It’s hard to believe it’s been four years since Beyoncé realised her seminal sixth studio album Lemonade. Taking her away from her pop-R&B roots and towards a darker, more engaged – and let’s face it – more enraged place, not only did she deal with rumours of her husband Jay-Z’s supposed infidelity, the music saw her tackle issues of race, the history of Black communities in the American South, and the fight for equality not just as a woman – but a Black woman. Released in a long-form visual format, the album was designed to be watched as one long music video. The effect was nothing short of mesmerising.
Since then, Beyoncé’s affinity for visuals has grown. Last year’s Homecoming – a recording and behind-the-scenes look at her 2018 Coachella performance – received widespread acclaim, while her involvement in Disney’s live-action version of The Lion King also won serious praise.
It’s The Lion King – and specifically Beyoncé’s role as Nala and involvement with its soundtrack – which serves as the inspiration for her latest drop. Taking the original music from last year’s The Lion King:The Gift, this new one hour, 25-minute film/music video/album hybrid has largely been shrouded in mystery. Indeed, Disney only debuted a trailer 12 days before Black Is King’s global premiere, while Beyoncé herself only addressed it on 29th June.
Writing on Instagram, she said: “Black Is King is a labor [sic] of love. It is my passion project that I have been filming, researching and editing day and night for the past year. I’ve given it my all and now it’s yours. It was originally filmed as a companion piece to “The Lion King: The Gift” soundtrack and meant to celebrate the breadth and beauty of Black ancestry. I could never have imagined that a year later, all the hard work that went into this production would serve a greater purpose. The events of 2020 have made the film’s vision and message even more relevant, as people across the world embark on a historic journey. We are all in search of safety and light. Many of us want change. I believe that when Black people tell our own stories, we can shift the axis of the world and tell our REAL history of generational wealth and richness of soul that are not told in our history books.
With this visual album, I wanted to present elements of Black history and African tradition, with a modern twist and a universal message, and what it truly means to find your self-identity and build a legacy.”
The night before the film’s premiere, fans were treated to a sneak peek. ALREADY starts with some of The Lion King’s most famous lines by the character Rafiki, focusing on the idea of identity, before slipping seamlessly into a familiar R&B sound. Complete with backing dancers, stunning visuals and vocals from Major Lazer and Shatta Wale, it fuses indigenous rhythm and movement with modern-day beats.
If ALREADY was any indication of the visual treat to come, the rest of the film doesn’t disappoint. Opening with Beyoncé stood on an empty beach, dressed in ethereal white and cradling an infant, the familiar tropes of The Lion King are quickly apparent, as other characters join her to anoint the newborn. It’s clear this is the ‘Simba’ whose journey will soon unfold. Indeed, it’s the film’s opening lines – direct from The Lion King’s Mufasa himself – which are perhaps the most pertinent: “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. You need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures… we are all connected, in the great circle of life.” But far from bombastic, the opening track BIGGER is a gentle, understated, but powerful reminder of Black identity – and it only takes Blue Ivy five minutes to make her first cameo.
From there, the film meanders through stunning landscapes (locations span the US, east and west Africa and even parts of the UK), incredible costumes and catchy rhythms. FIND YOUR WAY BACK sees Bey prove she’s the queen of cool, while DON’T JEALOUS ME sees her hand over the reins to Nigerian singers Yemi Alade, Nigerian, Mr Eazi and Tekno.
While it’s clear how many new concepts are at play here, there are some familiar Beyoncé ideas throughout Black Is King. For one, the hats from her Formation video are back, as are collaborations with Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino and Pharrell Williams. That's in addition to appearances from Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong'o and Jay-Z – who pulls up in a vintage Rolls Royce ahead of MOOD 4 EVA, ready to cements the couple’s status as hip-hop royalty.
Fans of the music should look up the deluxe version of The Lion King: The Gift on Spotify, which has distilled the soundtrack’s original score into a more cohesive body of work by Beyoncé. And as for the film? If Black Is King proves one thing, it's that when it comes to pushing boundaries in creative, cultural history – there’s only one queen.