The Lowdown: Beyoncé’s The Lion King: The Gift doesn’t just have a cumbersome name; it’s been encumbered with many purposes. This album is an ad for The Lion King aimed at the Beyhive, an ad for Beyoncé targeted at Lion King fans, and, most interestingly, a showcase for others. In between scenelets from The Lion King and new tracks aimed at American Top 40, Beyoncé slipped in some of Africa’s brightest talents. WizKid, Shata Wale, Tiwa Savage, and Burna Boy are all stars in their own right, who are nevertheless mostly unknown in the States. By pairing these artists and more with one of Disney’s most profitable properties, and putting her own name alongside theirs, Beyoncé has built a bridge for these artists to cross over.
That’s a lot to do in 54 minutes. It doesn’t help that all those ideas are scattered across 27 tracks. But when it works, which is often, The Lion King: The Gift is fresh, joyful, and fun.
The Good: One of the defining features of sub-Saharan music is the polyrhythm. Take a song like “My Power” with hook by Nija. Metallic drums tap out 4/4 time while hands clap out triplets. The three claps cut against the standard 4/4 time, creating tension. If you’re wondering how the greatest performer of her generation sounds against these complex backdrops, the answer is simply magnificent. Beyoncé snaps and roars, somewhere between rapping and spoken word. Most singers make lousy rappers (see: Ed Sheeran’s cringe-worthy flows). Beyoncé oozes personality, knowing just how to modulate her voice.
“My Power” has verses from Tierra Whack, Moonchild Sanelly, Busiswa, and more, with collaborators hailing from all over Africa and America. A few other songs feature American guests. Kendrick Lamar swims by for the “Nile”, though, in this heady verse, he pronounces it as “denial.” The whole song splits along this wordplay: One listen is a sunny dip in the water; another sinks into darkness. Hubby Jay-Z drops in for “Mood 4 Eva”, but make no mistake: it’s Beyoncé’s song. “Mood 4 Eva” also features Childish Gambino, who I’m sure is excited to have a soundtrack credit alongside Donald Glover; the two names appear on consecutive tracks.
Beyoncé cosigns some lesser known North American artists, too. Jessie Reyez and 070 Shake impress on “Scar”. But most of the scene-stealing is done by the artists from Africa. This isn’t surprising; many of them are already big stars. Burna Boy just won the 2019 BET Award for Best International Act, and here Beyoncé gives him a whole track to himself ( “Ja Ara E”). This, the Internet informs me, is Yoruban slang for “Wise Up”. The song is relaxed, sensual, reggaeton pop and would have made a more interesting single than “Spirit”.
But to my ear, the catchiest song is “Brown Skin Girl”. Collaborators include Wizkid, Saint Jhn, and someone called Blue Ivy. Sometimes, Beyoncé holds a longer note, and the complex rhythm seems to throb against her voice. But for the most part, the melody bounces and dips between the drums. It’s a difficult line that sounds easy. The whole song goes down like a cold drink on a hot day.
The Bad: Movie dialogue is interesting because of context, physical cues, and the general charisma of the performers — none of which can be found on a soundtrack. This album is particularly bad about it, deploying 13 chatty mood killers. Movie snippets interrupt the tension building between songs. I didn’t think I’d ever resent James Earl Jones, but then I always thought his voice would be used for good. The House of Mouse is not willing to let more than two songs go by without reminding you who’s the big cheese.
The other issue, of course, is cohesion. It really does feel like The Lion King: The Gift is serving three masters. The most abrasive is the Disney commercial, but the other two don’t quite gel either. Beyoncé sounds invigorated over some of the richest beats of her career, but she only gets a few tracks to explore these ideas. Then there are the guest artists, who perform admirably, but man, there are over 20 of them. The album wants to give the gift of exposure. However, it does the artists a disservice by packing them into too little a space. You can see the rough outline of how these ideas could weave together, but both Beyoncé and guests needed more time.
The Verdict: Individually, almost every song is interesting. But altogether, the listening experience is a choppy mess. Out-of-context cartoon voiceovers and pan-African pop music don’t sit well together. And while some of the long-form ideas partially work, they could have used more fleshing out. Beyoncé exploring African music is really promising, but she barely gets to explore. The guest artists hardly have time to take their hats off before they’re shoved out the door. And yet, for all those flaws, the music is fresh, vibrant, and moving. The Lion King: The Gift may be a corporate Frankenstein, but rich African polyrhythms bring this monster to life.
Essential Tracks: “My Power”, “Nile”, “Ja Ara E”, and “Brown Skin Girl”