“This is not real life.” The phrase glowered over the Rose Bowl as a sold out audience eagerly anticipated the reigning king and queen of pop. It certainly felt like a fantasy. Signs were posted months in advance warning about parking and traffic as if some foreign dignitaries were coming to town. A giant festival right outside the Rose Bowl, peopled with diehard fans wearing their own homemade T-shirts and outfits, raged on hours and hours before the venue was even open. But it wasn’t the spectacle that felt unreal; that’s to be expected. It was the fact that Jay Z, an arguable shoe-in for the title of Greatest Rapper of All Time, and Beyonce, the biggest pop star of the 21st century, starred in a concert that portrayed them as persecuted rebels. And they pulled it off.
Last year, Beyonce and Jay were touring separately, solidifying their places in our national pop canon. Beyonce was busy globetrotting on her Mrs. Carter World Tour while Hov was blowing away stadiums and ballparks beside Justin Timberlake on their Legends Of The Summer tour. Both endeavors exemplified elegance, positioning their subjects as more than mere musicians. The On The Run tour could have easily followed this blueprint, but instead Bey and Jay were edgy, dangerous, and best of all surprising. Instead of playing it safe and rolling out the hits, the power couple remained distinct and forced fans to embrace them as a musical unit. The sorority girl who kept taking selfies learned what it’s like to be racially profiled as young black man, and the dude who kept throwing up the Roc every second had feminism forcibly explained to him.
Keeping the two artists distinct didn’t mean they weren’t together; transitions between the couple were flawless. The horns of “Crazy In Love” morphed into the strut of “Show Me What You Got.” Jay’s verse on “Clique” gave way to Beyonce doing “Diva” over the same beat. And Beyonce’s fearsome “Ring The Alarm” over the beat to “Takeover” was one of the highlights of the night. But this is Beyonce’s territory: very few have her sense of musical fluidity. Watching her live is like taking a trip through time. She throws in some James Brown during “Why Don’t You Love Me,” sprinkles some Isley Brothers onto “Single Ladies,” and even lets Jay in on some of the fun as they led a medley of Bey’s “Love On Top” into the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” before electrifying the night with Jigga’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” which famously samples that same Jackson 5 song.
The show followed the conceit that they were letting the audience into their relationship, and even though there was a cop out (“This is not real life”), they still managed to get across the highs and lows in a meaningful fashion. Positioning their songs next to each other revealed new textures in their music. After Beyonce stunned the crowd into silence with her burlesque routine on “Naughty Girl,” Mr. Carter came out and performed “Big Pimpin.” You don’t get that blend of masculine and feminine braggadocio at any other pop concert. Even more affecting was when Jay Z rapped “Song Cry,” one of the most emotional songs in his catalog, before Beyonce followed with “Resentment,” another breakup song. It was a powerful moment, one that showcased the full range of a relationship.
Who knows what caused the change of tone for the two stars. Maybe it was the ceaseless tabloid attacks on their relationship or maybe it’s actual tension in their relationship. It wasn’t a perfect concert by any means. The constant switch-offs, while smooth, kept either of them from settling into a nice groove. Jay Z is still an incredible performer, but the pop star side of him showed up rather than the rap god (notable exceptions: “U Don’t Know” and “Public Service Announcement”). Any natural chemistry between the spouses was noticeably absent other than Jay’s sly smile during “Drunk In Love.” It’s not even the most notable duo tour of the year: Outkast is wrapping up their reunion tour and Drake and Lil Wayne are crushing stages on their Capcom-sponsored run. But 2014’s Bonnie & Clyde embodied and demolished the cliches that could have overrun their tour and delivered a memorable show. Not real life indeed.