A Billion Dollars in an Elevator: Beyoncé, Jay Z, and Business of Being Pop Culture Royalty

by Natalie San Luis

On the evening of Saturday, September 20, 2014, like most American women of childbearing age, I prepared my body and spirit for the premiere of Beyoncé’s and Jay Z’s On The Run HBO special. I wasn’t one of the 850,000 ticket-holders who could justify dropping several bills for a seat at the edge of a crowded stadium, but I wrestled with the decision to not attend for days. I hate concerts, and I particularly hate stadium concerts.

Still, I wanted to see them up there, just so that I could know that they were real: made of matter, three­ dimensional, sweating. Beyoncé and Jay Z are fascinating on their own as individuals, and as spouses, business partners, and parents, they’re the subjects of cult-like adoration. But despite their unshakable status as the King and Queen of pop culture, their relationship has been mostly sheltered from the public gaze. The Knowles­Carter philosophy on privacy can be summed up in a 60­-second exchange during an Oprah interview in 2008, when Oprah asked Beyoncé, “How did you find the time to get married?”

“It’s something that I never have really talked about,” Bey responded, dodging that question and every other marriage­-related question Oprah attempted to ask. “It’s important that I keep things that are pure and real in perspective, and I keep them separate from my performance life.” The unstated presumption being that the interview itself was another facet of her performance life.

Sifting through Beyoncé’s immaculate personal Tumblr or listening to Jay Z rap about inadvertently damaging a Warhol painting while doing sex stuff, it’s nearly impossible to draw clear distinctions between their reality and their performances. Beyoncé in particular is as skilled at refining her image and protecting her privacy as she is at creating #1 singles. Usually, when the Knowles-­Carters deign to scatter a crumb of their personal life toward us — an Instagram picture, a home video — it has been carefully curated, edited, filtered. Usually. The glaring exception, of course, is the elevator video.

The footage of the fight went viral in part because we rarely see Beyoncé and Jay Z in situations that they do not control. But I’m not interested in the elevator; for me, Beyoncé’s version of damage control was much more captivating than the damage itself. I woke up on the morning of August 3 discover that, while I slept, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj had dropped “Flawless (Remix).” Of course sometimes shit go down when there’s a billion dollars on an elevator, Beyoncé said, and the beat dropped out. And then she said it again.

It’s a gutsy line — who else can annihilate a scandal by proclaiming their net worth? — but it works because even Queen Bey’s tactlessness demands respect. It’s a particularly interesting defense strategy for a woman who usually insists on privacy, but in the context of Beyoncé’s and Jay Z’s lyrical history, it’s not too surprising.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, the couple’s wealth is one of the only personal topics that they tend to approach candidly. Over the couple’s 12 ­year relationship, breakup rumors have cropped up periodically. Beyoncé never responded to the speculation, but once, Jay Z did. In “Lost One,” a track from his ninth album Kingdom Come (2006), he raps:

I don’t think it’s meant to be, Bey / But she loves her work more than she does me / And honestly, at 23 / I would probably love my work more than I did she / So we ain’t we, it’s me and her / ’Cause what she prefers over me is work / And that’s where we differ / So I have to give her free time, even if it hurts… / So yeah, she lost one

Lyrically, “Lost One” isn’t among Jay Z’s best songs — it lurches along and lacks Hov’s dexterous wordplay — but it’s certainly one of the most personal. For an artist who tends to work the word “bitch” into most of his songs, it’s an unusually vulnerable and sensitive perspective on heartbreak. The song is one of very few windows into the couple’s romantic hardships, and Jay is clear about the circumstances: She’s too busy with her career to play games or fall in love.

Of course, Jay Z and Beyoncé recoupled as quietly as they uncoupled, and it seems that the source of their relationship friction — Beyoncé’s work, and thus her money and independence — was uncompromised.

But “Lost One” isn’t even close to the last time Jay Z publicly discusses Beyoncé’s financial standing. The On The Run trope — the song, the short films that play during costume changes, the entire stadium tour — revolves around the fantasy of a woman who hustles even harder than Jay. In “HAM,” he takes a dig at Birdman’s and Lil Wayne’s paltry (multi­-million dollar) assets by saying that they collectively “ain’t got my lady’s money.” On the same album, he dedicates an entire verse to worshipping Beyoncé, beginning with the most taboo of taboo money subjects, their pre-­nup:

Go harder than a n­gga for a n­gga, go figure / Told me keep my own money if we ever did split up.

The love/money thread runs through many of Beyoncé’s songs too, most notably “Upgrade U,” where she and Jay Z banter over who can provide the other with more designer ­label cuff links and rooms at luxury hotels. It’s very seldom that you’re blessed to find your equal, Beyoncé explains, a sentiment echoed seven years later in “Rocket”: Hell yeah, you the shit / That’s why you’re my equivalent.

But even when Beyoncé references her personal relationships in her songs, she rarely sheds that “keep hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times” structure like she does in “Flawless (Remix).”

“Of course sometimes shit go down when there’s a billion dollars on an elevator” was the retort heard round the world. What does that line even mean? Do rich people get in more fights than we do? Do the fundamental elements of conflict resolution change when the net assets of the parties involved surpass $999,999,999? Of course not. Still, even if the words don’t make sense as an explanation, they make sense as a gesture. By throwing that number in all of our faces, Beyoncé advises us that we should not presume to understand the complexity of their partnership. “Flawless (Remix)” is a reminder that every time they pull back the curtain on their exorbitant wealth, they are profiting off of our reverent fixation.

The On The Run video interludes feature Beyoncé and Jay Z as outlaw characters who rob banks and flee from the cops, but text periodically appears on the screen to remind the audience that “THIS IS NOT REAL LIFE.” During their last songs, before snippets of the family on vacation and clips of Blue Ivy fill the screen, the caption that pops up assures us that “THIS IS REAL LIFE.” Most of the grainy footage looks like it was filmed with an iPhone: Beyoncé smoking a cigar on a yacht, scenes from their wedding ceremony, clips of Blue Ivy as an infant, then crawling, then walking. Watching their edited home movies — and watching Bey and Jay on the stage tearing up while watching them too — it’s easy to forget that this, also, is their performance life. Amid renewed divorce rumors, it’s hard to discern whether their romantic display is the result of their deep affection for one another or their diligent business management expertise.

Maybe it’s both. Either way, it’s working.

Natalie tweets @nsanluis.

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