Before touching down on what Beyoncé has called her “love letter to Africa,” it’s important to see what may have brought her to the mother of mankind, with its wide vistas and sonic planes, for “The Gift” in the first place — beyond, of course, voicing Nala in the film and whatever international marketing tie-ins are to come. Despite “The Lion King’s” own Disney-fied trajectory from animated film to quasi-live-action travelogue, the journey that Bey has taken is one of her own design, with a little help from her family.
“Lemonade” was Beyoncé’s strutting, wrathful, Southern-inspired declaration of spite and self-worth in the face of a cheating man; “Homecoming,” a nod to her Houston roots, marching anthems and healing; “Everything is Love,” her and Jay-Z’s continental breakfast free-for-all dedicated to reunion and spending sprees. After all that, “The Lion King: The Gift” is one for her kids, namely Blue Ivy Carter, who appears by mom’s side in the “Spirit” video, as well as in this album’s spaciously soulful and playfully celebratory “Brown Skin Girl.”
But this dedication to youth — her children and the universal we — does not make her companion to the film’s official sleek score and soundtrack from Hans Zimmer, Elton John and Tim Rice any sort of “kids” album. Far from it, when you let the dust settle on tracks such as Bey, Jay and Childish Gambino’s “Mood 4 Eva,” and take stock of how crankily egocentric a mood swing the threesome have conjured with surprise producer DJ Khaled at the helm.
“The Lion King: The Gift” is Beyoncé’s offering to the idea of bringing connection to those who never realized such was possible, maintaining heritage in the face of aborted and abbreviated histories. Bey’s softer solo turn in “Bigger” makes its DNA-laced connection to pride known even through the plastic soul of AutoTune. “If you feel insignificant, you better think again / Better wake up because you’re part of something way bigger / You’re part of something way bigger / Not just a speck in the universe / Not just some words in a Bible verse,” she sings.
The album’s warm production washes and anthemic musicality may not have the same avant-garde sway or weird rhythmic kink of its immediate aforementioned predecessors, but what “The Lion King: The Gift” misses in messiness, it makes up for in flavor, heart and grandeur without treacle. Well, not too much treacle; anything that starts with James Earl Jones’ narration is bound to have its own blend of gravitas and sentimentalism.
Besides, it’s got the restless soul of Afrobeat — its liquid highlife guitars, its clunking mesmerizing pulses — and a handful of new school Nigerian rappers and singers bringing their temporary modernism and open-faced traditionalism to bare on this tribute to Africa-Disney.
Which brings up another important point: that, back in 2009, Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith were first time co-producers for the Broadway musical “Fela!,” based on the life of the late Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. A gorgeous and hypnotic blend of jazz, funk and Africana have surely been part of the Carter household ever since.
The ever-ethnocentric Diplo plays on that mesmerism with his stop-and-start, Kenyan-meets-Venusian, mashed-mixed-and-mingled production on “Already” (his Major Lazer are featured guests too on the track). Bey’s sonic backing on “Find Your Own Way” is a rushed, sensual, kitchen-sink samba that makes her sound, shockingly, like Sade. “NILE,” the collaboration between Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé, features production from Sounwave (Kendrick’s collaborator from “DAMN” and his “Black Panther” film project), and together they project the noir tone of the endlessly echoing outback in the cool of night. Their voices, alone or intertwined together, are comparable to the narrators of “The Sheltering Sky,” if they were far hipper and decidedly Afrocentric. Beyonce’s chatty “Otherside,” which starts with a rolling floaty piano melody fresh from a Satie chamber concert, gives way to the sweet whispers of Swahili towards the end of the track, surely conjuring the move from the Eurocentric to the Afrocentric.
Beyonce is not the only artist to enjoy the fruits of Africa here. Her Nigerian guests too are heightened by their cinematic circumstance. “Don’t Jealous Me” by Tekno, Yemi Alade & Mr Eazi talks about monkeys and lions, utilizes Swahili, and has the hot breeze of the Sahara on its back, a whoosh as dense and tactile as any dangerous Santa Ana wind. Burna Boy’s melodic baritone sing-speak comes through loud, clear and AutoTune-ed on the clattering “Ja Ara E.” Cameroonian vocalist Salatiel holds his own next to Beyonce and Pharrell, with a contextually odd lyric that goes “I’m not much of a talker / Can I drink from your water?” And he’s not talking about the Nile.
For all of its big-name guests and complicated clicking rhythms, it is the arid airiness of spare, spiritual numbers such as “Otherside” and its grand, incrementally rising sister “Spirit” that define Beyoncé’s “Gift,” two ballads dedicated to uplifting the self in the name of something bigger — be it family, God or success.
This isn’t a perfect album. “SCAR” by 070 Shake and Jessie Reyez is a shockingly slick mess. The interludes by characters in the film should have remained on Elton’s soundtrack. And Khaled? Really? Beyond those few missteps, “The Lion King: The Gift” manages to be a wild, wonderful offering dedicated to sounds and soul of the motherland, all while sticking to the script: Beyonce’s, of course.