Beyoncé, visual albums and the power of collaboration

Recently scrolling through my twitter feed, I came across an ad for the release of Fergie’s long-awaited comeback. Double-Dutchess: Seeing Double is positioned as a visual album and was premiered in iPic theatres across America.

It got me thinking – not just about visual albums, but about the art of creative collaboration, and how it can achieve incredible things.

A format that comes and goes

While the visual album has seen a resurgence in the last eighteen months, it isn’t exactly new to the industry. The making of movies to accompany or be accompanied by albums has been going on for decades. The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964) predates the music video in any form we recognise now. It was like many music videos however in that it wasn’t really about an extra dimension of creative expression, but further commercial promotion. In the 1980s, Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal (1988) and Prince’s Purple Rain (1984) pushed the boundaries to find standout in the then-new MTV era.

More recently, as music has become such a throwaway commodity, artists have chosen to create a visual album as a way of keeping fans engaged, and compelling them to listen to the whole story – not just the top tracks on Spotify. Artists such as Kanye West have dabbled with immersive visual accompaniments to albums, to communicate above and beyond the story the lyrics are telling. Kanye’s Runaway (2010) was the last one before a bit of a drought in the mainstream music scene.

Back with a vengeance

But just recently, boom, four visual albums in 18 months: Double Dutchess by Fergie (2017), 4:44 by JAY-Z (2017), Endless by Frank Ocean (2016) and Lemonade by Beyoncé (2016).

It was the last of the four that changed the conversation, not only about visual albums, but how artists engage with and communicate themselves to the world.

What is it about Lemonade?

A cursory internet search will find you countless articles discussing the masterpiece that is Lemonade and why indeed it is one. Let’s get into it.

Because it’s Beyoncé

Her success is so monumental that anything she does causes a spike in conversation. And boy was there hype – catalysed by strategically intermittent activity.

From the release of the single ‘Formation’ in February 2016, to the Super Bowl halftime show that had audiences worldwide speculating – surely this had to mean an album was imminent? Suspicious fans went into meltdown when the star announced “#LEMONADE 4.23 | 9PM ET | HBO” via her Instagram account, before radio silence, leaving no further explanation nor information.


A post shared by Beyoncé (@beyonce) on

Because it was accessible

Beyonce characteristically broke barriers when she decided to premiere Lemonade on HBO – the first visual album to take a primetime TV slot. Followed imminently by online-streaming access via Tidal and iTunes alongside in-store releases, the launch was truly an inclusive, integrated campaign making the album available to all (or at least, everyone with cable TV).

Because it went there

Its bold and unapologetic address of issues including race, gender and the repercussions of infidelity, on such a public scale, not only resonated heavily with many of her audience, but sparked difficult but necessary conversations.

Most prominently, the hour-long production addresses and dismantles the stereotypes and struggles faced by black women, quoting:

“the most disrespected person in America is the black woman”.

– Malcolm X

Just to look at the cast of Lemonade confirms this intention. It features famous faces such as Amandla Stenberg, Quvenzhané Wallis, Zendaya and Serena Williams – all black women that have faced discrimination in the public eye regardless of success, talent and adherence (or not) to conventional beauty standards.

She uses the album’s melting pot of artforms to quite literally put these issues in front of people. Lemonade gives black women representation in a way that audio alone simply cannot achieve. A renowned feminist, Beyoncé has used Lemonade not only to represent and give voice to marginalised people, but to also elevate them outside of the stereotypes that so often dominate conversation, and showcase their talent.

Because a rising tide lifts all collaborators

And here is mainly what had me intrigued from a creative services perspective. Having watched Lemonade, you can see that creativity is at the forefront of this work. And how it manifests itself throughout such a broad spectrum of collaboration is fascinating. The album exposes its audience to an incredibly diverse range of disciplines (audio, spoken-word, poetry, film, dance and costume to name a few), the visual output is a truly immersive and engaging one.

“Beyoncé’s reach in collaboration demonstrates that she understands the depth engaging other creatives can achieve”

Now I’m prepared to call Beyoncé a creative genius (and she released her album on Shakespeare’s birthday. Make of that what you will.) But her reach in collaboration also shows her understanding of what engaging other creatives can achieve. Not only have the collaborators who helped create Lemonade lent the album more nuance and depth, but the process has provided a platform for lesser-known artists. Win-win all round I’d say.

A recent (Lemonade-related) article I read online really resonated with me on the significance of collaboration:

“Collaboration happens in every creative field. A single artist doesn’t make a Pixar movie. The Bauhaus school spurred a generation of German artists on to greatness. It took three Wright brothers to learn how to fly an airplane.”

Kelsey McKinney

It’s so true – collaboration happens everywhere in the creative industry, and it manifests itself in our daily working lives here at mark-making*. From communications between our design and client services teams, to external suppliers and our clients themselves, every project is a collaborative process in which individual expertise contributes to resolving challenges and achieving impactful results.

This works for brands too

When executed well, collaboration across brands can yield amazing results. Two brands partner up and loan brand equity to each other, and the results can come back to you tenfold through value added for your consumers – especially when the brands in question sit at very different ends of the market.

Boldness within collaboration is often where the impact lies. Is a brand brave enough to step outside of its comfort zone and give customers something delightful and unexpected? Sometimes, it’s the collaboration that gives brands the confidence to try something new: they go places together that they would never go alone.

Think Lemonade: Beyoncé was not afraid to step outside the activity that is generically expected of music videos. She collaborated on a grand scale, drawing expertise from a diverse – but carefully selected – pool of artists and disciplines. This ultimately elevated all involved in their own right, and achieved the shared goal of starting a powerful conversation.

The best collaborators choose carefully

A great example of this for me is H&M and its yearly collaboration with a chosen luxury brand. Year in, year out these partnerships are a (literal) sell-out success, where every stakeholder (both brand and consumer) benefits. Collaborating with the likes of Erdem, Alexander Wang and Balmain, H&M makes otherwise unattainable luxury brands accessible to an eager market.

It creates a sense of inclusivity (and, due to limited numbers, exclusivity too). Through providing access to entry-level products, the luxury brands get the opportunity to target the next generation of consumers on a long-term basis as they (we) grow – both in age, and in buying power.

Collaborate. Get uncomfy. Make great work.

These collaborations come with their own set of risks, and at points it probably felt unnatural. But what we’ve seen – from H&M to Beyonce – is that a brand’s ability to think outside the box and challenge the status quo undoubtedly yields benefits.

Here at mark-making* we cannot advocate it more.

Collaboration is just one manifestation of this mindset (and you won’t hear us telling you that the answer is always to jump into bed with the nearest unlikely-looking brand). It is our job to take you outside of that box, and encourage the things that might – initially – make you feel uncomfortable.

Your willingness to put trust in a collaborator’s influence might just overcome your challenges, and present the opportunity to grow that you’ve been looking for.

Or, in tribute to Beyoncé – we’ll help you find a new way to take the lemons you are given, and turn them into lemonade.

About markmaking*

mark-making* is an award-winning creative agency specialising in branding, campaigns and communications