An ‘Ex-Factor’ cover, addressing those break-up rumours – and a flawless Nicki
“THE QUEEN OF RAP, SLAYIN’ WITH QUEEN BEY”
As she pointed out on Instagram, Dazed cover star Nicki Minaj almost willed what happened on Friday night in Paris' gargantuan Stade de France into existence. "IM OUT IN PARIS, mudafuka, WIT BEYONCE!" she spits on 2010's “Girls Fall Like Dominoes”, a prophecy made reality on a fiery version of their “***Flawless” remix that saw two of music's biggest names standing (almost) shoulder to shoulder (Nicki's a bit shorter than Beyoncé). Having already rattled through most of the original version, Beyoncé – dressed in a custom Atelier Versace leotard with that looked like a pimped-out beanie on her head – introduced Nicki to the stage to cheers so deafening it looked like Nicki had to stick her finger in her ear just to get a sense of what on earth was happening. From there we experienced the full Nicki rap repertoire; firstly rumbling slowly through the opening bars at Beyoncé's side, then prowling across the stage, before racing through the gears and unleashing that machine-gun flow while Beyoncé looked like a being possessed next to her. Then, as quickly as she'd arrived she was gone, sinking into the stage to let Beyoncé finish telling us how perfect we all are. It takes a pretty big character to even temporarily outshine Beyoncé, but for those two minutes it was the Nicki show.
BEYONCÉ WAS TONIGHT’S REAL BOSS
I don't mind admitting, I'm a pretty big Beyoncé fan. In fact, I'd sort of forgotten Jay Z was going to be there at all up until about an hour before it all started. For me, performance-wise there's always been something slightly lacking about Jay Z; not twisted and unknowable enough to pull off Kanye's moody introspection (although he tries pretty hard during “U Don't Know”), nor versatile enough to flit seamlessly between the lighter, poppier stuff and the darker songs, like, say, Nicki Minaj. And aside from a handful of special moments – an incredible Izzo “(H.O.V.A)”, a rib-rattling “99 Problems”, and a short, but electric “Niggas In Paris” – the songs where he was left on stage alone tended to start well but then quickly peter out, while the collaborations made him feel like the sidekick, even on his own “Holy Grail”. In comparison, Beyoncé seemed even more amped up than usual, attacking each dance move with a screw face that looked like it might stick if the wind changed.
BOW DOWN FOR THE QUEEN
As an introductory film tells us, Beyoncé's character during the On The Run show is called, quite simply, The Queen. Tellingly, Jay Z's not The King, but The Gangster, and it's the Queen that rules the roost in Paris (or “Paris, France” as Jay insisted on calling it ever time). During the second song ��Upgrade U”, Beyoncé chews up the stage, dancing aggressively at Jay before punctuating the line “I'm gonna help you build up your account” with a knowing look towards her husband before surveying the 80,000 crowd with a raised eyebrow. The pretext is clear; this wouldn't be happening if it weren't for me. There's a telling moment during an almost life-affirmingly amazing “Drunk In Love” – the “looooovvvvvveeeee” bit becomes almost a religious experience when it's sung by that many people – where she stands up from her rotating chair to actually introduce Jay Z onto the stage, as if perhaps even she'd forgotten it's meant to be a joint headline tour.
THE WHOLE SHOW SELF-CONSCIOUSLY PLAYS INTO THE TABLOID DRAMA OF THEIR MARRIAGE
With tabloid rumours swirling about the state of their marriage ever since Solange tried to high kick Jay Z out of a lift back in May, you'd think a co-headline tour would be the perfect way of rebuffing the rumours. And yet like last month's MTV VMA performance in which she opened with “Mine” (“Are we gonna even make it?”), there are salacious breadcrumbs dotted throughout the On The Run show. The already fairly unhinged infidelity anthem “Ring The Alarm” is performed with extra aggression for starters, while the fact that “If I Were A Boy” morphs into a heartfelt cover of Lauryn Hill's “Ex-Factor” feels more than a little loaded.
WHO’S THAT WACK BITCH?
It's during “Resentment” – a song originally recorded by Victoria Beckham, let's not forget – that things get properly interesting. Written about the lack of trust in a relationship following an affair, Beyoncé choses to perform it in a wedding dress, sat alone in the middle of the b-stage. She also changes some of the original lyrics, so “Like the way that bitch could” becomes “like that wack bitch could”, while “Been riding with you for six years” is updated to “twelve years” (i.e since the pair of them started dating). Then during the line “I know she was attractive”, Beyoncé pauses, looks out into the crowd and runs her hand down her body as if to say “yeah, but come on, I'm Beyoncé”, before crying during the line, “she's had half of me”. It's a genuinely touching moment during a show that careens along so quickly there's barely time for breath. Whether any of this means anything in real life is obviously still open to speculation, but it's interesting that the show itself purposefully seems to fuel the rumours. The words that flash up on the screen after “Resentment”? “Forgiveness is the final act of love”.
