COLUMBIA, S.C.—So many things could have gone wrong on Tuesday night.
Upwards of 40,000 people were converging on the University of South Carolina’s campus at the tail end of weekday rush hour to see Beyoncé and Jay-Z perform the first concert at Williams-Brice Stadium in five years. Traffic was forecast to be so cataclysmic that a half-dozen area schools implemented early dismissal to get buses off the roads at typical peak times. Ultra-strict guidelines for what fans could bring into the venue (and how) had some fearing interminably long waits at the gates.
To top it all off, the evening forecast called for a chance of thunderstorms — exactly the thing that had caused a mid-show delay at Beyoncé’s last Carolinas show, at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh in 2016.
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But in the end, all the pre-show hype about disaster scenarios turned out to be just that — hype — while the actual show itself may have in fact exceeded sky-high expectations fans had for it.
I mean, thank goodness Beyoncé forgave him, amirite?
Not only did Jay-Z’s infidelity help inspire both his wife’s headiest and most incisive body of work (2016’s “Lemonade”) as well as the rapper’s extraordinary act of contrition (2017’s “4:44”), but consider this: If they’d split, the world might never have seen their co-headlining “On the Run II” tour, a musical (and marital) journey that was exquisitely executed as it possibly could have been.
From the second the spotlight first turned on the couple — resplendent in white, holding hands with each other, being lowered on a platform from on high to the main stage after having been introduced by title cards that read “The Gangster” and “The Queen” — they proved an ideal match.
In fact, it’s difficult to pick a favorite thing about the show because there was so much to love.
Over the course of nearly 2 1/2 hours on a humid but otherwise pleasant August evening, Bey and Jay chronicled the seasons of their relationship — the rise, the fall, and the rise, again — through more than 40 songs that mined their deep individual catalogs as well as the joint album they dropped in June (as The Carters) titled “Everything Is Love.”
They opened with Jay-Z’s 2013 regal hit “Holy Grail,” Beyoncé taking Justin Timberlake’s part and making it her mellifluous own: “You’d take the clothes off my back, and I’d let you / You’d steal the food right out my mouth / And I’d watch you eat it, I still don’t know why / Why I love you so much, oh.”
Then they continued their back and forth on “Part II (On the Run)” and “’03 Bonnie & Clyde,” the former presented as the most playful duet of the night, with the pair trading lyrics while gazing warmly into each other’s eyes — his hands on her hips, hers on his shoulders.
After that, though, they disappeared from and reappeared on the stage at unpredictable times, to varying degrees of fanfare. Sometimes one would just slink off or back on practically unnoticed, other times there’d be a grand entrance by the both of them following an interlude — ostensibly to give everyone a good long look at the result of Beyoncé’s latest costume change.
(Perhaps her most elaborate outfit: a gold minidress with long sleeves and a million sequins, gold thigh-high heeled boots, with a long purple robe covering her shoulders and dark John Lennon sunglasses hiding her eyes. She appeared in that get-up holding hands with Jay, who had just slipped into a blue velour tracksuit over a white graphic tee.)
Part of what made it all work was the elaborate stage setup, which reportedly took nearly a week to assemble. As wide as a football gridiron, it featured video screens the size of fast-food restaurants that could hide and reveal 20 gigantic Hollywood Squares-like boxes, inside most of which were situated members of the very large and very good live band.
On top of that, two catwalks jutted out about 50 yards into the crowd, and there was a mini-stage that lifted off the main stage and could “float” out over the center field section (both Jay-Z and Beyoncé took frequent advantage of this feature during the second half of their set).
With so much real estate to survey and the stars often wandering off in different directions, it could be easy to lose track of one of them if they weren’t being rendered 30 feet tall on the video screens.
Blink and you’d miss a Beyoncé exit, and suddenly Jay-Z would be bubbling with braggadocio as he spit out a “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” or a “Big Pimpin’.” Then he’d vanish in thin air and Beyoncé would be lining up with the tour’s bevy of backup dancers to stomp and whip their hair around through feminist anthems like “Formation” and “Run the World (Girls).”
But the main thing that made it all work, frankly, was Beyoncé. The incredible voice. The radiant glow. The hair that spills down over her back for days. The magnificence of every dance step she takes. Every any kind of step, for that matter. When she’s on stage with her husband, it’s her that we can’t take our eyes off of, despite the fact that Jay-Z has charisma, swag and star power to burn.
Beyoncé isn’t just the life of the party. She is the party.
And yet, although she helped give much of the night a party feel — and although even more-vicious songs like “Ring the Alarm” and “Don’t Hurt Yourself” (performed back-to-back during the part of the set covering the rockiest period of their relationship) had fans up and dancing — she did produce one particularly sobering moment.
About two-thirds of the way through the show, Beyoncé sat on the end of the catwalk and, with only an acoustic guitar to back her up, appeared to fight back tears as she sang “Resentment,” a crushingly emotional ballad about what it feels like to be cheated on. Given what’s happened in her love life over the past few years, it’s likely even more of a gut punch now than it was when she recorded it in 2003.
Of course, the story ended happily: The pair smiled at each other through a duet of Jay-Z’s 2009 anthem “Young Forever,” which they wrapped around a verse and a chorus by Beyoncé of Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect.”
On a night when, logistically, so many things could have gone wrong but didn’t — and when, musically and creatively, so many things went right — that just about summed it all up.
Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s setlist
1. “Holy Grail”
2. “Part II (On the Run)”
3. “’03 Bonnie & Clyde”
4. “Drunk in Love”
7. “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”
8. “On to the Next One”
11. “Feeling Myself” (Nicki Minaj cover)
12. “Naughty Girl”
13. “Big Pimpin’”
15. “Run This Town”
16. “Baby Boy”
17. “Mi Gente” (Remix)
18. “BLACK EFFECT”
21. “99 Problems”
22. “Ring the Alarm”
23. “Don’t Hurt Yourself”
24. “I Care”
26. “Song Cry”
28. “Family Feud”
29. “Upgrade U”
30. “N----s in Paris”
31. “Beach Is Better”
33. “Run the World (Girls)”
34. “Public Service Announcement”
35. “The Story of O.J.”
36. “Déjà Vu”
37. “Show Me What You Got”
38. “Crazy in Love”
40. “U Don’t Know”
41. “Young Forever”
42. “Perfect” (Ed Sheeran cover)