Recent rumors alleging the imminent divorce of music’s most ubiquitous power couple wasn’t so much the elephant in the arena as it was the raison d’etre for HBO’s On the Run Tour special that aired Sept. 20. The state of Beyoncé and Jay Z’s union has been subject to frenzied speculation during the past few months after Elevatorgate, typically followed by poker-faced damage control. The sprawling two-and-a-half-hour TV special, filmed Sept. 12-13 during the Paris stop of the pair’s blockbuster tour, didn’t just offer a front-row seat for those who didn’t shell out for a ticket: It also presented a sliver of insight into Jay and Bey’s relationship, a rare glimpse of the intimacy they’ve mostly tried to hide. But it also showed who is really in charge onstage in this relationship. Spoiler alert: Beyoncé.
If any conclusion can be drawn with certainty about this protective pair, it’s that Bey dwarfs her husband in performances. Jay’s solo moments were charming enough — his older tracks in particular (“Public Service Announcement,” “Big Pimpin’ “) felt unimpeachable. But ultimately, all eyes were on Beyoncé. From her meticulous choreography to her elaborate costume changes to her occasional rap verses — which displayed an ease and sass that sometimes made Jay look stiff in comparison — she didn’t just steal the show, she owned it. The opening run, from ” ’03 Bonnie & Clyde” to “Upgrade U,” set the tone: Their introductory ride-or-die collaboration (which ends with the couple’s regal, unflinching stares into the audience, daring anyone to question their love) leads into “Upgrade U,” with Jay playing awestruck hypeman to an irrepressibly swagged-out Beyoncé.
When they share the stage, the message rings loud and clear: Still crazy in love, after all these years! Nothing to see here, except total domination. How much of that is a performative put-on, an advertisement for the most important part of the Carters’ brand after music — their love — is harder to discern. Especially given the glaring lack of behind-the-scenes footage or any significant candidness during the show, save the finale, in which the two exchange “I love you’s” after a sincerely heart-melting slideshow featuring daughter Blue Ivy set to “Halo.”
The blurred lines between real and scripted emotion might be the most quintessential Jay and Bey move they could’ve made. To feign pulling back the curtain on their private lives, only to gently nudge the public back out of their business with impeccably choreographed intimacy, is the perfect response to months of pesky conjecture about the state of their relationship.
The 43-song set list was even more impressive in practice than it looked on paper: The couple’s solo catalogs seamlessly intertwine, informing one another anew through tricky mash-ups and trade-offs. But the girl-power run through “Run the World (Girls),” “Bow Down/I Been On” and “Flawless” (featuring a surprise appearance from Nicki Minaj) feels especially important. As Beyoncé boldly stunts in front of a giant screen that displays an excerpt from a speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the lattermost song: “Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage.” It begs the question: Why are we so fixated on her and Jay Z’s union anyway? Here, more than ever, it feels like a message to shut up about their love life and watch two artists slay at what they do.
Consider the dirt officially brushed off their shoulders.