Fans of star power, super couples and subtext were in their glory Thursday at a raucous Soldier Field. Beyonce and Jay Z have been the subject of break-up rumors for weeks, and so their massive summer stadium tour has become something beyond a mere concert: it’s also a soap opera and morality play, a life-imitates-art-imitates-life slice of meta theater about a supposedly troubled couple talking to each other through their songs. Though, of course, aren’t all longtime couples “troubled” at one time or another? And who’s to say if any of the rumors are even true. Hey, I know, maybe it’s all just a plot hatched by Beyonce and Jay Z to keep the media’s ongoing fascination with their lives and careers at a fever pitch. So add conspiracy theorists to the list of onlookers who packed the stadium Thursday.
If Jay Z and Beyonce’s shared life at times is made to seem like a pulpy Hollywood melodrama in the media, the couple played along with that notion. The songs essentially served as a soundtrack for a black-and-white movie projected on three huge video screens. Its episodes presented the duo as gun-toting Bonnie and Clyde-style contemporary outlaws, on the lam with suitcases stuffed with cash. At points in the film, the outlaws each meet their bloody demise in a hail of bullets. Fortunately, the movie came equipped with its own warning label for the overly gullible: “This is Not Reality.”
On stage, Jay Z and Beyonce tried to shape their own reality. But for the first hour it felt about as personal and mechanical as an expensive political ad. Sure, the songs came fast and uptempo. Beyonce declared she was “Crazy in Love,” Jay Z demanded “Show Me What You Got.” The singer proclaimed her gender’s empowerment in “Run the World (Girls),” Jay Z later answered with the testosterone-saturated bravado of “Big Pimpin’.” But the lack of smiles and the professional detachment kept the screaming fans at arm’s length -- not that any of them seemed to particularly mind. At one point, Beyonce commanded the stage with a sullen stare, and the cheering only grew wilder and more appreciative.
Artistically, the hip-hop impresario and the multi-octave singer are at different points in their careers. Jay Z is about 10 years past his prime; his last great album, “The Black Album,” was released in 2003 as a prelude to his short-lived “retirement.” He urged, “If anybody in here got a dream, you chase that … down.” But his aspirational songs, about overcoming his street-dealer past to become a legit “business, man,” have lost some of their luster now that he’s become one of the most powerful power-brokers in the world, coasting on his still-considerable reputation: a mighty backlog of hits and an imperious flow that commands attention.
He’s best known lately for marrying the woman who carried this show with her mix of feistiness and vulnerability. Once upon a time, Beyonce could come across as a bit too perfect, her technical skills never quite translating into genuine soulfulness. But she's had a string of increasingly strong and artistically adventurous albums, culminating with last year's stealth release, "Beyonce," and the best moments Thursday belonged to her. She cut loose more than hour into the show on “Why Don’t You Love Me” with an actual band finally visible. If the latter lit up with stadium-pop urgency, her performance of Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” and especially “Resentment” presented heartache as a series of painful rhetorical questions: “Tell me who I have to be to get some reciprocity?” “Why did I deserve to be treated this way by you?”
Beyonce, seated in an ironic wedding dress at the smaller stage in the middle of the audience, was surrounded by female fans shouting the words of “Resentment” with her. Next to that moment, the sassiness of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” felt almost trite, as if commitment could be reduced to a finger ornament.
In the end, Jay Z and Beyonce were wrapped up in each other’s arms. On the way there, they traded a smile or two, and Jay Z nibbled on Beyonce’s neck (a choreographed moment that has occurred at previous stops on the tour). At times the “movie” playing on stage mirrored the fake one on screen. But Beyonce cut through the show biz to project something that looked and felt a little more real. In a costly stadium spectacle that sometimes played like a public-relations manifesto, the vulnerability struck a chord.