review: Beyonce’s ‘The Lion King: The Gift’ is an expert fusion of Afropop & US pop
It's been becoming more of a trend that a sure-to-be-huge movie comes not just with a soundtrack, but also with a companion album put together by one strong-minded artist and a lot of their talented friends. We saw it with Kendrick Lamar's great Black Panther album, and now we're seeing it again with Beyonce's The Lion King: The Gift (which also features Kendrick Lamar on a song). In addition to voicing Nala in the new Lion King remake and singing the Lion King classic "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" for the movie and its soundtrack, Beyonce produced this new album that's inspired by the Lion King but also entirely works as an album of its own. Like Kendrick did on Black Panther, she appears on a lot of the songs and you can clearly hear her fingerprints all over everything, but she also lets other artists take the spotlight and it works to great effect.
The first single released from the album was closing track "Spirit," which is also on the film's soundtrack, and it's not surprising that that's the single they chose to go along with a "family-friendly" film. It's an inspiring, uplifting Beyonce ballad, the kind that’s as inoffensive and "family-friendly" as the movie itself. It's not a bad song, but it's a red herring for The Gift, which is mostly cut from a similar cloth as Beyonce's recent, boundary-pushing works Lemonade and Everything Is Love. Beyonce-led songs like "Bigger," "Find Your Way Back" and "Otherwise" sound as instantly great as anything Beyonce has released in the past few years, and should easily appeal to fans of her less radio-friendly work. But The Gift is also more than just another Beyonce album. It relates more directly to The Lion King than the Black Panther album did to Black Panther thanks to Lion King-inspired interludes in between each song (that feature voice actors from the film). It also embraces Afropop/Afrobeat as much as it embraces Western hip hop and R&B, and it pulls off a blend of those sounds expertly. Modern African music has deservedly been getting more and more love in the Western pop world lately (thanks in part to Drake incorporating it, and the international rise of artists like Burna Boy and Mr. Eazi), and it seems very likely that The Gift will only help this trend continue. Both Burna Boy and Mr. Eazi are on this album, along with other current African pop musicians like Tekno, Yemi Alade, Salatiel, Wizkid, Tiwa Savage, Shatta Wale, and Moonchild Sanelly, and those artists' styles blend wonderfully with Beyonce and her American guests like Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Childish Gambino, Pharrell, Tierra Whack, 070 Shake, and Jessie Reyez.
Some of the best songs are the ones where the African sounds and the Western sounds blend seamlessly, like "My Power" (with Tierra Whack, Beyonce, and Moonchild Sanelly), which sees Beyonce putting her uninhibited, powerful twist on Afropop the same way she did with blues on "Don't Hurt Yourself." (It's also more proof that Tierra Whack is one of the best new rappers around.) "Already" features Beyonce, Ghanaian dancehall artist Shatta Wale, and Major Lazer, and it basically sounds like a great, 2010s-era Beyonce song with an Afro-fusion twist. "Water" puts Cameroon's Salatiel up against Pharrell and Beyonce, and it finds the exact middle ground between US and African pop and explores that ground with masterful command. The album also succeeds for its all-star collabs that would work in any environment. Kendrick Lamar collab "Nile" once again finds this powerful duo making psychedelic soul, but it's a much different song than "Freedom." That song saw them both screaming their heads off, but "Nile" finds Kendrick in his trippy, alienlike mode, and Beyonce's ethereal vocals match perfectly. The Jay-Z and Childish Gambino collab "Mood 4 Eva" sounds destined to be a fan favorite; it's the album's most upbeat, anthemic track and one of its most straight-up hip hop tracks, and the "promise this my mood forever" hook is instantly iconic. Not every song is a winner, but the highs far outweigh the lows, and it's not the kind of album where you'll want to do too much skipping around. The interludes help it flow like one continuous piece (and they're short enough that they don't distract from the songs), and The Gift does a fine job of dropping you into its unique world and keeping you there. Like Black Panther is, it already feels like the kind of album that'll outlast the initial buzz of the movie, and an album that you can appreciate without seeing the movie (which hasn't gotten great reviews). It's both a showcase for deserving artists who don't have even half the fame Beyonce does, and yet another great 2010s Beyonce album. If you thought Beyonce's late-career reign was plateauing, think again.
Stream the album and watch the new video for "Spirit" and "Bigger" below: