the birth of the twins. It’s an ode to love almost lost, and to family, the one thing they’ve built that’s stronger than their empire.
It’s a poignant note to end on, but not the most fun. So, they don’t, choosing instead to leave their disciples with a party in “APES**T,” the lead single off their recent joint release, EVERYTHING IS LOVE. It’s Bey and Jay at their best, at the top of their game and unapologetically aware of it. In the chorus that echoes through the stadium, they answer their own question: “Have you ever seen the crowd goin’ apesh*t?”