“PERFECTION IS SO...UGH”
Beyoncé and perfection go hand in hand. In fact, it's this reliance on perfectionism that some of her critics see as making her uninteresting. Either way, despite already performing the show across America for the past couple of months, something goes drastically wrong during “Partition”. Having finished “Beach Is Better”, Jay Z sits on a chair as if ready to witness some sort of pole dancing escapade only for nothing to appear in front of him. While Beyoncé's voice can be heard she doesn't emerge from the smoke until a third of the way through the song and that's just to amble towards the front of the stage. With no backing dancers, no poles and no plan B she then just wanders off stage as the song fades out. In fact, this blip seems to unsettle the rhythm of the show for a few songs, at least until the double whammy of “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)” and “Single Ladies” reignites the whole thing again.
WHEN THE TWO SETLISTS ARE SEAMLESSLY CONNECTED, THERE’S NOTHING BETTER
Cramming over forty songs into a two and a half hour set is always going to make for a tricky flow, and for the most part Bey and Jay stick to fairly separate sets, with most of their actual collaborations – “Crazy In Love”, “Upgrade U”, “Drunk In Love” – aired in the show's dizzying first half (2006's UK number 1 “Déjà vu” doesn't appear at all). For this reason there are moments where it can feel slightly stilted, especially when one of them will appear for just one song and then disappear again. But when the songs connect properly, it's incredible. So the braggadocios “Big Pimpin'” ends with Jay sitting on a high-backed chair, which then spins round to reveal Beyoncé starting “Ring The Alarm”, while the metallic thump of “Clique” fizzles and crackles and eventually disintegrates into Beyoncé's “Diva”. Perhaps the perfect example of musical symbiosis happens when Beyoncé morphs “Love On Top” seamlessly into Jackson 5's “I Want You Back”, which then in turn morphs into Jay's “I Want You Back”-sampling “Izzo (H.O.V.A)”.
THE TINA KNOWLES DESIGNS ARE A DISTANT MEMORY NOW
Sometimes I like to flick through my hardback copy of Destiny's Style and remember all the times Tina Knowles used to dress her daughter in what looked like some old bedsheets sewn onto some jeans and then stapled onto the curtains. And then dyed orange. For On The Run, those days are gone – and her stars-and-stripes closing look by Givenchy took over 500 hours to create. As a whole, the outfits showcased a much more daring side of Beyoncé – not least in rump-revealing “Naughty Girl” outfit, and a shredded ice skating leotard for “Partition”. Jay Z even manages to look like he's put in a bit of an effort, with his usual array of t-shirts and jeans augmented with a leather jacket and at one point what looks a bit like a bowler hat.
THE VIDEO INTERLUDES MAKE MORE SENSE THAN ON THE MRS CARTER TOUR
One of the only negative aspects of Beyoncé's two-tiered Mrs Carter tour was the way the momentum was constantly snaffled by video interludes, usually of her dressed as a Victorian Queen and occasionally holding an owl. Thematically and conceptually the video interludes that pepper the On The Run show work much better (see , with the ‘Bonnie & Clyde as shot by Tarantino’ vibe permeating the entire show – and allowing Beyoncé a chance to unleash the fierce side she used to call her Sasha Fierce. The interludes also work as proper breathers not just for Bey and Jay, but for the crowd too. It's hard to think straight when you're confronted with non-stop bangers.
LESS IS MORE
It might seem ridiculous to refer to anything Beyoncé and Jay Z do as minimal, but considering what's on offer for a massive pop show these days the staging is kept relatively simple. At the very start – before a note has been played – the screens are kept completely white apart from 'J+B' on one screen, 'OTR' on the other and the words 'This is not real life' spelt out in the middle. Throughout, specific lyrics flash up on the big screen like mantras, while the stage itself is often engulfed in lashings of smoke and bathed in block colours. The only real concession to rock excess is a massive flame shooter on top of the mixing desk, and a toaster lift (a la Michelle Williams at the Super Bowl) for French dancers Les Twins during the brilliantly moody “Ghost/Haunted”. Rather than flashy pyrotechnics or high-wire gymnastics, the show's magnetism comes from the sheer force of personality of the two performers.