Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Beyoncé’s Black Is King is an unfettered celebration of Blackness

Illustration for article titled Beyoncé’si Black Is King /iis an unfettered celebration of Blackness
Photo: Travis Matthews/Parkwood Entertainment

If we are to commit only one detail about Beyoncé to our collective memory forever, it should be this: She never gives an ounce less than her entire being to anything she does. When whispers of her involvement in the photorealistic remake of Disney’s The Lion King began, there was a tacit understanding among fans that it might lead to more than an acting role—especially when high-profile artists like Pharrell, Ariana Grande, and Kendrick Lamar are more commonly tapped to produce and curate entire soundtracks. And with such a beloved story, it was only a matter of time before Beyoncé would offer something truly special beyond another film credit in her otherworldly portfolio.

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But when she released The Lion King: The Gift, a collection of original tracks inspired by the film, it became clear that it would function as something deeper than a soundtrack. Songs like “Bigger” and “Brown Skin Girl” embraced Blackness so intentionally, expressing sentiments that extended beyond a single film. Black Is King, a nearly 90-minute-long visual companion to The Gift created by Beyoncé for Disney+, recontextualizes the album as a broader celebration of Black identity, and it arrives not a moment too soon. During a time when the country is starting to have a more robust conversation surrounding systemic racism, this special event is not only a timely statement but also a fitting blueprint for aggressive—if not radical—self-acceptance. The film’s lessons, overtly tailored for Black audiences, are as vehement as the artist herself: Black is not just beautiful; it is glorious. It is not enough to love ourselves; we must regard ourselves as royalty.

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For the new companion film, Simba’s coming-of-age story is translated into one of a Black boy’s journey from infancy to adulthood, as he navigates identity, love, and self-acceptance. Through a parade of breath-snatching vignettes filmed across a number of continents, the visual spectacle reveres the inherent beauty of the Black diaspora. Appearances from Lupita Nyong’o, Wizkid, Kelly Rowland, Naomi Campbell, Adut Akech, Pharrell, Tierra Whack, and others inject the effort with the kind of star power that one would expect from a project of this magnitude. It’s the latest from an artist who continues to place culture directly at the center of whatever she touches, a bold choice in an industry that often discourages aggressive cultural expression from anyone who isn’t white.

Black Is King reconfirms a notion that many understood back in 2016 with Lemonade: When it comes to pairing strong, resplendent imagery with equally rousing music, the only person who can potentially outperform Beyoncé is Beyoncé herself. Each track is presented with a distinct ethos, ranging from intimately minimal to thoroughly opulent. Black history, traditions, fashion, and storytelling bind the video collection together to paint a larger, richer picture that speaks to the vastness of Black culture. The imagery is so arresting, in fact, that the main story, while loosely holding each moment together, takes a backseat to the lush scenery, vibrant wardrobe, and captivating choreography.

While each song shines in its own right, certain moments are transcendent. “Brown Skin Girl,” a reverent ode to all shades of Black skin, is so visibly tender and emotional that it’s difficult to do anything other than bask in its overt love. The visuals set to “Mood 4 Eva” are as carefree and indulgent as the song that inspires them, following Beyoncé and JAY-Z as they revel in ostentatious wealth, complete with gem-encrusted grills, ornate eyewear, and lavish gowns. (It’s also a prime moment for rather slick product placement, as JAY-Z’s arrival is met by three servants in track suits by Adidas, one of his business partners.) It’s an energizing moment bolstered by gorgeous hues and sumptuous fashion for days.

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It also illustrates a fair criticism that larger-than-life artists like Beyoncé have long received when they equate racial prosperity with the kind of obscene wealth that most people will never experience. On its own it might feel out of touch. Within the context of Black Is King, it’s just another potential incarnation of Black joy that is balanced with the down-to-earth jubilation seen in “Already” and the gorgeous “Keys To The Kingdom.” Not only do Beyoncé’s natural sensibilities shine here and throughout the film, but stylistic choices by African directors and filmmakers like Kwasi Fordjour, Emmanuel Adjei, and Blitz Bazawule elevate the result into something that digs beyond aesthetics and shows an authentic appreciation for the culture’s ancestral roots.

Black Is King is a culmination of a year’s worth of work, and it brings impressive duality to an album that was once primarily connected to someone else’s story. Now this particular set of music—some of which resonates much deeper with the help of stunning backdrops—feels more wholly representative of the artist who once again chose to think bigger.

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