It’s finally here. Beyoncé’s The Lion King-inspired album, The Gift, was released today (July 19). In a rare interview, Beyoncé described the album as “sonic cinema,” and sonic cinema this album is. Woven together through interludes of dialogue from the 2019 retelling of The Lion King, Beyoncé & Co. blend afrobeats, R&B, pop, and rap to create an authentic and rich tribute to the sounds of Africa. Featuring artists like Wizkid, Burna Boy, SAINt JHN, Tierra Whack, Childish Gambino, and more, The Gift is simply extraordinary. Now, let’s jump in to a track-by-track review.
The Gift opens with one of the most stunning ballads of Beyoncé’s career so far. She is clearly in her vocal prime: her low notes have never sounded more full and the C5 belt that she sustains on the bridge is absolutely insane. The rousing drums, haunting background vocals, and immaculate arrangement make up for lyrics that carefully tread the line between corny and inspirational. “Bigger” shifts between husky rapping and Baptist Church-reminiscent belts. It’s a testament to the power of Beyoncé’s voice that the lyrics don’t detract from the overall greatness of the song. This is the type of song that saves lives.
FIND YOUR WAY BACK
A few mainstream artists have tried to replicate the sound of afrobeats. They often fall short because they find American producers to copy the sound instead of reaching out to the African afrobeats producers. Bubele Boii and Magwenzi craft “Find Your Way Back” into a bouncy and smooth jam that is thematically in the vein of Lemonade‘s “Daddy Lessons.” The song doubles as a tribute to the lessons Beyoncé’s father (and former manager) taught her and musical interpretation of the beginning of Simba’s journey to return as king. Beyoncé also plays with the concept of the “circle of life,” and going back to your roots. With the way Beyoncé handles her singles recently, this will probably be unfairly stifled from being the smash hit it deserves to be.
DON’T JEALOUS ME
With notes of dancehall and pulsating synths, “Don’t Jealous Me” is yet another home run. In terms of the film, this song is set after Scar’s first encounter with Simba, and we all know that jealousy is the root of Scar’s issues. This track is markedly more intense than the ones that precede it which makes sense considering this is when The Lion Kong’s main conflict begins. Yemi Alade, Tekno, and Mr Eazi have incredible chemistry and P2J (the producer behind GoldLink’s “Zulu Screams” and “Joke Ting”) creates a soundscape of thumping drums and bass.
JA ARA E
Burna Boy is the only musician to get a solo song on The Gift aside from Beyoncé, and he definitely makes the most of it. According to Genius, “ja ara e” is Yoruba slang that translates to “wise up.” This song is placed after Young Simba and Nala face the first real danger in their lives. On this smooth track, Burna Boy sings in both the Yourba language and in English about staying on a steady path and remaining focused on protecting your family. Burna Boy is one of Nigeria’s brightest stars, and his smooth delivery and flow should make him the breakout star of The Gift.
Based on the artists alone, “Nile” is already a monumental song. “Nile” marks Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé’s second collaboration following 2016’s Grammy-nominated “Freedom.” This is the first time Beyoncé has collaborated multiple times with a male rapper since Jay-Z and André 3000. At just under two-minutes, “Nile” is criminally short. Nevertheless, the wordplay of “in the Nile” and “in denial” coupled with the overarching imagery of the cleansing properties of water more than makes up for it. Also, there’s this powerful lyric: “Deeper the wounded, deeper the roots.”
MOOD 4 EVA
DJ Khaled’s collaborations with The Carters are hit-and-miss. “I Got the Keys” and “Shining” are bangers, and “Top Off” is forgettable, to put it nicely. Thankfully, Asahd’s daddy brought his A-Game on “Mood 4 Eva.” Think of this song as a more adult version of “Hakuna Matata”; on The Gift, dialogue of Timon, Pumbaa, and Simba is placed directly ahead of “Mood 4 Eva.” Beyoncé gives a joyful vocal performance with a lethal rap verse to top it all of. She rips into her haters and tell them to “stay in [their] struggle” while reminding us all that she is “Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter.” Jay-Z delivers yet another gem of a verse and Childish Gambino’s bridge adds just the right amount of sultriness. “Mood 4 Eva,” is energetic, playful, fun, and black as hell. Each artist involved just sounds proud to be alive and be black. It really is a mood forever.
If we forget the “Blow” remix, Pharrell and Beyoncé really can do no wrong. On “Water,” the first song after Simba and Nala’s reunion, Pharrell, Beyoncé, and Salatiel trade sexy verses about pure love. It’s a saccharine love song with equal amounts of innocence and flirtation. “Water” continues the album’s broader themes of spirituality, love, the sun, the moon, water, and nature in general.
