Beyoncé returned with a compilation album, ‘The Lion King: The Gift’ last week which generated a lot of buzz on the internet. It is her first studio effort since ‘Everything Is Love’ with husband Jay Z. ‘The Lion King: The Gift’ arrives one week after the release of the ‘The Lion King’ (2019 film soundtrack) on July 11. Both albums share a particular track in common – ‘Spirit’, performed by Beyoncé.
Unlike her previous releases which were often marked by little or no fanfare, ‘The Lion King: The Gift’ was announced ahead of its release. The fore notice however didn’t in any way reduce the amount of attention it garnered. Again, the world stood still in sheer awe of an opus that features a vast range of singers scouted from Africa, and boldly explores unique African influences.
Having played the role of Nala in the Jon Favreau’s 2019 remake of Disney’s animation that first wowed audiences worldwide in 1994, Beyoncé, following in the steps of rapper Kendrick Lamar who curated the soundtrack album for ‘Black Panther’ that celebrates African roots, assumes the same role for ‘The Lion King: The Gift’.
But for such a classic, one soundtrack album is not enough, especially when you have Beyoncé on the team. Thus, the album parades the best of African artistes, particularly from Nigeria. The likes of Nigerian Tiwa Savage, Wizkid, Yemi Alade, Tekno and Mr Eazi penned words and lent vocals to the effort. This assemblage marks Nigeria as the only African country with most representatives from any African country combined.
The album explores themes as self-discovery, indigenous African cultures, self-love, female empowerment and family. Though touted as African, the album only bears sampling of African sounds with local languages at best. Other than that, it tilts towards mainstream pop appeal. The commerciality of this album is quite understandable if the needs of the international markets are factored in.
Beyoncé’s claim of the album being a sonic cinema was quite correct. It is seen in the pattern with which the narrative is built. She manages to weave excerpts from the movie with songs to relay elaborate tales of balance, impact, death, discovery and victory.
Opening with the interlude ‘Balance’ that sees James Earl Jones give life to the character Mufasa using a commandeering tone, the interlude morphs into the track ‘Bigger’, an empowering ode to self that doesn’t immediately feel African until later on with the intro of hand drums. The marriage of the interludes and main tracks is what steers the listener to go beyond the first track.
Beyoncé’s foray into the African music landscape isn’t one that started out of a need to promote the ‘The Lion King’ whose plot’s theme is set in the beautiful plains Pride Rock, a fictional ecosystem in Africa. The move started on her ‘4’ album that samples elements from afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti on the track ‘End of Time’. After the ‘4’ era, it was revealed that she had plans to produce an afrobeat album, this was confirmed by producer Dream at the time, but that project never saw the light of day. In 2013, to promote the Pepsi brand, she released a promotional single ‘Grown Woman’ that had lots of African influences in its instrumentation. .
Furthermore, the singer borrowed themes from African tales and myths for her sixth album ‘Lemonade’. While the album centred on infidelity, family, and a failing marriage, she, through visual representation employed various African influences like the ‘Igbo Landing’ of 1803 –a tale of West African slaves who chose death (freedom) over slavery – to tell her story.
With all these efforts, the pop star’s attempt to represent Africa through her past works comes off as collection of mismatched shards. Although arduous to achieve, ‘The Lion King: The Gift’ comes quite close to telling a much rounded tale through musical genre and visuals that are fully rooted in African culture.
With songs like ‘Find Your Way Back’, ‘Ja Ara E’, ‘Water’, ‘Keys to the Kingdom’, ‘Already’, and ‘My Power’, the album’s adoption of genres like house music, Yoruba folk music, and afrobeats is well executed. On this platform, she formally introduces African sounds to mainstream audiences exploiting her popularity.
Upon the album’s release, ‘Brown Skin Girl’ was met with praise. The Caribbean tinged track featuring Nigeria’s sweetheart Wizkid with Blue Ivy lending vocals, was the perfect hat-trick to enthral audiences worldwide. On the other hand, ‘Don’t Jealous Me’ didn’t enjoy similar fame. The track felt out of place in the storytelling sequence and wasn’t exactly fresh in terms of sound style. Having three heavyweights, Tekno, Yemi Alade and Mr. Eazi on the track felt like a chaotic mix. The struggle to outshine one another on a poorly written track was glaringly ambitious. It is a case of ‘too many cooks’.
However, this was quite different for ‘Ja Ara E’, a track solely penned by Burna Boy. The track was graceful and resplendent with confidence. Burna latched his artistry on the album to make a mark, and he achieved the feat with no hurry. The same attributes can be ascribed to Savage’s take on the Mr. Eazi assisted ‘Keys to the Kingdom’.
According to Beyoncé, the album is a love letter to Africa, but the big question remains: does it resonate beyond the fictional Pride Rock set of The Lion King into the concrete jungle of cities like Lagos, Johannesburg and Kigali? Or is this effort only geared towards her longevity as a singer?
Influence plays a major role in all of this and Beyoncé has a lot of it. In 2006, when she performed at the THISDAY Music Festival, Beyoncé delivered a rendition of Nigeria’s national anthem. That night, she won many over to her Beyhive (her fan base). Not only did that moment serve as a boost for her career, it also gave a sense of commonality amongst fans that were present to share in something that they not only identified with, but one that she did.
The album serves as a unifying tool for the singer by which she introduced African artistes to the rest of the world, and extend her reign as the music industry’s first lady which was bestowed on her by Clive Davis in 2018.
With 14 tracks and 13 interludes harnessed to retell the story of Simba and his journey back to Pride Rock to regain glory, ‘The Lion King: The Gift’ indeed is Beyoncé’s gift to Africa, and a win for all.