When Beyoncé occupies a space — any space — it’s safe to say that she doesn’t just occupy it. Rather, she takes over it, switches the style up and makes it her own. So when it was announced the modern legend was going to contribute her talents to the 2019 CGI-live action reboot of The Lion King, it was almost a guarantee she would lend both her voice and vocal talents to the film (which is a delightful, albeit superfluous, remake).
And on The Lion King: The Gift, Mrs. Carter trips the black fantastic — just as she always does — and it’s the perfect complement to the equally-soaring film.
While the comparisons to last year’s equally galvanizing Black Panther soundtrack abound — down to the Kendrick Lamar appearance — The Lion King: The Gift is much more of a blend of various modern Black American styles than the more Afrocentric Black Panther, and that is of course due to the boundary-crossing Beyoncé, the fulcrum upon which the rest of the album rotates — Beyoncé the Sun Queen, l’etat est elle.
A notable track is “Find Your Way Back,” ostensibly meant to be Beyoncé’s Nala serenading Donald Glover’s Simba, but in actuality sounds like a continuation of “Daddy Lessons” from 2016’s Lemonade.
The dual meaning behind lyrics like “Daddy used to tell me, “Look up at the stars/It’s been a long time, but remember who you are/Circle of life, but one day, I might not make it/Circle of life, but one day, I might not make it” are immediately self-evident, and are a nice mental exercise for even the most casual listener.
Other songs are a bit more distinctive and can stand exclusive of the film. That includes “Brown Skin Girl,” which features a much-ballyhooed appearance by the eldest of the Sun Queen’s issue — one Blue Ivy Carter — and is, in true Beyoncé form, a celebration of Black Girl Magic. “The same skin that was broken by the same skin taking over,” is galvanizing and empowering, even for the less-melanated population.
Don’t, however, take The Lion King: The Gift as a proper Beyoncé album. There are other notable appearances on the album worth a mention — including JAY-Z and Beyoncé’s co-star Donald Glover assuming his Childish Gambino alter ego, all three of whom turn “MOOD 4EVA” into a neo-revolutionary track with its unique call-and-answer set-up — and, true to the album’s nod to Africa, also include appearances by lesser-known but just as notable African artists like Yemi Alade, Shatta Wale, and Mr. Eazi.
But apart from John Kani’s Rafiki interlude — yet another, albeit coincidental, nod and wink to Black Panther, as Kani is perhaps best known to American audiences as T’Chaka from the smash Marvel film — the intros and interludes which feature various 2019 cast members of The Lion King is the only true drawback of the album.
While something like this would serve well on the 1994 soundtrack, in which Sir Elton John and Tim Rice served as the fulcrum, it falls flat and sounds dated on this 2019 version. By the time Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner ham it up as Timon & Pumbaa on the “New Lesson” soundtrack, the album dangerously veers into The Lion King 2: Electric Boogaloo territory. And James Earl Jones is a national treasure, but there’s no need for the feel of a DatPiff mixtape with his various interjections. (Is hearing Darth Vader/Mufasa/King Jaffe Joffer on an album better than DJ Khaled screaming over everything? Yes, but that’s not the bar by which we scale our music.)
This is really one of the first Beyoncé albums — such as it were — in which Mrs. Carter’s creativity serves as a vector to another creative vision, rather than as the creative vision itself.
Overall, it works and is another jewel in her crown — one that she, overall, can be proud to call hers.
Long live the Queen.