Beyoncé Finds Inspiration in Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ Remake for Personal Companion Album ‘The Lion King: The Gift’
The latest classic Disney film to be slotted for the inevitable live-action remake is 1994’s “The Lion King.” At this point, the announcement of each new shot-by-shot reimagining unites the world in a collective sigh. The forces at play try increasingly harder to surpass previous ventures with bigger, bolder plans for every aspect of every new release. Soundtracks are no exception, and in this department, Disney has outdone itself — in a way. The official soundtrack wisely sticks to the songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, and composition by Hans Zimmer, that made the original film so memorable, but adds a new song, “Spirit,” by Beyoncé, who has, in turn, executively produced an album of her own, “The Lion King: The Gift,” a musical accompaniment to the film. A “love letter to Africa,” Beyoncé recruits the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, and of course Jay-Z, as well as an African cast of musicians, Bey uses the film’s storyline as a springboard for a versatile set of passionate, uplifting songs.
The album begins with the peerless, sonorous voice of James Earl Jones, as the wise elder lion Mufasa, introducing the film’s central concept of the “circle of life.” In seconds, the music takes off with the first full song, “Bigger,” setting the stage in the most dramatic fashion. It’s an effusive outpouring from Beyoncé, her voice intimate and expressive, accompanied by only sparse strings and accents until a final eruption as ambitiously charged as you might expect from the song title. In her lyrics, she channels Jones’ musings into meditations on her particular family life, addressing her children directly in an uplifting evocation. She then shifts focus to her father, drawing a parallel between Mufasa’s emphasis on self-reliance and lessons learned in her own childhood, on the catchy “Find Your Way Back,” settling effortlessly into an Afrobeat groove with regional slide-guitar stylings and particularly exotic backing vocals. “Don’t Jealous Me” picks up on the free, beat-driven revelry of its predecessor, and builds on the momentum. A track of delightfully infectious simplicity, it finds artists Tekno, Yemi Alade & Mr. Eazi offering bits of folk wisdom in Nigerian Pidgin English, interspersed with passionate hollers and hoots, and alluding to everything from Suzuki motorcycles to soccer player Raul Pogba.
Nigerian afro fusion singer Burna Boy takes the mic for “Ja Ara E,” a restrained romp of tuned percussion, horns bits, and casual, provincial flavor that is positive without being preachy. Drawing further on established themes, the titular phrase is a Yoruba slang for “Wise Up.” Next comes the larger-than-life pairing of Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar, who collaborated once before on Bey’s “Lemonade” cut “Freedom.” “NILE” comes after an interlude from a darker moment in the film, and uses the moment to delve into thoughts about troubled times. The central pun presents “the Nile” as “denial,” and Beyoncé and Lamar sing together in a quasi spoken word style, evoking everything from the Harlem Renaissance to the Brooklyn Moon scere, before breaking into brief, but ever satisfying, swaying singalong in the end.
The most star-studded moment of all follows, with “Mood 4 Eva” featuring Jay-Z and Childish Gambino, in his first collaboration with Beyoncé, as well as production from DJ Khaled and Just Blaze. Building on the movie’s famous motto of “Hakuna Matata,” which translates loosely to “no worries,” Bey emerges beaming, declaring, “None of my fears can’t go where I’m headed / Had to cut ’em loose,” her enunciations oozing with attitude. Jay-Z condenses references to Nelson Mandela, Mali ruler Mansa Musa, Michael Jackson, Prince, and more into a short, but sweet verse, before Bey takes over again, this time in one of her unhinged, jazz-informed, staggering diva outbursts. Gambino, ever the man of a million voices, dons an accent that’s hard to pinpoint, probably because it’s merely a work of his imagination. That said, it works impeccably, and his brief sung verse both stands out and glues the track together.
“Water” features Cameroonian singer/producer Salatiel, as well as the illustrious Pharell Williams, who contributes a characteristically effortlessly hook. It’s the next step in the fulfilment of the Hakuna Matata mentality, making for possibly the most cooly content, celebratory expression yet. “Brown Skin Girl” takes more liberties than other tracks in co-opting “The Lion King’s” subject matter for tangential ends, in this case, an exaltation of dark skin. While the only ostensible relevance is the film’s setting in Africa, that is enough to make for one of the most passionate sharings of sentiments. Beyonce and Jay-Z’s own daughter Blue Ivy Carter sings the chorus in the intro and outro, alongside SAINt JHN, who devoted a fair share of his exceptional last album “Collection One” to such issues. Nigerian Wizkid establishes the prevailing vibe with his tropical voicings, and Beyonce brings out the flavors in a winsome ditty, name-dropping such ebony icons as Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, and Kelly Rowland.
The cheerful empowerment continues on “Key to the Kingdom,” a lighthearted number with some quaint, throwback-ey stylings, featuring two more distinctive Nigerian singers, Tiwa Savage and Mr Eazi. On “Already,” Major Lazer lay down a dancehall beat, and Beyoncé affects a fittingly Carribean accent, teasing the way for guest feature Shatta Wale, who brings the track into full reggae territory. Having secured the “key to the kingdom,” Bey and Wale proceed to triumphantly chant, “Long live the king.” A calm, reflective moment comes in “Otherside,” an aside from the percussive core of the album in which Beyonce ruminates upon the ultimate reconciliation between the film’s protagonist young lion Simba and his estranged father, and even tackles the Yoruba language herself near the end, managing to sound about as convincing as she does in English.
A snippet of the final confrontation with the film villain Scar cues the war stomp “My Power,” which pairs Beyoncé with LA songwriter/producer Nija, one of the most strikingly unique voices on the album. There is animated rapping from Tierra Whack and South African artist Busiswa over a colorful, driving, militant beat. “Scar” is quite unlike anything else on the record, with 070 Shake bellowing over cinematic strings, and Jessie Reyez spitting rhymes over a hard, gritty beat, both sounding edgy and delightfully deranged. Finally, an interlude from Mufasa brings us back to the “circle of life,” segueing into the epic closer “Spirit.” Unlike the album’s other cuts, this song is actually featured in the film, and its beginning chants fittingly nod to the original Lion King theme. Beyonce enters, cueing drums and gospel singers, and bringing it all to a grandiose, anthemic climax.
Disney has had a history of questionable ethnic portrayals, long noted in such characters as Jim Crow from 1941’s “Dumbo” and King Louie from 1967’s “Dumbo.” While the attempt to remedy this in the modern era can easily come across as forced and desperate, a movie set in Africa offers an opportunity to fix the record. For its remake of “The Lion King,” Disney couldn’t have chosen a better artist to join forces with than Beyoncé, who made African American history with her monumental Coachella 2018 performance, and chronicled her life and that journey earlier this year in her Netflix musical documentary “Homecoming.” For “The Lion King: The Gift,” Beyoncé takes this further yet, introducing listeners to distant sounds from across the African continent that add a new dimension to the inspiring storyline. As for the staggering number of immediately recognizable featured artists, the names speak for themselves, and appearances have been curated with an attention to detail and commitment to perfection that make for an altogether enjoyable and original album, full of powerful sentiments that find meanings both personal and universal in the broad themes of “The Lion King.”
“The Lion King: The Gift” is available July 19 on Apple Music.