Every well-meaning effort to make The Lion King “more African” over the years has had to contend with the fact that, at its root, the franchise is about as African as a party of Trump children on safari, although infinitely more pleasant. It was conceived by a bunch of white studio executives on a European press junket as “Bambi in Africa,” which was expanded by subsequent white screenwriters to Hamlet meets Bambi in Africa. Elton John and the guy who wrote the lyrics for Evita were brought in to create the music. Granted, its popular catchphrase, hakuna matata (“no problem”), actually is a commonplace Swahili saying. Disney went on to honor its origins in the most Disney way possible, by placing it under trademark, nurturing East African culture roughly the way that King Leopold of Belgium nurtured Congolese rubber.
In the new photorealistic CGI remake released this week, the proportion of black and African actors in the voice cast has risen. But to little avail, since most critics seem to agree with me that the hypertechnical but inexpressive visual rendering of the characters drains the lion’s share (sorry) of emotion from the tale. That fate even befalls contemporary American culture’s most beloved living special effect, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, whose voice as Pride Lands queen-to-be Nala is often almost hard to recognize. The exception, naturally, being when she sings—with Donald Glover on the musical’s classic Elton-fueled duet “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” and on her own original contribution, an award-baiting piece of Hollywood-goes-gospel, “Spirit.” But neither of those performances is special enough to make her participation in the film an Event on the level of nearly every other Beyoncé venture of this decade.
Which of course means she could not stop at that. So now she’s also released a tie-in album of new songs that aren’t in the movie itself, titled The Lion King: The Gift, which Beyoncé has described both as “sonic cinema” and as “a love letter to Africa.” Those claims seem debatable, but I’m confident this album is mountains, valleys, rivers, and savannahs better than the movie. As on the album Kendrick Lamar musically directed last year to accompany the release of Black Panther, the tracks here generally follow the thematic arc of the movie’s plot, while avoiding too much literal reference. And as on Lamar’s Black Panther non-soundtrack, there’s a cavalcade of guest stars, a host of them contemporary African artists bringing their own styles and sometimes languages to the table. The Western contingent includes Lamar himself, Pharrell Williams, art-rap sensation Tierra Whack, rising Canadian R&B artist Jessie Reyez, Glover’s musical alter ego Childish Gambino, hubby Jay-Z, and a brief but tuneful warble courtesy of 7-year-old Bey cub Blue Ivy. The album also features turns by a long list of Afrobeats stars and producers from Nigeria (including Drake’s “One Dance” collaborator Wizkid), as well as artists from South Africa, Ghana, and Cameroon.
Lamar had the advantage that Black Panther was a blockbuster that excited the global diaspora with an unprecedented commitment to its Pan-Africanist content and aesthetics. Not to mention that he could include more adult themes and language. The Lion King has cultural appropriation and, in its current incarnation, dead-eyed computer-generated cats. On the other hand, it also has Beyoncé.
Curiously, this isn’t even the first attempt to make a compensatory African alternative soundtrack to the Simba story. Released in 1995, the official “sequel” album, Rhythm of the Pride Lands, was made under the direction of South African producer-composer Lebo M. He’s served on both movies as sideman to main score writer Hans Zimmer, peppering African choral vocals and rhythms where needed for atmosphere into the films. On that album, he got to stretch out on his own terms, rearranging some songs (including roots-reggae veteran Jimmy Cliff performing “Hakuna Matata”) and adding new material. Some of that made its way into The Lion King stage musical as the Nala-led number “Shadowland,” which strangely wasn’t used as a Beyoncé showcase in the new movie. The production values of Pride Lands are very of their time—it sounds like it could have come out on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label. But as my former Slate colleague Aisha Harris wrote in 2014, the collection is “just distinct enough to feel as if you’re hearing The Lion King from a new perspective.”
Does Beyoncé’s excursion have a parallel effect? To a degree, but unlike with the Black Panther album, it’s improved if you put the movie it accompanies mostly out of your mind. Take it more as a (mildly) new perspective on Beyoncé, thanks to the African-music context. The clips of movie dialogue between tracks interfere with that aim, which is easy to rectify on most listening devices. A couple of the songs also drag one’s mind back to Pride Rock a bit. “Otherside,” albeit in a mellower way than “Spirit,” is likewise very movie-ballad, as if to supply The Lion King its own “Over the Rainbow” or at least “Rainbow Connection” (not that it’s any match for either of those). On the other hand, “Scar,” a collaboration with Reyez and Kanye West protégé 070 Shake, offers a more compelling characterization of the story’s chief villain than the entire new movie.
Otherwise, though, from the opener, “Bigger,” The Gift transliterates the leonine royal-family drama and “circle of life” worldview of The Lion King into the recent main leitmotif of Beyoncé’s own work. That is, the dynastic dynamics of the Knowles-Carter family as a destiny-laden microcosm of the state and fate of American and world blackness. (See last year’s Jay-and-Bey duo album, Everything Is Love, for the primary text.)
“You’re part of something way bigger,” she sings on the chorus, directed by turns at Jay, their children, and the community at large. “Bigger than you, bigger than me/ Bigger than the picture they framed us to be/ Legacy, oh, you’re part of something way bigger.” Yes, it applies to Simba and friends, and by extension to the global environment. But channeled through Beyoncé, it takes on a richer specificity. Likewise, the second song, “Find Your Way Back” (co-produced by Nigeria’s Bankulli and others), may coincide with the scenes of Mufasa imparting fatherly wisdom to his cub, but it’s especially moving as a gentler sequel to Lemonade’s twangily tense “Daddy Lessons.” Elsewhere there’s the Carter-clan victory dance of “Mood 4 Eva” with Jay and Childish Gambino—Jay laying in the Afrocentric references both impressively and a bit thick: “At the Saxon Madiba suite, like Mandela/ Bumpin’ Fela on the Puma jet, like we from Lagos/ Mansa Musa reincarnated, we on our levels.”
After the earliest two Beyoncé-free tracks, each musically and verbally head-spinning—“Don’t Jealous Me” from Tekno, Yemi Alade, and Mr. Eazi, and then Burna Boy’s solo ,“Ja Ara E,” all hailing from Nigeria—she returns with Lamar on “Nile.” It’s a meditation on the psychic effects of motherland dreamtime: “Darker the berry, sweeter the fruit/ Deeper the wounded, deeper the roots/ Nubian doused in brown, I’m loungin’ in it. … I’m in the Nile, deep in denial.” Later, Bey goes in full-throatedly on black womanist self-celebration (including some loving bars in tribute to former Destiny’s Child sister Kelly Rowland) on “Brown Skin Girl” with Wizkid and Guyanan American artist Saint Jhn and Blue Ivy’s singing cameo—a lilting clapping-game song that feels like a potential left-field hit—as well as on the off-the-hinges “My Power” with Tierra Whack and South African blue-maned “president of female orgasm” Moonchild Sanelly.
Overall there’s scarcely a guest who doesn’t earn their invitation, from Cameroonian crooner Salatiel to Nigerian pop star Tiwa Savage to Ghanaian self-appointed “Dancehall King” Shatta Wale (hope he didn’t get anyone trampled for his crown). And, as usual, the pleasure that Beyoncé takes in matching their pace and then doing her best to out-master them is contagious. Still, on initial listens to this kind of anthology album, I generally find it impossible to guess whether in the long run I’ll return to it often as a whole, or if I’ll parcel out the stickiest tracks to other kinds of playlists. There’s far too much to take in here, more to find than can ever be found—and who else but Beyoncé could so captivatingly keep great and small on the endless round?