We Are Millennial Culture

Reviewing Beyoncé’s Love Letter To Africa

So there you are just minding your business on a regular Friday and you find out that The Gift, Beyoncé’s complimentary album to the most highly anticipated Disney movie yet, The Lion King, is out. Naturally, you’re freaking out, right?

A few weeks ago, we had news that Queen Bey was set to release an album executive produced by Beyoncé herself, that would feature a cocktail of African musical acts. In her words, “Authenticity and heart were important to me.”

We got a taste of the album in the form of the single, Spirit. And in typical Beyoncé fashion, she released the breathtaking video to Spirit right in the middle of the week, totally out of the blue. Just days after, she came out with the tracklist for The Lion King: The Gift album. And then the album itself dropped last Friday. Whew! Talk about a rollout!

Great, now that you’re all caught up and have had some time to catch your breath, let’s get into the album.

The Gift starts with an audio note from James Earl Jones, who plays Mufasa in the live-action remake of the Disney classic. The audio note, “balance (mufasa’s interlude), is a narration that sets the tone for the whole album and gets you prepped for the opening song. This style is seen throughout the album songs are preceded with audio clips from the film. This makes sense as it illustrates what Beyoncé herself said about the album, “Each song was written to reflect the film’s storytelling. That gives the listener a chance to imagine their own imagery while listening to a new contemporary interpretation.”

However, don’t let that fool you into thinking the tracks are limited to the cookie-cutter Disney brand for younger audiences.

Mufasa’s interlude is followed by Bigger, the opening track on the album. An anthem which explores themes of self-worth with lyrics like “If you feel insignificant/ You better think again/  Better wake up because/ You’re part of something way bigger/ Not just a speck in the universe”, Bigger showcases Beyoncé’s expressive, soulful voice, flowing richly over multilayered tracks of herself, synths and rhythmic drumming. Bigger gives way to Find Your Way Back, an uptempo track reminiscent of Daddy Lessons from Beyoncé’s previous solo album, Formation.

As she said about her Coachella performance, Beyoncé wanted to bring authentic African music and culture to the world and she did that with this body of work. “I wanted to make sure we found the best talent from Africa and not just use some of the sounds and do my own interpretation of it. I wanted to be authentic to what is beautiful about the music in Africa,” and it shows.

Nigerian musicians Yemi Alade, Tekno and Mr. Eazi lend their vocals on the infectious Don’t Jealous Me. Burna Boy opens Ja Ara E in his resonating baritone to create a captivating, rhythmic tune. Tiwa Savage teams up with Mr. Eazi on the sweet and appealing Keys To The Kingdom.

Guest star, Kendrick Lamar makes an appearance on Nile, and while he and Beyoncé both sound good on it, the track itself feels more like an extension of an interlude.

Interestingly, the album takes an intriguing direction on the egocentric track Beyoncé whips up with her husband, Jay Z and Childish Gambino, the musical alter ego of Donald Glover (Adult Simba in the movie) on Mood 4 Eva. With lyrics like “Why would you try me?/ Why would you bother?/ I am Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter/ I be like soul food, I am a whole mood”, Beyoncé completely snaps on this record. Jay Z and Childish Gambino also come through on their verses.

Cameroonian vocalist, Salatiel, with Pharell and Bey, creates an intense, rhythmic and driving sound on Water as he smoothly modulates, “Baby, oh, I’m not much of a talker/ Baby, oh, can I drink from your water?” Pharell himself sounds almost unrecognizable on the track. The brilliant and culturally important Brown Skin Girl features Blue Ivy Carter, Beyoncé’s daughter alongside Wizkid and her mother.

Self-named Dancehall King, Ghana’s Shatta Wale, provides a welcome freshness of sound on Already after Brown Skin Girl. Diplo’s Major Lazer captures the importance and exuberance of that with their production of the track, combining the crisp and melodious intensity of Beyonce’s vocals with splashes of percussive color.

While Otherside is beautiful but doesn’t particularly stand out, My Power makes up for it by being wild, unapologetic and zestful. It is an anthem highlighted by Tierra Whack’s fiery verse, Moonchild Sanelly’s spirited chants and the blast of Busiswa’s vocals in Zulu. Scar, from Jessie Reyez and 070 Shake feels like a piano-backed ballad/hip hop hybrid wrapped in a cinematic African bubble.

Even though it was the first song we heard from this complimentary album, Spirit brings a sense of satisfying finality to the piece.

 

Expertly curated and executive produced by Beyoncé, The Lion King: The Gift is more than a purely sonic experience. It is a monument to the matchless power wielded by an iconic artist determined to offer a platform of immense exposure to the musical essence of contemporary Africa, all the while showcasing the dexterity and versatility of the superstar, reinforcing the fact that Beyoncé is an icon.

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