Beyoncé’s latest “visual album” is at once a dazzling celebration of Blackness and a companion piece to a remake of a loose adaptation of Hamlet. Black Is King is fundamentally a glorious, if inharmonious, coproduction between our greatest pop star and the Mouse House, a visual accompaniment to last year’s Lion King add-on The Gift. It’s also an Afrofuturist spectacle of the highest order, one only Beyoncé could pull off, like an effortless cartwheel, with total creative freedom and near-perfect execution. That Disney has branded this swirling, impressionistic and Afrocentric product as its own—with a shooting star and Cinderella’s castle introducing the proceedings, per usual—is as unexpected as it comes.

It’s unfortunate, then, that the visionary Black Is King is tethered, however tangentially, to the mostly disappointing (but commercially blockbusting) “live-action” CGI redux of The Lion King. Every vocal overdub underlining their association arrives like a jarring, out-of-tune grace note to what’s essentially a self-contained celebration of Afropop (see the inclusion of such artists as Wizkid, Shatta Wale, Burna Boy, Mr Eazi, Tiwa Savage, Tekno, Yemi Alade, Busiswa and Salatiel). I guess if you sketch one atop the other, Black Is King loosely follows the narrative beats of the beloved 1994 animated feature, and its 2019 remake. To my mind it’s more a hybrid of The Ten Commandments, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Moonlight (with Beyoncé’s fabulosity sprinkled in generously for good measure). Minus the unnecessary inclusion of voiceovers from Billy Eichner and the immortal James Earl Jones, there’s no obvious connection between the one Disney project and the other. This thing, however wonderful, is neither fish nor fowl.

What’s left over—after you banish the dead-eyed Lion King remake to an elephant graveyard—is a sumptuous series of flexes from Queen Bey, who is at the top of her game. Cinematically, this is her grandest accomplishment. Sprawling across 85 minutes, and multiple continents, Black Is King marks the high point, thus far, of her imperial phase as a pop artist. The dozens of instantly iconic costumes alone will inspire drag queens for years, if not decades. Though its songs pale in comparison to even the second-tier numbers on Beyoncé and Lemonade (her previous “visual albums”), this is a more ambitious and audacious undertaking. (“BROWN SKIN GIRL” and “MY POWER,” however, come awfully close to previous heights.)

Ultimately, Black Is King is a hugely entertaining introductory course in African sounds (see Burna Boy’s highlight “JA ARA E”) and imagery (the natural beauty and urban bustle of Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa). Beyoncé has said the project is “a love letter to Africa,” and it mostly is, despite some notable gaps (particularly with regard to the music and culture of East Africa). In the end, it feels most akin to Michael Jackson’s Captain EO: an over-the-top showcase imagineered for a Disney theme park. Since Epcot is off the table during the current pandemic, the couch will have to be the best place to experience the opulent Blackness of Beyoncé’s latest visual marvel.

A glorious, if inharmonious, co-production between our greatest pop star and the Mouse House.
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Afrofuturist Spectacle
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