I don’t believe those that claim this album can be listened to as a completely separate “work of art” from the Disney remake. After all, every other track is an audio snippet from the film. It doesn’t let you forget the pointless rehash from which all of these songs emerged, which is a shame because Beyoncé this decade alone, a single person, has been bigger and better and more interesting than anything Disney has produced except Frozen. Yet, ever the shameless self-promoter, Beyoncé has used her part in the film (as Nala) to launch an album that’s all about her glory, no matter how much it pretends not to be.
Like Kendrick Lamar on last year’s Black Panther soundtrack, she invites a wealth of guests to join her, of varying degrees of fame. Most importantly, in both cases, the roster includes African musicians not very well-known in the west: here they include Nigerian afropop stars (Tekno, Yemi Alade, Mr Eazi), South African gqom musicians (Busiswa, Moonchild Sanelley), and the most likely breakout star, Nigerian Afro-fusion singer-songwriter Burna Boy (who released the Pitchfork-approved African Giant earlier this month). Beyoncé does a reasonably good job of ceding the mic to these voices, sometimes for entire songs. And, like Black Panther, the use of African voices thematically fits both the context of the film and the artist’s previous work, with Beyoncé making much of her pride in her African roots. There is a real, admirable attempt to bring the roots of the African diaspora that is so central to American identity to the surface and celebrate it through the joy of music.
The problem is, there isn’t enough joy in the music. Afropop is an exciting genre and it would be wonderful to imagine it cracking the international markets in a greater way. However, it’s hard to imagine any of the songs here doing so, due to the staidness of their beats and the resistibility of their hooks. Perhaps in concession to crossover potential, the polyrhythmic complexity of the best African music is never captured. Beats are reduced down to as minimal a variation of the radio-friendly 4/4 as possible, without losing the stereotypical African drumrolls, repeated without variation, that help it pretend to be “international”. Melodically, as well, there’s little that stands out, with a sampling of the great Oumou Sangaré on “MOOD 4 EVA” providing the highlight and a reminder of what could have been. It’s so disappointing – all of the artists featured have potential, yet they don’t seize their moment and bring their A game as Yugen Blakrok did with her cameo on Black Panther OST (her terrific album released this year is also well worth hunting down).
In fact, the best guest spot by far here is by Tierra Whack on “MY POWER”. She’s a rapper who deserves far wider exposure, and she’s just brilliant in her allotted time. Her flow is brutal, compulsive and addictive, making you itch to go back and listen to her again rather than plod on through the rest of the album. She sounds so strong that when she winds up with “They’ll never, ever take my power” you don’t hesitate to believe her. Her confidence and artistry outclasses all of the competition on the album, including such heavyweights as Jay-Z, Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar…
… and Beyoncé herself. I’ve championed Beyoncé all throughout this decade and consider her one of its seminal artists. But here she seems to miss every step. “FIND YOUR WAY BACK” bears unfavourable comparison to Lemonade’s “Daddy Lessons” in its daddy theme, being monotonous musically and boring lyrically – how much more challenging and intriguing it was to hear that her daddy said “shoot” than to hear that he told her to “tie [her] shoes” when she was younger. And the less said about “SPIRIT” the better. Like countless pop stars, Beyoncé is at her worst during “soaring ballad” mode, where playfulness and intelligence are tossed to the wind in the hopes that the louder she shouts the more sales she’ll make. “SPIRIT” has all the subtlety of screaming at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to “GIVE ME MY OSCAR, NOW”. It’s nauseating in every way, from Beyoncé’s overpowered vocals to the cheesy horror of the final key change to the daft lyrics about destiny, heavens opening, and far off lands.
Never mind, there is one true gift from her on this album: “BROWN SKIN GIRL”. It’s become somewhat of a viral hit thanks to Blue Ivy’s cute appearance on it, and deservedly so. Sweet and understated where “SPIRIT” is sentimental and bombastic, it’s a reminder of the most constant love in Beyoncé’s music: that for her daughter, which is stronger and more consistent than her love for Jay-Z, her daddy or herself. As a simultaneous call for black pride, the song also works better than any other track on the album, because it’s so rooted in emotional honesty.
Don’t fool yourself: the greatest gift in The Lion King: The Gift is from Beyoncé to her daughter. Her attempt to capture the spirit of black people all the world over falls flat, but her attempt to capture the spirit of one little brown-skinned girl succeeds admirably.