Beyoncé, Jay Z, and the Collaboration Paradox

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Dan Runcie

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The Carters prove that joint projects can yield worse results for artists at the top of their game

Jay Z and Beyoncé at the 77th Annual Academy Awards (via Shutterstock)

Despite Beyoncé and Jay Z’s combined net worth of $1.16 billion, their collaborations seldom match the success of their independent music. Last month, hip-hop’s power couple released their first joint album, Everything Is Love. It’s the third act in The Carter’s critically-acclaimed infidelity saga, following Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016) andJay Z’s 4:44 (2017). Everything Is Love had decent reviews at best, but it debuted at number 2 on the Billboard charts, getting beat out by Aussie punk band 5 Seconds of Summer. With only 123,000 album equivalent units sold in its first week, it is the lowest performing album debut in Beyoncé’s discography by nearly 200,000 units.

A few writers have indicated a few reasons for the low performance; the album’s release day (Saturday, not the more ideal Friday), XXXTentacion’s death led to a surge his music, Spotify not having the Everything Is Love on its free version until recently, and the Beyhive turning its back on Jay Z because of his infidelity. Those factors play a slight role, but don’t tell the full story.

If we’re being honest, Beyoncé and Jay Z have always been hit-or-miss on wax. For every solid song like “Drunk In Love”, fans have endured overly-produced fillers like “Lift Off”, “Top Off”, and others. While their On The Run and On The Run II tours have been among the most profitable concerts in hip-hop history, concerts are different. Artists that have never collaborated can have successful co-headlining concerts.

Bey and Jay approach their craft (and by extension, their management style) in vastly different ways. Queen Bey has been successful keeping her projects tightly under wraps until completion. Alternatively, Jay Z made his name by partnering with others. His approach might seem complementary to hers, but it’s less effective—and less lucrative—with an artist like Beyoncé. Even though Bey and Jay spoke about on their own marriage on Everything Is Love, they could not overcome the collaborative paradox that can often hinder projects with high-performing artists.

“She is sure enough of her own place in the artistic pendulum that she is willing to take risks. We work for a woman who has no fear.”
– Jim Sabey, Parkwood Entertainment’s head of worldwide marketing on working with Beyoncé, 2013

The evolution of collaborating with Bey and Jay

Early in her career, Beyoncé was much easier to collaborate with. Songs like “Check On It” (with Slim Thug and Bun B) and “Baby Boy” (Sean Paul) were commercial products of the record labels. She was still clearly talented, but not the artist she is today.

In 2008, she founded Parkwood Entertainment—her management company. That’s when Beyoncé began harnessing control and autonomy. There’s a stark difference in the intricate themes of her last three solo albums (4, Beyoncé, Lemonade), and her earlier work. Her recent performance headlining Coachella (which has its own Wikipedia page) is further evidence of her mastery.

In a similar assessment, The Atlantic wrote a piece in 2012 called “Does Artistic Collaboration Ever Work?”. The story highlighted the mixed reviews of the collaborative artwork created by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1983-1985. Both artists were world-renowned, but critics were unimpressed by their joint creations. Here are a few quotes:

…one might get the impression that what Basquiat became, at least during his collaborative period, was something closer to what Warhol, arguably, was never much more than. An advertising genius, that is.
One commentator, after seeing the 1985 show at which the Basquiat-and-Warhol’s paintings were publicly exhibited for the first time, griped, ”Everything . . . is infused with banality. Who is using whom here?”

The criticism is similar to Everything Is Love. Beyoncé altered her style to be in sync with Jay Z. Everything is Love is a device to conclude the infidelity trilogy, but not a boundary-pushing effort like Beyoncé or Lemonade.

Conversely, Shawn Carter has made his career by using himself as a platform. Some of Jay Z’s most iconic songs are those he got washed on: “Renegade” (Eminem), “Big Pimpin’” (Bun B).

But his joint album with Kanye West, Watch The Throne, was neither artist’s magnum opus, but it was still well-received. In “The Collaborative Paradox: Why Working Together Often Yields Worse Results,” Ron Friedman recommended differentiating roles as a factor in successful collaborations. “When [Paul] McCartney and [John] Lennon collaborated, it was clear who served as the lead songwriter and who was there to offer suggestions.” Last year, Jay Z alluded to the music they made for this joint project as “couples therapy”. It would have been hard for one person to solely focus on songwriting when the subject matter of Everything Is Love is all about their marriage. That task is much easier with an album about materialism and opulence like Watch The Throne.

Roc Nation, Jay Z’s management and entertainment company, has over 30 artists signed and managed. It’s the polar opposite of Parkwood, which solely focuses on Beyoncé. Young Hov has put a lot of artist on, but Beyoncé is not Memphis Bleek. She’s not “one hit away [her] own career” and doesn’t need to be put on—especially for an entire album.

The Knowles-Carter economic principles

Another reason for the joint album’s limited commercial success is the mixed signals it sent to fans. In economic terms, Beyoncé is a superior good: supporting her will make up a larger proportion of income as her fan’s income rises. To fully experience Beyoncé, fans need a fast Internet connection to stream her visual albums, a device with a high-quality HD screen, concert tickets (average Beyoncé tickets cost $300+), and a $9.99 month Tidal subscription. The Beyhive has an upper-middle class price tag.

She is also a “veblen good”—consumers prefer her goods the more expensive (and harder to access) they are. Beyoncé (self-titled album) outsold 4 in its first week, even though the former was not available on Spotify in its first year. Lemonade then sold more than Beyoncé in its first week even though Lemonade was only on Tidal. She joins the ranks of all the high-end luxury brands that her and Jay name-dropped on “Upgrade U” (one of The Carter’s better collaborations).

Jay Z, once again, is the opposite. His two best albums—Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint—are only on Tidal, but all others are widely available on most platforms. Magna Carta, Holy Grail was free to download for those using Samsung phones (the cheaper alternative to the iPhone). 4:44 was first made available for customers on Sprint (which is cheaper than Verizon or AT&T). Some tickets for the 4:44 tour were on StubHub for as low as $6. It’s hard for Everything Is Love to hold prestige with the Beyhive when her partner-in-crime’s next album could be released exclusively for Cricket Wireless customers.

Combining a superior good and a normal good creates a hybrid product that is positioned as premium, but attainable. Everything Is Love attempted to hit that sweet spot. The “Apeshit” music video was shot in The Louvre, but the entire album was still made available on most other platforms only two days after its release on Tidal. “If I gave two fucks-two fucks about streaming numbers would have put Lemonade up on Spotify,” Beyoncé rapped on Everything Is Love. It’s hard to hear that line and believe that Beyoncé herself held this joint project in the same regard as her past work.

The Atlantic piece on Basquiat and Warhol highlighted the timing in an artist’s career when collaborations work better:

When do artistic collaborations work well, then? Though it’s difficult to generalize, it seems to depend on how far along in the process an artist is, what he or she is trying to create, and his or her personality…

Beyoncé and Parkwood are too far down the creative process for Beyoncé to benefit from an entire joint album with another artist. It will probably be the last joint project we’ll see from Beyoncé. Her next solo album is rumored to be released through Netflix.

That means Beyoncé might be asking fans to make sure they are signed up for both Netflix and Tidal. It sounds excessive, but Beyoncé and Parkwood know their fan base. Beyhive members would log out of their friend’s cousin’s sister’s Netflix account and subscribe to Netflix themselves just to show support for Queen Bey.

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Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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