Beyoncé’s penchant for surprises spilled onto network television Monday night when the pop superstar aired “Beyoncé Presents: Making the Gift” on ABC.
The documentary special — a behind-the-scenes look at her musical ode to this summer’s “The Lion King” — dropped Monday with little advance notice, save for an announcement from the network on Sunday and online declarations of an “ABeyC” takeover.
Much like Bey’s Netflix concert special, “Homecoming,” the doc took viewers through her creative process as she assembled the ambitious companion album. We see her collaborate with her husband, Jay-Z, along with other artists steeped in African tradition.
The summits are cut sparingly with scenes from the Disney film in favor of vignettes from contemporary African life, dance practice and creative studio discussions.
Beyoncé voiced the lioness Nala in the photo-real blockbuster, which hit the $1-billion benchmark at the box office within its first two weeks in theaters. She said she created “The Gift” album as “a love letter to Africa.”
Here are a few takeaways from the special.
MAKE WAY FOR BLUE IVY, RUMI AND SIR
The singer traveled throughout the continent — from Egypt to South Africa — with her family, including husband Jay-Z, their three kids (Blue Ivy, Sir and Rumi) and her mom, Tina Lawson, who are all heavily featured in the documentary. Fans have grown accustomed to the fiercely private couple shielding their little ones from the media but were delighted to see glimpses of their domestic life, particularly their growing twins embarking on the global excursion.
“Visiting countries in Africa, it’s always an emotional experience for me. It feels like I’m making peace with a part of me that’s yearning for my ancestral connection,” the singer says. “When I was asked to be a part of ‘Lion King’ I was overwhelmed and beyond excited. It was full circle for me considering as a kid it was my favorite movie. Now I could share this film with my entire family.”
The album was indeed a family affair: Her 7-year-old daughter, Blue Ivy, appears on the track “Brown Skin Girl,” and Jay-Z is featured on “Mood 4 Eva,” with her costar Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, who is not really featured in the doc. (The actor-musician has repeatedly said that he was starstruck by Bey but didn’t work with her much in person.)
“It also was really important to me that the music was not the typical soundtrack, but something that kids felt safe and excited to share with their parents, as well as the parents with their kids,” she said of “Brown Skin Girl.”
Model Naomi Campbell, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Bey’s former Destiny’s Child bandmate Kelly Rowland are shown in clips rocking out to the empowering song.
AUTHENTICITY IS KEY
Beyoncé always go full throttle in her projects, which have been exemplars of black excellence and are highly produced on her own terms.
“I did not want to take away the grit and the reality because there are very adult underlining life lessons in ‘Lion King,’” the singer explained. “I did not want to water it down. I also did not want to lose the authenticity of Africa. And it all starts off with the drum beat and the groove.”
She also described her subconscious-like track “Water,” with Kendrick Lamar,” as “sonic cinema.”
“I wanted it to be authentic to what is beautiful about the music in Africa. So a lot of the drums, the chants, all of these incredible new sounds, mixed with the producers in America, we kind of created our own genre.”
BEYONCÉ’S POWER AND SPIRIT ARE YET AGAIN ON DISPLAY
“Making the Gift” was written, co-directed and produced by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. Ed Burke, Bey’s longtime collaborator, co-directed. But as the lofty, interview-shunning superstar waxed poetic about the continent, she seemingly disregarded her own divine influence, which was fully displayed in snippets of fans in Africa losing their minds over the star, holding up her records or featuring her on billboards.
“The concept of the [‘Spirit’] video is to show how God is the painter. And natural beauty and nature need no art direction. It’s the beauty of color, the beauty of melanin, the beauty of tradition,” she says at the end of the film.
“The [‘Lion King’] movie has an incredible spirit. It takes you on so many emotional rides,” she adds. “I wanted that to be represented in the melody. I wanted to produce a piece of music that gave you those same feelings of tension, and struggle and doubt and realizing who you are in your strength and going for and fighting for it.”
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