Beyoncé and Jay Z — music's First Couple — are now 14 dates into their On the Run Tour, a costly stadium spectacle-turned-gossipy Will They, Won't They? tabloid narrative thanks to swirling rumours that Bey and Jay are calling it quits after the run wraps up in Paris in September. Critics and fans alike have been combing through the meticulously choreographed, two-and-a-half-hour, 40-plus song extravaganza looking for clues. A slightly changed lyric here, a stolen glance there. What does it mean?
Fuelling the intrigue is the simple block-letter text displayed on the black screen behind the stage. "This is not real life" it reads.
Another clue? A winking nod to their seemingly perfect, image-controlled life? Maybe. But on Sunday night, Bey and Jay offered fans at Investors Group Field — one of just two Canadian stops — thrilling escapism. The tour has been called both narcissistic and a cash grab — On the Run is expected to gross an average of $5 million per show and comes hot on the heels of high-grossing his 'n' her solo tours — but who cares, really? Music's royal couple knows how to put on one hell of a stadium show.
A knock-off of the trailer for Godard's '60s French New Wave classic Breathless kicked things off when the gig finally got going at just after 9 p.m., establishing the evening's criminals-on-the-run theme — as well as the show's breathless pace. "You ready, B?" Jay Z asked before they strutted out with '03 Bonnie and Clyde, from Jay Z's 2002 album The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse, which was quickly followed up by Upgrade U a Bey featuring Jay track.
Co-headlining tour it may be, but make no mistake: this was Queen Bey's show. When she opened her mouth to sing on the very first song — clad in that already-iconic Versace jumpsuit, with its high-drama fishnet head mask — the crowd went wild. She's an incredibly magnetic presence live; her eyes practically burned holes through the jumbotron. The crowd was rewarded early, with the pair doing a punishing version of Crazy in Love just three songs in. The bass in the backing track was way too loud, creating a strange delay by the time the sound left the bowl and hit the stands.
Jay took the mic for a tight, mixtape-style mini set that included Diamonds from Sierra Leone, I Just Wanna Love U and Tom Ford before Bey came back out in a blaze of pyro for an energetic girl-power suite of Run the World (Girls), Flawless and Yoncé — replete with costume changes more stunning than the last and an army of athletic backup dancers. (Hearing the sample of Nigerian writer/ feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TEDx talk used in Flawless writ large in a stadium warmed this feminist's heart.)
Bey dramatically disappeared through a trapdoor and Jay Z took over the mic once again for Jigga My Nigga and a punishing rendition of Dirt Off Your Shoulder. He was on his game, effortlessly spitting out rhymes. The pace of the show was relentless; not all songs were performed in full, some were limited to a teasing chorus. On the Run often felt like a mashup of two different shows; a midnight club rager (Jay) and a high-octane, tautly produced arena spectacle (Bey), a raucous feminist pep rally (Bey) and, well, Big Pimpin'. Still, the transitions were smooth and it never felt disjointed; each played to their estimable strengths, turning in powerhouse performances.
But there's just something about Beyoncé. When she was revealed in a sequinned bodysuit — flipping that honey coloured mane — for Ring the Alarm you were reminded of what an untouchable force she is. The intensity is written all over her face. (A visage that Free Press photographers were unfortunately not allowed to snap.) And that voice. She's one of music's best. When she emerged in a black lace number for a sultry joint performance of Ghost and Haunted, she knocked you out. Jay took the mic back for a pounding No Church in the Wild before they re-teamed for a show-stopping rendition of Drunk In Love, Mr. Knowles-Carter wrapping his arm around Mrs. Knowles-Carter and kissing her on the neck before the lights went back down. Scripted or not, it was a tender moment.
They oozed chemistry during a hotter than hell quasi mashup of Beyoncé's soulful Why Don't You Love Me — which ranks among the night's most arresting vocal performances from Queen Bey — and Holy Grail. Jay took the B stage for Beach is Better while Beyoncé worked the main stage for the super sexy Partition and its sizzling silhouette dance routine. Crowd-pleaser 99 Problems followed, pumping the crowd up for Bey's If I Were A Boy.
The final third of the show was a veritable hit parade spanning both their careers. Bey donned a gaudy wedding veil and white pantsuit for a stunning performance of Resentment on the B-stage which was followed up with the megawatt Love on Top, Izzo (H.O.V.A.), Niggas in Paris, Single Ladies and Hard Knock Life.
But the best was yet to come. Watching Beyoncé stand there and belt out the arresting anthem Pretty Hurts — alone on stage with her voice — was a true pleasure. After Part II (On the Run), the couple hit the B-stage for Young Forever, and the stadium lit up with constellations of cellphones.
For the big closer, Halo, our king and queen wrapped their arms around each other and turned to face the main stage where family home videos — starring their beautiful baby girl Blue Ivy — played on the big screen. The words "This is real life" appeared on the screen.
It would be a damn shame if these two split up. They play so well together.