Love, whether abundant or lacking, has always been a central concern of pop music. It can be overwhelming, it can be fleeting, it can break you down and build you up. It is mysterious, and hard to pin down, hence all of the time spent trying to understand it through song. In an already busy summer of new music, American entertainment’s most famous couples, whose love within and between each other is constantly the subject of public debate, have released new albums offering conflicting visions of love and its awe-inspiring power.
ye by Kanye West (with Kim acting as a promotional partner rather than music collaborator) and Everything is Love by Beyoncé and Jay-Z, performing collectively under the name The Carters, both explore the power of romantic and familial love. Because the two albums are inextricably linked via the tenuous, much-speculated on relationship between their creators as well as the proximity of their release dates, it’s easy to see their ideas about love in competition with each other.
Ahead of his eighth solo studio album release, Kanye couldn’t stop talking about his love for Donald Trump and his right-wing cohort. “I love the way Candace Owens thinks,” he tweeted about the conservative commentator on April 21. “We got love,” he tweeted just a few days later along with a picture of him wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. He repeated the phrase on social media several more times ahead of the June 1 release of ye, along with several dictates to “spread love” and tell people you love them. He also seemingly weaponized it against the friends who disagreed with him politically and were concerned about his potential impact.
“We got love. Agree to disagree,” he tweeted along with a picture of him and singer John Legend, whose texts he posted to social media, exposing the efforts his friend was taking to implore him to learn more about the incorrect, dangerous ideology he was spreading. (Chiefly among them: President Obama didn’t do anything to stop the violence in Chicago and slavery was a “choice.”) In a May interview with Esquire, rapper and longtime West collaborator Talib Kweli offered another window into what it’s like to be friends with West now:
I told him I was disappointed and he didn’t respond, but then he posted on Twitter, “Find someone you disagree with and tell them that you love them.” And I did that and he hit me back immediately. I thought that was hypocritical on his behalf, but I realized that here’s a young man who’s really just looking for love. So as a friend, lemme put my politics aside and be loving. And that’s where the relationship has been since then.
Love as an overriding, dictatorial force that chains people together no matter what their actions or beliefs is an idea West dove into headfirst on ye. On the album’s opener “I Thought About Killing You” West says chillingly “Today, I seriously thought about killing you/ I contemplated, premeditated murder/ And I think about killing myself… You'd only care enough to kill somebody you love.” On “Wouldn’t Leave” West shouts out Kardashian-West and other “down females” who endure their partners’ stubbornness and mistakes. And, continuing with his exploration on love as centered on one person, himself, West ends his album with “Violent Crimes,” a song where West’s love of himself and his reputation leads him to shallowly reflect on how he would feel if men treated his daughter the same way he has treated other women.
“Today, I thought about killing you, premeditated murder/ You'd only care enough to kill somebody you love.”
And though his (former?) friend Jay-Z had no involvement with the production of ye or any of G.O.O.D. Music’s releases this summer, West’s relationship with Jay-Z and the Carters was an inevitable talking point of West’s rollout. In a pre-album release interview with Charlamagne Tha God (available at wegotlove.com), West admits that he was hurt that Jay-Z and Beyoncé didn’t attend his wedding: “I understand they were going through some things, but if it's family, you're not going to miss a wedding.” That, by West’s standard, is not love. But on Everything Is Love by The Carters, we hear things a bit differently. “I ain’t goin’ to nobody nothin’ when me and my wife beefin’/ I don't care if the house on fire, I’m dyin’, nigga, I ain’t leavin’,” he raps on “FRIENDS” in a line that is speculatively about their non-appearance at the Kardashian-West wedding.
Jay-Z, too, has his own message to “down females.” On the outro of the Everything Is Love song “713”, Jay-Z says, “To all the good girls that love hustlers, to the mothers that put up with us, to all the babies that suffered ‘cause us, we only know love because of ya / America is a motherfucka to us, lock us up, shoot us / Shoot our self-esteem down, we don’t deserve true love / Black queen, you rescued us, you rescued us, rescued us.” Here, love is a salvation, not a blinding agent. It is selflessly shared rather than demanded or owed.
Throughout not only Everything is Love but the entire epic marital trilogy that began with Lemonade and continued with 4:44, love is the reward for uncomfortable, challenging, life-changing work. Everything Is Love may always be true, yes, but it’s telling that this album/statement comes only after the turmoil, introspection, and time represented on Lemonade and 4:44. “Love is deeper than your pain and I believe you can change / Baby, the ups and downs are worth it / Long way to go, but we'll work it,” Beyoncé sings on “LOVEHAPPY”. And while the work that is necessary to keep any relationship strong is neverending, Everything Is Love is The Carters’ triumph record, with Beyoncé singing “Can’t believe we made it” on “APESHIT” surrounded by signifiers of unimaginable wealth in the accompanying video.
Being multi-millionaires, the Carters’ and West’s ideas of love shine through in how each party thinks about money. On Everything is Love, The Carters flex their wealth and influence, bragging about their ability to eschew platforms like the Super Bowl and Spotify to pursue their own avenues. Love and work are so aligned that they bring about the same result: a financial empire with generational wealth as the focal point. “My great-great-grandchildren already rich, that’s a lot of brown chil’ren on your Forbes list,” Bey sings on “BOSS.” Because of the triumph of their marriage, Jay-Z and Beyoncé have found immortality in the guaranteed prosperity of their offspring and their offsprings’ offspring. In their eyes, as two black performers in love, the wealth that results from it is a radical political act. As Jay-Z raps on “BOSS,” “We measure success by how many people successful next to you /Here we say you broke if everybody gets broke except for you” on “BOSS.” To him, love — and by extension, wealth — is something that is only worth celebrating when it is achieved as a collective unit.
Wealth, too, is a radical political act in West’s eyes, but one that justifies or demands love, and can emerge in spite of love withheld. “If you don't ball like [Tristan Thompson] or Kobe, guarantee that bitch gonna leave you,” he raps on “All Mine,” a sentiment that he has repeated countless times throughout his career. “I don't take advice from people less successful than me,” he says on “No Mistakes,” ostensibly referring to people like Legend and his fans who have reached out to challenge his pro-Trump views and failed. How can someone without comparable world dominance and financial success possibly ask him to be self-critical or to change? On “Ghost Town” Kid Cudi sings a common frustration for people who, like West, are desperately seeking love rather than building it: “I've been tryin' to make you love me / But everything I try just takes you further from me.” Here, too, love is a static product that one “gets” from another, and the root of West’s dissatisfaction.
The kinds of wealth both The Carters and West speak about will never play into most of their listeners’ understanding of the concept of love. But whereas The Carters’ form of love is a long haul of hard work with a worthy payoff, on Everything Is Love it is also an insulator from outside harms. Everything is love, it offers, once you allow the things and people you love to become your entire world. For West, the entire world seems to be the obstacle preventing him from getting the love that is rightly his. He needs love, he tells us, and it’s something he deserves. Neither album provides a wholly satisfying view, but in listening to ye and Everything Is Love side by side, I can’t help think that love as a process, though harder, is much less lonely than love as another product to be exchanged and consumed.