Nine days before the new Lion King remake hit theaters, Disney released a clip from the “Hakuna Matata” scene in which a CGI-rendered Simba, Timon, and Pumbaa sing the beloved showtune with the facial expressiveness of a Real Housewives cast after two decades worth of intensive botox treatments. The clip suggested that The Lion King would be a soulless cash grab at best, a crime against humanity at worst. It also made it clear that the remake would never come close to eclipsing the cultural cachet of the 1994 original. Enter Beyoncé, whose companion album The Lion King: The Gift is here to ensure that, a year from now, people will actually remember that this new Lion King movie ever existed.
The Gift traces the plot of The Lion King, alternating between songs and dialogue interludes, to weave music into the film’s narrative structure. With a couple clunky exceptions, each song makes only oblique references to its narrative peg so that it can exist functionally in our world, beyond the scope of the Lion King universe. While Beyoncé is the star, the album also features over 20 artists from the United States, Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, and Cameroon, such that it operates in part as an exercise in cross-pollination, a celebration of diasporic musical currents.
As Hannah Giorgis pointed out In The Atlantic, The Gift fails to include even one artist from East Africa, the region where The Lion King is set, and instead chooses to elevate artists from countries in Africa that have already experienced crossover commercial success in the United States. It’s an incisive criticism that reveals the ways in which The Gift is beholden to a western, capitalist gaze, and thus falls short of its promise as Beyoncé’s “love letter to Africa.”
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If anything, The Gift is a love letter to blackness. Blackness, more than African-ness, is the current that runs through the album, as Beyoncé and her cohort champion their skin color as the source of their worth and power. Beyoncé repeatedly invokes elemental imagery, particularly water, to affirm her African lineage. On the clever “Circle of Life” redux “BIGGER,” she sings, “I’ll be the roots, you be the tree/Pass on the fruit that was given to me.” On “NILE”: “Darker the berry, sweeter the fruit/Deeper the wounded, deeper the roots/Nubian doused in brown, I’m lounging in it/fountain of youth, I said I’m drowning in it.”
The Gift includes wonderful solo efforts, namely Burna Boy on “JA ARA E” and Beyoncé on “SPIRIT.” But the album derives its strength from numbers. This is evident on songs like “MY POWER,” a hell-raising posse cut featuring American art-rap savant Tierra Whack and South African Kwaito practitioners Moonchild Sanelley and Busiswa, and “DON’T JEALOUS ME,” which features the Nigerian Voltron of Tekno, Yemi Alade, and Mr. Eazi. Even more so, the album’s intimate duets vibrate with a profound sense of far-flung black kinship, like on “OTHERSIDE,” when Beyoncé’s Swahili intonations mingle with the Yoruba of Nigerian singer Bankulli; when Saint Jhn and Blue Ivy sing the chorus in unison at the outset of melanin ode “BROWN SKIN GIRL”; and when Beyoncé and Wizkid sing the chorus in harmony at the song’s end.
While the lack of East African representation on The Gift is a letdown, the album still celebrates African diversity by inviting artists to toggle between English and their native tongues, from Swahili to Twi to Bambara to Yoruba. As a tribute to Africa, it compares favorably to Kendrick Lamar-helmed Black Panther soundtrack. Ultimately, The Gift is a deft balancing act that weighs personal songwriting flourishes and meaning with Disneycore tropes, as well as a sincere desire to celebrate the music of the African diaspora with its fundamentally commercial obligations.