The MTV VMA nominations were announced yesterday. A few hours later, Beyoncé released the visual album, BLACK IS KING, on Disney+, and ….well. Not that we needed one but it was yet another reminder that there is one game, and then there is another universe that belongs to Beyoncé, so comparisons are pointless because she’s working from an operating system to which only she has the keys.
What is BLACK IS KING?
It is a film inspired by The Lion King set to the soundtrack that she produced and curated. It is an achievement on so many levels, pushing the levels that Beyoncé had already achieved with Lemonade and then Beychella and then Homecoming. It is Beyoncé telling one story and several stories at the same time. Because while BLACK IS KING is a complete body of work, each song that’s presented in the film is its own tableau, that can stand on its own as a unique music video, that somehow still connects back to the center and orbits it. Which means that with BLACK IS KING, Beyoncé has created a musical and visual solar system. And it’s a solar system within a solar system too as, symbolically, you might say that the role she plays in this story is the sun, representing the mother, the origin of all things – specifically in this story and where it’s set, the real mother should be obvious.
But story is what she’s serving here. Stories solar systems, with characters and narratives and ideas clearly defined but also intertwined. And this is where Beyoncé continues to show her work: as a storyteller. All artists are trying to tell stories. All artists have to work at improving the story. Even Beyoncé wasn’t as strong in the past as she is now at telling a story but Beyoncé, as we know, never stops trying, never stops working. And with the succession of Life Is But A Dream to her self-titled album to Lemonade to Homecoming and now BLACK IS KING, Beyoncé is realising her storytelling potential. Every passage narrated, every song, every scene, every chorus, every cameo, all the elements of the film have been deliberately chosen and placed intentionally to advance and support the story. And it will probably require multiple viewings to fully appreciate how intricately she has weaved it all together. But a quick example of this is the point in the film when we hear James Earl Jones as Mufasa telling Simba to remember who he is, where he came from, followed by the shot of a throne and the words “you can’t wear a crown with your head down”.
This happens at pretty much exactly the midpoint of BLACK IS KING. It’s the fulchum, the heart and soul of the piece. And it is the truth. Without the truth, nothing else can be held up. That’s how detailed she is with this work. The details are everywhere – the way the debutantes are all moving in orbital formation on the dance floor during “Brown Skin Girl”, the synchronised swimmers in the pool in “MOOD 4 EVA” (I need to watch this part over and over again), the glittering clothes in “Find Your Way Back”, like a beacon to guide home a lost boy. Even the funniest part (at least to me) of the film, when the Carters are having a TV dinner, has a purpose: Beyoncé remembers. Where home is. What home is. The nucleus.
Nothing here is gratuitous. And while the visuals are at times overwhelming – because my GOD this film is beautiful – BLACK IS KING also feels spare, not in the way that suggests something is lacking, but spare in that these scenes are absolute necessities, urgent and vital. There’s so much more to say about BLACK IS KING but let’s start here: with Beyoncé, who is already the best at everything, now getting closer and closer to the top as a filmmaker, and THE visual artist of her generation.