By Leah Greenblatt
June 06, 2018 at 09:35 PM EDT
Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty

Cardiff, Wales, a city first settled by the Romans in 55 AD, claims to be home to the highest per-capita concentration of castles (and also, incidentally, indoor Victorian shopping arcades) in the world. Perhaps it’s fitting then that on the first Wednesday in June it hosted royalty, becoming ground zero for the global launch of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the Run II tour.

By 3 p.m., the pubs and sidewalk cafes surrounding Principality Stadium spilled over with fans downing al fresco pints and Zinfandels and swaying to a booming, Bey-adjacent soundtrack (Rihanna, Ciara, Dawn Penn). By 7, the flower-crowned, bedazzled, and already drunk began to pour through the venue doors; at approximately 8:30, the house lights went up.

As Nina Simone’s “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” echoed through the speakers, artfully composed videos of the couple flashed onscreen, superimposed with a stark title card: The Gangster & the Queen. Moments later the evening’s entertainment emerged, respectively, in a shimmering diamanté blazer and bodysuit and a loosely tailored suit in blinding Miami Vice white, as they launched without preamble into “Holy Grail” from Jay Z’s Magna Carta, with its “Smells Like Teen Spirit” refrain and Beyoncé in the temporary role of hook boy Justin Timberlake.

“Part II (On the Run)” and “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” pivoted to the signature snake-charmer prelude of “Drunk in Love,” while acrobatic dancers stacked in a sort of massive living-room cabinet posed backlit in dramatic Fosse tableaux, “Cell Block Tango”-style. The tease of “Irreplaceable” segued quickly into “Diva,” its digitized, gleefully bratty chorus paired with fitting images (Michael B. Jordan’s Black Panther villain, vintage Janet Jackson and Diddy).

“Clique” was the first of several solo tracks in which Jay took on both his own verses and those of his Watch the Throne partner and erstwhile frenemy Kanye. Soon, his other other half reemerged in a Gucci letterman’s sweater, suede thigh-high boots, and a glittering face mask best described as Hannibal Lecter couture, and together they traded off a cavalcade of singles: “***Flawless” and “Feeling Myself” for her, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” into “On to the Next One” for him.

“Naughty Girl,” “Big Pimpin'” “Countdown,” “Run This Town”: If there was a single time temporarily forgot, it roared back, every chorus happily boomeranged by a near-capacity crowd. Beyoncé stopped the forward march only briefly on “Sorry,” pausing to turn its “suck on my balls” command into a percussive breakdown and ask, clearly rhetorically, “Ladies, are we smart? Are we strong? Have we had… enough?”

Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty

“99 Problems” came paired with dragon puffs of pyro and a slew of famous mugshots behind him: Jane Fonda, Jim Morrison, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, David Bowie, ODB. A brief but incendiary snippet of “Ring the Alarm” slid into the stomp-rock rave-up of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and a fierce, tender “I Care.”

Beyoncé stepped once more into the substitute breach on “No Church in the Wild,” taking on the low notes of Frank Ocean’s slow-burn chorus. “Upgrade U” spilled into Jay’s “N—s in Paris” before she returned triumphant for “Formation,” her phalanx of all-female dancers clad in leotards and dramatic black latex hats that looked like manhole covers for a high-end fetish ball. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous spoken-word introduction to “***Flawless” came as a long-delayed postscript to the song itself, but her crisp reading, and a screen splashed with an all-caps FEMINIST, brought a fresh wave of high-pitched cheers.

Between-song banter was limited, confined mostly to Hello-Cleveland asides like “Where my ladies at?” and “Are you having a good time, Cardiff?” The set list was also conspicuously light on Jay’s most recent album, 4:44, though maybe that was wise; his lacerating race critique “The Story of O.J.” seemed to leave the majority-white room either puzzled or mildly curious, at best.

After more than two hours that felt like a marathon even to a passive bystander with a comfortable chair, the pair emerged, fingers intertwined, to sign off with Throne‘s pretty, shamelessly sentimental ballad “Forever Young.” “Thank you, Cardiff. It feels so good to be on stage with the one I love,” she beamed. And that love was all over the screen behind them, in home movies of Jay painting Blue Ivy’s toenails and Beyoncé cradling twins (though apparently, not necessarily Rumi and Sir) — even a clip that looked a lot like a renewal of wedding vows.

In 2018, there is no real runner-up in the superstar sweepstakes that is the Jay-Oncé Industrial Complex; no current power couple with more combined hits or a more commanding stage presence. If anything could be said to be missing from the evening it was a certain emotional rawness, the cracks in the flawless foundation of a famously private marriage revealed on each of their most recent albums: Lemonade’s flayed-bare infidelity anthems and 4:44‘s unusually candid responses.

Here even those once-visceral moments were softened, out of context, into merely great pop songs: the relatably human schisms of their writ-large romance —one now more than 15 years in the making — smoothed over, for better and worse, rich and richer, into one dazzling, immaculate united front. A–