Beyonce's 'Black Is King': Unpacking the Elaborate New Visual Album - Rolling Stone
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5 Takeaways From Beyonce’s Elaborate New Visual Album ‘Black Is King’

Her latest work is a rich statement of Pan-African identity and idealism

Beyonce - BLACK IS KING

Travis Matthews*

Beyoncé’s Black Is King has arrived on Disney Plus. Her third visual album following 2013’s Beyoncé and 2016’s Lemonade, the 85-minute film is a companion piece to The Gift, Beyonce’s hand-crafted, all-star soundtrack to the 2019 photorealistic remake of The Lion King. And it is, by far, her most elaborate visual work yet.

Black Is King was produced over the course of a year across three continents, and with a small army of collaborators at Beyoncé’s disposal – high-profile African and American musicians, top fashion designers and video directors, and members of her immediate family, including a prominent supporting role from her daughter Blue Ivy. Here are five of our immediate takeaways from the visual album.

Black Is King is a Pan-African collage

About halfway through Black Is King, a crowd of Black men hold up an American flag stylized in the Pan-African flag colors of black, red, and green. The image is a succinct thesis for the film itself, celebrating Black pride and ancestry from the perspective of the African diaspora. The hundreds of costumed dancers, singers and other extras in Black Is King draw from a multitude of traditional and contemporary African subcultures, from Nigerian afro-fusion and dancehall to the tribal body- and hair-painting practices of the Himba people. In addition to filming on location in western and South Africa, Beyoncé features a handful of languages from the continent, such as Zulu and Xhosa, in the film’s monologues and interludes.

When Black Is King was announced last month, Beyoncé drew criticism for potentially promoting African stereotypes or conflating the continent’s many cultures and ethnicities with the film’s premise. Much as Lemonade took inspiration from the Gullah culture of Georgia and South Carolina, Black Is King feels most representative of Africa as an idea and an ideal, paying respects to the continent’s very real inhabitants and cultures while also presenting it as a symbolic North Star for generations of Black people around the world to come. “Our ancestors guide us through our own reflections – light refracted,” Beyoncé says in voiceover, then later issues this warning: “To live without reflection for so long might make you wonder: do you truly exist?”

The Lion King story and all of the songs from The Gift are here – albeit a bit out of order

Black Is King presents an abstract version of the familiar Lion King narrative for the first two-thirds of the film. We see a young Simba, represented by a young Black boy in Africa, growing up among royalty and getting swept away by a sinister, snake-wearing antagonist, before growing up into a man with little direction in his life who must take back the proverbial crown. 

The tracklist on The Gift roughly follows the same Lion King story – guided by dialogue interludes taken from the 2019 film – and all the songs are present here, albeit slightly out of order. 070 Shake and Jessie Reyez’s moody villain feature “Scar” is moved up from being the second-to-last track to occurring early on in the visual album, during the “wildebeest” stampede (represented by motorcycles here). Burna Boy’s “Ja Are E” is delayed until we first see Simba as an adult, cruising through city streets without a care in the world.

The last portion of Black Is King goes in somewhat of its own direction, replacing the Simba storyline and the Gift interludes with portions of interviews with Black Americans and Africans. Much like in Lemonade, the audio snippets focus on the specific pressures faced by Black men and women as they grow up, and how “being a king” can be achieved through community engagement.

“Mood 4 Eva” is a standout Beyoncé video

It’s hard to pick the absolute best sequence of Black Is King – “Already” and “My Power” are also stunning – but “Mood 4 Eva” is by far the most Beyoncé sequence of the film. The video is set at a gorgeous mansion decorated in Pan-African art and sculptures, including a giant, saintly painting of Beyoncé and her children a la Madonna and Child. The pop star has never been shy about showing off her wealth and success, and here, she and husband Jay-Z build off the victory-lap feel of their joint 2018 album Everything Is Love. There’s an all-Black synchronized swim team, dozens of extras dressed in couture, an old white butler, and Beyoncé’s mother, Miss Tina Lawson herself, enjoying an extravagant tea party in the middle of the garden. (In a Wall Street Journal article from February, Lawson revealed that she had loaned some of her art pieces to Beyoncé for the film.) And while it’s tough to believe that pop music’s most workaholic couple spend their free time sitting on the couch, eating the most expensive TV dinners in the world, that particular visual is a highlight from the film.

Black Is King features an all-star cast, with a few surprises

The Gift was a star-studded album of pop and hip-hop acts from both the U.S. and Africa (largely Nigeria), and many of the featured collaborations from that record appear in person here: Pharrell Williams, Tiwa Savage, Shatta Wale, Tierra Whack, Yemi Alade, Jessie Reyez. But the best surprise cameos arrive during the “Brown Skin Girl” sequence, where Beyoncé and Blue Ivy are joined by fashion icon Naomi Campbell, actress Lupita Nyong’o and Beyoncé’s fellow Destiny’s Child, Kelly Rowland. It’s a moment reminiscent of when she brought out Rowland, Michelle Williams, and her sister Solange during her now-legendary Coachella set, cementing the power of Black womanhood alongside her own familial and professional legacy.

Beyonce ends Black Is King with a poignant dedication

Beyoncé dedicates Black Is King to her and Jay-Z’s son, Sir Carter, who was born with his twin Rumi in July 2017. It reads: “Dedicated to my son, Sir Carter – and to all our sons and daughters, the sun and moon bow for you, you are the keys to the kingdom.” Throughout the film, Beyoncé connects the fantastical narrative of The Lion King to a more general message of Black legacy, what it means to honor one’s ancestors, and what lessons should be passed down to the next generation. 

She drives this home during the “Otherside” sequence of the film, reminiscent of another African tale that was adapted into a Nineties animated musical: The Prince of Egypt. Like Moses in the biblical tale, Beyoncé sends her child down the river in a basket to save his life, without knowing for sure where he’ll end up further downstream. “Child of dust, you return to the river,” she says in voiceover. “Your roots and your story will be reborn.”

 

In This Article: Beyonce, Black Is King, Disney Plus

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