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Review: Beyoncé's Visual Album, 'Black Is King'

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

Finally today, Beyonce's long-awaited visual album "Black Is King" dropped yesterday on the Disney Plus streaming service. It includes a song Beyonce released earlier as a music video called "Already."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALREADY")

BEYONCE: (Singing) Long live the king. You're a king. You know it. King already, my baby, you know it. Top everything, everything, you know it. King already, already you know it. Shine already. It's time already. A line already. It's time already.

FOLKENFLIK: Based on the music and material from Disney's recent computer-animated remake of "The Lion King," this visual album has sparked a lot of conversation among fans and pop culture critics, so we decided to haul in our friend Eric Deggans, NPR's media critic. He's also one of the very few NPR journalists to tour with a Motown van before joining the news biz.

Hey, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hey, how's it going?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, this feels bigger than your typical release of new music from a popular artist. Let's take a moment and focus on Beyonce and why people pay so much attention when she releases an album.

DEGGANS: For sure. I mean, Beyonce stands at the center of so many powerful parts of pop culture and art. She's a popular performer who can sign an endorsement deal with Pepsi and co-star in a film of one of Disney's most successful franchises. She's an innovative, important recording artist. And she's somebody who has remained authentic and connected to Black folks. So she's respected in boardrooms, on the pop charts, in the street. You know, I call her the queen of pop, but somehow, that title just feels too small.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, maybe you don't need that title if your name is Beyonce, right?

DEGGANS: (Laughter).

FOLKENFLIK: Maybe that is the title.

DEGGANS: That's right.

FOLKENFLIK: You know, Beyonce with a capital B - having watched this film, I'd say, you know, beautiful with a capital B, Black with a capital B - very of the moment, right?

DEGGANS: Yeah. And this album ultimately is a message to Black people and really anyone else that we matter. We've got this lineage connected to kings and queens in a respected place in the broad sweep of history.

Beyonce, she seems to know how to tell Black folks what they need to hear when they need to hear it. So when we needed to feel our militancy, she brought this imagery from the Black Panthers to the Super Bowl halftime show. And now when we need to hear that we are more than the victims who get crushed beneath a white policeman's boot, she delivers this album that is just focused on telling Black people how great they really are.

And you can hear it in the lyrics of the album's first song, which is called "Bigger," where she's in a white dress, bathed in this golden light. She's on an endless beach. She's holding a Black baby. And she's assuring that baby that it's part of something bigger. Let's check it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIGGER")

BEYONCE: (Singing) No matter how hard it gets, you got my blood in you. You're gonna (ph) rise. You're part of something way bigger. You're part of something way bigger. Bigger than you, bigger than me, bigger than the picture they paint us to be, yeah. Ooh...

FOLKENFLIK: What's amazing in some ways is that this - what we're calling a visual album - has taken more than a year to put together. And it seems incredibly relevant right now. The one thing I think about when you and I have talked about Beyonce privately in the past is, this is a woman who really knows what she's doing.

DEGGANS: Oh, yeah. And, you know, it's sad to say that if you were to create an album that was focused on encouraging Black people to throw off all of the stereotypes and the prejudices that fill everyone's heads about, you know, what we're capable of that it could come out at any time and it would feel relevant. But it's really true. And, you know, it's interesting. There's a lot of profundity. There's a lot of times when Beyonce or someone else is saying something that's meant to feel profound and make you think.

And a lot of times, when pop stars do that, they sound superficial, or they sound like they're pontificating. But somehow, she has found a way to say these things, and they really have impact. And you can tell she's thought a lot about this. And she's brought in these really talented collaborators. She's got Pharrell with her. She's got artists from different parts of Africa.

She's even got her families, you know? Blue Ivy shows up - her daughter. And Jay-Z, of course - you know, her husband, Jay-Z the rapper, shows up. He's with her on one of the album's, I think, best songs called "Mood 4 Eva." Let's check that out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOOD 4 EVA")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) Forever and ever-ever and ever-ever at the Saxon Madiba suite like Mandela, bumpin' Fela (ph) on the Puma jet like we from Lagos. Mansa Musa reincarnated, we on our levels. That's a billi (ph), a thousand milli, first one to see a B out of these housing buildings.

DEGGANS: And so after this break, then Beyonce a pops up with one of my favorite lines from the record. Let's just check that out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOOD 4 EVA")

BEYONCE: (Singing) I am the mother, ankh on my gold chain, ice on my whole chain. I be like soul food. I am a whole mood.

DEGGANS: Yeah, I'm a whole mood listening to that. So yeah, so it's obvious that she has been very deliberate about who she works with, what she says, what it looks like. And it makes a powerful statement when you bring it all together.

FOLKENFLIK: We've been listening to NPR TV critic and whole mood Eric Deggans.

Eric, thanks.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIND YOUR WAY BACK")

BEYONCE: (Singing) Daddy used to take me walking down the street. Daddy used to take my hand, say follow me. Daddy used to leave me back home all the time. I got big enough to run around, daddy left me outside. He said, find your way back. Big, big world, but you got it, baby. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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