Black Is King review: Beyoncé’s visual album has deep Afrofuture meaning – Polygon

There’s a quote only minutes into Beyoncé’s new visual album Black Is King that inadvertently winks at the icon’s 30-plus year evolution: “History is your future. One day you will meet yourself back where you started, but stronger.”

Mounted atop a pinto horse, and with individually beaded braids and tusks crowned on her head, Beyoncé speaks the promise. She once again narrates through the penmanship of Somali-British poet, Warsan Shire, whose verses were prominently featured in Beyoncé’s 2016 HBO film Lemonade. The musician has long surpassed the triumphs of an entertainer, but with this new film, she aims for something bigger: paying reverence to the African diaspora and Black futurism that lies ahead.

Though afrofusion isn’t a common sound across Beyoncé’s entire catalog — save for the partially Fela Kuti-inspired 2011 effort 4 — in recent years, the singer has made a serious investment into amplifying the Black narrative through her art. With Black Is King, she’s not only imagined her new album as a visual journey, but transformed one of Disney’s classic films, The Lion King, as an acknowledgment of the multi-generational sovereignty of Black pride. With varying collaborations, the album and film stands apart from Beyoncé’s previous six solo albums, a testament to weaving other perspectives into her work.

Beyonce in white headdress and gown in Black Is King

Images: Parkwood Entertainment/Disney Plus

This year, America has been dealt an unreasonable loss of Black lives, notably with the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor at the hands of law enforcement. In a number of metropolitan cities, racism has been declared a public health crisis. Beyoncé has steadily used her platform for social awareness, recently calling for the arrest of Kentucky police officers who killed Taylor. Through racial disparities and national uprisings surrounding them, Black Is King is a glimmer of hope amidst recurring injustices.

Much like Lemonade, Beyoncé relies heavily on West African religion and ancestralism for her Black audience to find benediction in spite of historical trauma. Through a cyclical Moses allegory, in which Beyoncé closely nestles an infant found within a weaved basket caught flowing downriver, the performer casts herself as a matriarch overseeing the vibrancy of Black lives. Baptismal waters are a trope throughout Black is King, recalling the “Love Drought” vignette in Lemonade, which also paid homage to the southern sisterhood of 1991 film Daughters of the Dust. The continuum of water also signifies the Middle Passage, the Atlantic slave trade routing captive Africans to the New World by boat.

Consistently wearing voluminous yellow gowns, Beyoncé’s attire throughout Black is King — and also seen in the “Hold Up” portion of Lemonadealludes to Yoruba river goddess Oshun, representing love, fertility and sensuality. Apart from hypervisibility of Black religion, the “Spirit” segment of Black Is King was filmed on the sacred indigenous grounds of Havasu Falls last July. The land’s Havasupai Tribal Council was reportedly “honored” to have Beyoncé embrace their home.

A family of women in Black Is King

Images: Parkwood Entertainment/Disney Plus

Painted as a Madonna figure twice in Black Is King, it becomes evident that the film isn’t just a human reimagination of The Lion King, but an honoring of Beyoncé’s status as a three-time mother. Rather than being an understated hausfrau, Beyoncé plays up Black excellence by having a multitude of flossy, curve-hugging wardrobe changes à la her 2013 album film BEYONCÉ. The monochromatic and sparkling attire commemorates the ‘70s and ‘80s stylings of Labelle, Donna Summer, and Grace Jones, and ensures that viewers’ optics remain on Blackness. After coupling her surprise single “Black Parade” on Juneteenth with a website directory of Black-owned businesses, Beyoncé seizes the moment of Black Is King to wear numerous garbs created by Black designers.

Beyoncé dedicates the film to her son, Sir, but the entire Knowles-Carter empire is on display, featuring most prominently in the “MOOD 4 EVA” segment. In a lavish mansion, the film finds the musician adjoined by Jay-Z and flanked by white butlers, with one who even thoroughly brushes her diamond-encrusted grill.

The couple’s grandiose allegiance was first spotlighted since in the 2003 single “Crazy in Love,” and their reign has continued for nearly 20 years, as both Beyoncé and Jay-Z have used visual cues rife with African inspiration on works both separately and together. Their promotional poster for 2018 joint tour On the Run II referenced the tusked motorcycle ride in the 1973 Senegalese film Touki Bouki. Jay-Z grew Afrocentric freeform locs following the release of his 2017 album 4:44. On their 2018 debut collaborative album, EVERYTHING IS LOVE, The Carters relied on reggae-infused samplings, even filming On the Run II tour visuals in Jamaica. The music video for album single “APESHIT” was quite literally a takeover, as the exclusively-Black cast rented out the Louvre Museum for filming. Sticking to tradition, the Black Is King family reunion is another genteel installment of their Black empowerment nexus. Premiering Black Is King on a streaming service owned by Disney — the biggest media company in the world — is another notch on The Carters’ belt of Black economic redistribution and prosperity.

Have progressed into Black feminist activism since the release of BEYONCÉ, the singer makes room for female collaborators, friends, and family in Black Is King. Tierra Whack, Jessie Reyez, Tiwa Savage, and more segue from their work on The Lion King: The Gift into the new film. For “Brown Skin Girl,” Beyoncé revamps the visuals from intimate home videos to an African debutante ball with appearances from her eldest daughter, Blue Ivy, Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o and former Destiny’s Child groupmate Kelly Rowland. The statuesque posing of women throughout the film also frames them as an honorable, royal council upholding Black lineage. Along with vibrant wardrobes, the women of Black is King don elaborate natural hairstyles — in varying parts of the film, Beyoncé wears 30 feet of towering box braids as she stands atop a ladder, while in a later scene, Himba women have their hair covered with red clay.

Perhaps it was a favorable choice for The Lion King: The Gift to become a musical film, as some listeners critiqued the album for excluding artists from East Africa though the 2019 film was set in Kenya. Others, particularly those who were featured on the album, felt embraced by Beyoncé’s album curation, observing that Afrobeat would become palatable both in the United States and globally. The intertwining of American hip-hop and R&B with diasporic Afrobeat is a natural blend — even rapper-producer Pharrell walks atop of a wall of recycled containers in the visual for “WATER,” referencing Ghanian installation artist Serge Attukwei and environmentalism.

Through Beyoncé’s intentional, visionary lens, Black opulence thrives within Black is King. In 80 minutes, she creates an Afrofuturistic journey for both her dedicated fans and Gen-Z viewers who will naturally gravitate toward Disney — and the nostalgic Black canon found on Disney Plus. After all, while in Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé ushered in early-2000s animated series The Proud Family by performing the show’s memorable theme song.

Finding self-identity through the guidance of her ancestors, Beyoncé lays bare that celebrating Blackness isn’t just an appreciation of the past. Black Is King is a reclamation of our thriving future.