The Iconography of The Carters

Jay-Z & Beyoncé embody art in “Apeshit.” (Source: YouTube)

It took a week, but I’m finally processing the surprise album drop from Beyoncé and Jay-Z last weekend. Fans who keep up with both artists have known this was coming. The minute Beyoncé released her self-titled album in 2013, she proved that she didn’t need any level of marketing or promotion to release successful work — and she’s been operating that way ever since.

On an artsier scale, a duet album from Jay and Bey is the logical conclusion of a triptych that began with Lemonade and continued with 4:44. People wanted to hear the rest of this story, and the Carters knew it.

I had plenty of Moments during the course of watching/listening to “Apeshit” a few times. There’s a wealth of visual, musical, and historical context to mine from this video and song, and there’s no way to fit them into any one place except in a thesis paper. (Someone’s already thinking about writing one, and if that person is reading this, I need you to get at me because I’m dying to see that.)

Bey and Jay are fond of the number 4 — Google it, it’s a thing — so I’m going to double down. Here are eight of my favorite things about “Apeshit”.

Asked & Answered: Who Are ‘The Carters’?

Individually, we know exactly who these two artists are.

Jay-Z’s been at this for over 20 years, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any hip-hop fan who’s not either calling him the GOAT or putting him on their Top 5 list. (If he’s not on yours, please tell me who is. I’m curious.)

Beyoncé is a pop figure whose 28-year evolution in the public eye is almost mind-blowing. Member of one of the best-selling pop vocal groups of all time. Solo artist. Actress. Pop icon. Disruptor. (Let’s not forget this SNL gem: “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black.”) Visual director. Super Bowl Halftime Show performer. Coachella slayer. One of the highest-paid black musicians in history.

Now, a new entity: The Carters. Who are these two together?

The Carters rent out the Louvre. The Carters open their debut music video with their backs to the most expensive, coveted piece of art in the world. (Put a pin in that detail.) The Carters enlist members of the most popular rap group on the charts to write verses and do ad-libs.

The Carters are here to jack up your paradigm of fine art.

Subverting Your Idea of Art

Almost immediately, we get this image of Jay and Bey as actual artistic subjects:

I think da Vinci would approve of her Versace. (Source: YouTube)

Not only are they installing themselves as pieces in the world’s most well-known museum, but they are positioning themselves in a way that comments on their public influence: They are black, pop cultural royalty reclining among a priceless curation of white art.

Who’s gonna suggest those two things aren’t equal in significance?

Virgo

Virgos: We don’t like half-assedness. Beyoncé definitely doesn’t. (Source: YouTube)

I love the brief highlighting of Beyoncé’s sun sign (and mine — shoutout to fellow Virgos!). Every piece of work she does is a product of a true Virgo: Precise, calculated, strong in character, high in passion, and with a level of perfection that’s rarely rivaled. (I mean, did you see the Coachella performance? Child.)

The “Rafiki” Bar

I legit don’t have anything deep to say about this line from Jay-Z — Genius has you covered, if you want. Let’s just bask in the linguistic sharpness of it:

I’m a gorilla in the fuckin’ coupe
Finna pull up in the zoo
I’m like Chief Keef meet Rafiki — who been lyin’ ‘King’ to you?

Visually Defining Female Power

Pay attention to the art Beyoncé aligns herself with here. Several of these pieces depict women as physically and/or influentially triumphant.

Dazed has an excellent rundown of just about everything in the video, but there are four pieces I identified pretty quickly on the first watch. (Props to art history classes.)

From left to right, top row then bottom: Mona Lisa, Winged Victory of Samothrace, The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of Empress Joséphine, and Venus de Milo. (Source: YouTube)

A Side of Art with Your Art

Location and paintings aside, we’ve got to recognize director Ricky Saiz for the incredible visuals he lined up for “Apeshit.” The video itself is a form of visual art, and Saiz didn’t slack on giving us new and unusual images:

Re: The shot on the bottom left — “I said no to the Super Bowl / You need me, I don’t need you. / Every night we in the end zone / Tell the NFL we in stadiums too.” (Source: YouTube)

Merging the Past & Present

This is a video featuring black people performing art in a museum populated by (almost) exclusively white art. The only thing I like more than that contrast is the Carters’ pointed choice to include a couple of pieces featuring African figures toward the end.

Right after Beyoncé eviscerates the song with that last verse (ugh, she is sickening and I love it), we see a shot of Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait of a Black Woman (Negress).

I imagine there are reams written about this painting and dozens of ways to interpret its significance. (This article from the Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide is one of them.) My favorite is the fact that this is one of the only depictions of its time of a black woman without the visual context of slavery.

It’s an old illustration of female, black personhood alongside a brand new one. Period.

Last Thing’s Last…

So B and J have spent five and half minutes rapping about their lifestyle, walking among great art and cultural history, and showing us how the two are fused. What else is left?

Only then — almost like an afterthought— do the Carters decide to turn around and actually look at the Mona Lisa, the most expensive, coveted piece of art in the world.

She’s the only other woman in the video as calm as Beyoncé is, though. (Source: YouTube)

Y’all, I hollered and threw my phone on the floor. (Don’t worry, it’s carpeted. The floor, not my phone.)

Final Thoughts

The Carters aren’t unique because they’re a couple in the same business — that’s not new. I can’t think of any other artist who’s succeeded this much at what these two are doing: Using the power and influence of their relationship to wrangle the public’s interest in them and capitalize on it.

They literally perform their partnership in front of all of us — and by “perform,” I don’t mean “fictionalize” or “manufacture.” I’m not saying they’re a sham or a dramatization. I mean exactly what the museum setting of “Apeshit” suggests: What they show us is curated. Every moment of their lives that we’re privy to, that’s because they say so. (Aside from the Elevator Incident… as far as we know.)

America may not have royal figureheads — and we don’t need any, please-and-thank-you — but if it’s true that Bey and Jay are our unofficial Queen and King, I could live with that. They take a wiser approach to iconic status than most politicians ever have.