Astronomers are predicting that Halley’s Comet will make its return to public view in 2061 as part of a perihelion that has the scientific community shivering with anticipation. For those in western New York who couldn’t wait that long to experience another seismic stargazing event, Beyoncé and Jay-Z descending from the heavens to deliver a masterful performance in front of 50,000 commoners at New Era Field on Saturday served as one hell of a placeholder. The power couple’s 43-song splurge was a grandiose family therapy session masquerading as populist entertainment, which meant that every track was either a Top-40 rump-shaker or a lacerating response to their well-publicized marital drama.
Because they fancy themselves as a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, Mr. and Mrs. Carter’s musical stylings were interspersed with vignettes playing off the “us against the world” mentality that has propelled them to Billionaire status. Hova assumed the role of silver-tongued rap kingpin while Queen Bey played the part of an independent woman for whom standing by her man would require more than just a standard apology tour to repair the damage done. Poking the Beyhive with a stick is never a wise move, but that’s exactly what Jay-Z did when reports of infidelities began to surface. What was once viewed as a storybook romance was actually an imperfect relationship revealing that they had to work just as hard as the rest of us to keep it together.
Not only did the fallout humanize them, it also inspired them to craft what I consider the two greatest albums either artist has ever made. “Lemonade” and “4:44” are scathingly brilliant statements that could have only materialized from a situation in which stripping away the usual hip hop braggadocio in favor of conscience-cleansing honesty was necessary to move on. Never before had they sounded so vulnerable on record, so it wasn’t surprising when the songs from those sessions resonated the loudest within the live setting.
“Sorry,” “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” and “Formation” each showcased Beyoncé at her best as both a performer and vocalist capable of shaking an audience to its core. The way in which her on-stage mannerisms matched the viciousness of the lyrics made for great theater and further justified her position as one of the premier mainstream artists of the third millennium. Her moment of the night came in the form of “Resentment,” a 2006 ballad whose emotional chasm has deepened in the wake of the scandal. She didn’t write the song, but she sang it with such despondency that I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing justice to its message. It’s not often that art imitates life to such a harrowing degree, but her pain proved to be the listener’s gain. When a crowd that had routinely been louder than the music for much of the evening suddenly goes silent while you’re baring your soul, you know you’ve struck a nerve.
Of course, not everyone came to the show in need of catharsis, so “Baby Boy,” “Crazy in Love,” and “Run the World” were all pulled out to lighten the mood, the latter of which featured an array of backup dancers to bolster the feminist philosophy that Beyoncé has inspired so many members of her Beyhive to adopt.
Despite complementing his wife so seamlessly throughout the evening, Jay-Z’s solo contributions to the set appeared to exist in a different universe altogether. His utilitarian approach to dropping some of the hottest verses rap has ever heard stood in stark contrast to Beyoncé’s funk-filled bombast, because all he really needs is a mic and a beat to cement his legend. Classics such as “99 Problems,” “Run This Town,” and “Big Pimpin” were set ablaze from the opening bars with the kind of hubris only someone regarded as an all-time great MC could possess. The fans ate it up, but it wasn’t until he got personal that the evening achieved transcendence.
A riveting stretch of “Family Feud,” “Public Service Announcement,” and “The Story of O.J.” is what separated Jay-Z from so many of the other rappers who rolled though Buffalo this summer. He actually set aside time during an otherwise celebratory shindig to offer caustic social commentary regarding the history of racism in America and why O.J. Simpson’s contention that fame exempted him from the realities of the black community was bullshit. The song’s vibe didn’t fit with anything that came before or after, but it was a moment I won’t soon forget.
Closing out the evening was the tandem of “Young Forever” and “Apeshit,” both of which were flawlessly executed and whipped the crowd into a frenzy that not even the most sedentary concertgoers could resist. Then, just like that, the movie was over, and its stars disappeared into the night as quickly as they arrived, which, when you’re on the run, tends to be the only way to go.