When Beyoncé’s role as Nala in The Lion King adaptation was announced in 2017, we excitedly imagined her singing iconic The Lion King songs such as “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Friday’s release of the film – which has admittedly mixed reviews – also comes with The Lion King: The Gift, an accompanying album executive produced by Beyoncé. The track list, interspersed with audio clips from the movie, features a number of African musicians. Well, West African musicians.
This album brings to mind the Black Panther album put together by Kendrick Lamar, which corresponded with the film’s release last year. The two respective projects featured artists creating and curating an album’s worth of music to accompany stories set in fictionalized parts of Africa. With Lamar’s album, which featured stars including Khalid, SZA, and Anderson .Paak, I felt a strong lack of inclusion of African artists. It felt like a missed opportunity to explore collaborations between black American and African artists for a film whose cast reflected such collaborations. The Gift does a better job of including African artists, featuring musicians such as Burna Boy, Yemi Alade, WizKid, Tiwa Savage and other Nigerian artists, as well as Shatta Wale from Ghana and Salatiel from Cameroon. Outside of West Africa, the album also has Moonchild Sanelly, Busiswa, and DJ Lag from South Africa, all on one track.
But there’s a notable omission of East African artists, especially for a story theoretically set in East Africa. That absence, while not as glaring as it was on the Black Panther album, also feels like a missed opportunity. Especially considering how when people generalize about Africa, it’s often West and South Africa they’re imagining. As the Atlantic’s Hannah Giorgis points out, Beyoncé herself called the album “a love letter to Africa” and a chance to highlight “what is beautiful about the music in Africa.” Not only is that a tall order for such a large continent, but it’s near impossible to do when entire regions are excluded. Noting how Lamar and Beyoncé are both popular artists backed by Disney in both ventures, Giorgis writes that “it’s simultaneously understandable and particularly disappointing, then, that these productions register as incomplete—or, worse yet, seem to sacrifice regional narrative fidelity for commercial appeal.”
The thing about Beyoncé is that even when she falls short, she still exceeds expectations. The Gift is an enjoyable album, full of “bops” and with surprising depth for even the more Disney-esque songs on the track list. The bookends of the album, “Bigger” and “Spirit,” both begin as the inspirational, feel-good, effortless songs I associate with music typically geared towards children. But in “Bigger,” Beyoncé breaks through the inspirational phrases to remind us that the advice she’s offering is also advice that she herself struggles with, admitting that she “don’t get no days off” — something she feels so much, she says twice – and that it’s still hard for her to be a good wife.
Then there’s the breakout hit of the album, “Mood 4 Eva,” which includes the swaggering, rapping Beyoncé who featured heavily in Everything is Love. It’s Beyoncé, her husband, Jay Z, and her Lion King co-star, Donald Glover, having braggadocious fun rapping and singing about reaping the benefits of their hard work while chuckling in the face of critics and haters. “Why would you try me? Why would you bother?” Beyoncé asks. “I am Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter.” The power that has.
Speaking of power, the track “My Power” is another phenomenal display of female rapping. There’s the thrilling lyrical dexterity of Tierra Whack, a young rapper from Philadelphia who drew attention last year with the release of a brilliant 15-minute video for her 1 minute-long songs that proved to be a necessary introduction to her creativity and range. “My Power,” which sees Whack collaborating with South African and Nigerian artists, is an example of the opportunities an album like this provides: a chance to explore the kind of music those across the black diaspora can make together. I’m sure musicians from East Africa would have also appreciated such an opportunity on a Disney-sponsored scale.
Still, the album’s “Brown Skin Girl” is a gorgeous tribute to dark-skinned black girls, who often get underrepresented and under-appreciated, if not overtly discriminated against inside and outside of black communities. On the song, Beyoncé intentionally names supermodel Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o (the actress of Kenyan heritage), and Kelly Rowland, her Destiny’s Child co-singer — three talented women with dark skin. This song also brings to the forefront an underlying theme of the album – as well as Beyoncé’s involvement in The Lion King – as a direct love letter to her children, particularly Blue Ivy. Beyoncé fans like to joke about the unstoppable rise of Beyoncé’s eldest daughter, who already has several song credits under her name. But hearing Blue Ivy singing in the intro and outro of “Brown Skin Girl,” her future takeover seems inevitable.
For all the valid criticisms of the primarily West African influences on the album, I’m still a Nigerian of Yoruba heritage. And there’s a thrill in hearing the deep-voiced Yoruba warning of Burna Boy in “Ja Ara E” — the only song on the album performed by just one artist who isn’t Beyoncé. The Nigerian influence goes beyond the music directly: The title of “Don’t Jealous Me” alone is a shout out to Tolulope Ogunmefun, a British Nigerian actor who popularized the phrase online in the late aughts. Even with artists who aren’t credited on the album, there’s a sense of their influence, too. In “Find Your Way Back,” for instance, the music rings with the sound of Niniola’s “Maradona.”
Perhaps the most unexpectedly touching moment on the album takes place at the end of “Otherside,” where Bankulli gently pleads for God’s divine aid in Yoruba. Over his voice, Beyoncé sings in Swahili. What if it had been a musician from Kenya or Tanzania singing with Bankulli? The Gift is fun and moving, and I have many of its songs in rotation on several playlists. But I can’t help but think of what a more regionally inclusive album could have sounded like.