Beyoncé's Lion King album is more about Beyoncé than The Lion King


Beyonce and Lion King promotional photo

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Dianey / Beyonce

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Beyonce plays Nala in the remake of Disney’s classic animation

Following in the footsteps of Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther, Beyoncé has released a 14-track album to accompany Disney’s remake of The Lion King.

“This is sonic cinema,” said the star, who plays Nala in the film, as she announced the record, called The Gift.

Many of her collaborators are familiar – from Jay-Z and Pharrell to her Lion King co-star Childish Gambino.

But the album also highlights artists and producers from Africa, who rarely get mainstream exposure in the West.

Among them are Nigerian stars Wizkid and Tiwa Savage, South Africa’s Moonchild Sanelly and Ghana’s Shatta Wale.

“I wanted to make sure we found the best talent from Africa, and not just use some of the sounds and did my interpretation of it,” the star told ABC News ahead of the record’s release.

“I wanted it to be authentic to what is beautiful about the music in Africa.”

The Gift is a companion piece to the official Lion King soundtrack, featuring songs inspired by the story and its setting, rather than new interpretations of Circle of Life or Hakuna Matata.

And the album is unmistakably a Beyoncé hangout: The star appears on all but four of the songs, and her lyrical preoccupations – motherhood, female empowerment, the general awesomeness of Beyoncé – get more prominence than The Lion King itself.

Songs directly inspired by the film include the light-footed Find Your Way Back, in which Mufasa passes on fatherly advice to a young Simba; and Otherside, a quietly-turbulent ballad about the King’s death, which features a brief callback to Beyonce’s megahit Halo.

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Media captionThe Duke and Duchess of Sussex were the star guests at the Lion King premiere

African chants and rhythms are woven into the fabric of the album, lending it a melodic warmth that was missing from the star’s last project, Everything Is Love.

Like that record, this is a family affair, with Beyoncé’s husband Jay-Z referencing Nelson Mandela and Fela Kuti on the braggadocious Mood 4 Eva; and her 7-year-old daughter Blue Ivy getting her first writing credit on Brown Skin Girl.

The latter song, with its message of black pride (“your skin is not only dark, it shines and it tells your story“) bears the least thematic relevance to The Lion King, but the compelling vocal and syncopated clicks-and-sticks rhythm make it an undeniable highlight.

Of the non-Beyoncé tracks, Tiwa Savage and Mr Eazi’s Keys To The Kingdom is a laid-back, if inessential, ode to Simba’s potential; while Tekno, Yemi Alade and Mr Eazi’s Don’t Jealous Me, delivered partly in Nigerian Pidgin English, puts a fun twist on Scar’s preening superiority.

Sheep don’t run with lion / Snake don’t swing with monkey / I can’t talk for too long / Got too much gold to try on.”

The final track is The Lion King’s Oscar-baiting new ballad, Spirit, which premiered earlier this week with a lavish, spiritual video filmed at Arizona’s Havasu Falls.

A powerful Beyoncé solo number, it opens with a Swahili chant “Uishi kwa muda mrefu mfalme” (long live the king) – but quickly falls back on musical theatre cliché, right down to final chorus’s forced key change.

It feels out-of-step with the diaspora-hopping richness of the rest of the album; ultimately showing that Beyoncé is at her best when she’s innovating.

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