BROWN SKIN GIRL
This is the best song on The Gift and one of the most important songs of Beyoncé’s career. Black women, specifically dark-skinned black women, are all too often subjected to unfair hatred and disadvantages because of their skin tone. As a light-skinned woman, Beyoncé is well aware of the advantages that her skin tone has given her. As the mother of two Black daughters, Beyoncé decided to dedicate an entire song to uplifting and celebrating the beauty and power of black women. Wizkid and Beyoncé offer beautiful harmonies and SAINt JHN and Blue Ivy offer an adorable duet in the intro. With shoutouts to Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o, and Kelly Rowland, “Brown Skin Girl” is an ode to black womanhood, an identity that deserves more praise and love.
KEYS TO THE KINGDOM
In The Lion King, Nala is Simba’s greatest supporter. On this tropical house-infused and reggae-influenced jam, Tiwa Savage and Mr Eazi remind Simba that he is the “key to the kingdom.” Like most of the songs on The Gift, “Keys to the Kingdom” fits perfectly in the linear narrative of The Lion King, but also works well on tis own. Motivational music has never sounded so good.
Major Lazer and Beyoncé is always going to be a banger, and “Already” is no exception. With notes of dance music this rap and afrobeats hybrid is yet another track that is the musical equivalent to Nala pushing Simba to his full potential. Shatta Wale delivers killer verses that add a looser quality to the tightness of Beyoncé’s background riffs and runs. With skittering bass and stuttering handclaps, “Already” is a song that you simply can’t help but dance to. Also, do you hear those runs in the intro?!
Set right before the big fight between Simba and Scar, “Otherside” is a gorgeous ballad where Beyoncé (as Nala) sings of her undying love for Simba. This love will clearly transcend life or death and Beyoncé emotes incredibly well on this track. If ever there was a cinematic song, it’s “Otherside.” The orchestra that backs the song gives a dramatic flair that enhances the tension. As if that wasn’t stunning enough, Beyoncé dips to G#2 while singing (in Yoruba) for God to enter her heart. The clarity and resonance of Beyoncé’s voice sends currents of raw emotion through through every sound wave. “Otherside” is otherworldly.
I never thought I would see Tierra Whack and Beyoncé on the same track, but that dynamic duo, along with Nija Charles and Moonchild Sanelly, absolutely murder this track. With a thumping and intense production from Busiswa, Beyoncé, Moses Boyd, and DJ Lag, “My Power” is a powerful (pun intended, I guess) song about strength and courage. Set in the middle of Scar and Simba’s final showdown, “My Power” is militaristic and fierce. Tierra Whack delivers one of the greatest rap verses of the year stacked with references to Ebonics and Living Single. Also, this song is not only about strength, it’s about a specific kind of Black Power that cannot be accessed or replicated by just anyone. Busiswa delivers a showstopping verse entirely in Xhosa, as well. The energy on this track is insane, you can’t help but to feel empowered.
This is perhaps the most underwhelming song on The Gift. In terms of the film, this track is set after Scar’s surrender. Jessie Reyez spits a lukewarm verse and 070 Shake gives a fine vocal performance. The main issue with this track is that the production easily overpowers the artists. The production is more compelling and the artists don’t emote well enough to warrant more attention. There’s definitely potential here, but honestly, this works better as an instrumental. Seriously, the production here is some of the decade’s best.
Finally the album ends with the incredible “Spirit,” read my review here, which sounds even more powerful at the end of The Gift. Beyoncé has done it again. It’s hard to not sound like a superfan, but there are very few artists at her level of fame that are consistently delivering such challenging, intricate, and well-made works of art. It’s quite remarkable how Beyoncé turned the 2019 Lion King remake into a platform to introduce African artists and music to America’s mainstream and uplift blackness and black womanhood. The Gift is undoubtedly one of the best, if not the best, albums of the year. The attention to detail is incredibly sharp; it is clear this was a passion project for Beyoncé. Every artist involved fits seamlessly into one ultimate package of musical excellence. The way bits of dialogue are interspersed between the tracks to bridge them under the story of The Lion King is nothing short of genius. This is what “Inspired By” soundtracks should sound like. Again, Beyoncé has raised the bar to heights only she can reach.
Key Tracks: “Brown Skin Girl”; “Bigger”; “My Power”; “Don’t Jealous Me”; “Mood 4 Eva”