She doesn’t quite maintain so tight a web of connected meanings throughout. Much of The Lion King’s plot turns on exile—Simba’s estrangement from his birthright—but The Gift doesn’t make super obvious how exactly Beyoncé, a star since age 18, relates to that theme. She could have shoehorned in her marital drama or journey toward greater creative independence, but instead, the middle portions of the album sport swaggering, triumphal fare. Her Jay-Z and Childish Gambino workout “Mood 4 Eva” comes with an intro suggesting it’s a version of “Hakuna Matata,” but the celebration that ensues isn’t the no-worries kind: “When we walk up in the club I need them sirens goin’ off / Then we can look up in the sky / The tears we cry let us know that we alive,” Beyoncé bellows, sanctifying the impulse to turn up. While in the middle portion of the movie Simba avoids greatness, the song (and much of the album) is all about embracing it. Jay-Z compares himself to, among other black idols, Mansa Musa, a legendarily wealthy descendant of the Lion King of Mali.
Really, the exile preoccupying The Gift is mostly implied. It’s political, spiritual, and demographic exile; it’s racial disconnection and erasure. “This soundtrack is a love letter to Africa,” Beyoncé said in a Robin Roberts interview, explaining why she set out to fill the album with voices from that continent. This “love letter” would seem to respond to the whiteness of the original Lion King soundscape—only “Circle of Life” featured African singers—as well as extend Beyoncé’s interest in connecting her own work with wider black experiences. To be sure, it’s a flawed attempt: The Gift bafflingly omits East African voices, despite The Lion King’s deep debt to that region. But the African sounds that do make it in give the album its sense of purpose while also adding rich and varied textures.
The continent’s influence is partly rendered in the music itself. On the mostly solo Beyoncé track “Find Your Way Back,” for example, the airy guitar strums of Ghanaian highlife evoke a twilight between hope and melancholy. Later, the thrilling “My Power” dramatizes the climactic Scar-Simba battle to the punishing beat of gqom, South African house music. Throughout The Gift, the rhythmic trickiness of Nigerian Afrobeats and the lilt of Jamaican dembow not only widen the expected palette, but also serve as reminders of how much the African diaspora already shapes Western pop. To many Americans, the novelty of the arrangements will be noticeable, but not disorienting, as their drive-time radio has been trending toward these sounds already.
What’s most exciting is the dynamism of the African voices. An early track, “Don’t Jealous Me,” showcases the Nigerian artists Tekno, Mr Eazi, and Yemi Alade, who each radiate intoxicating confidence across their varying vocal tones and cadences. On “Ja Ara E,” the Nigerian star Burna Boy employs his smooth, sad delivery to vest lyrics about a search for “miraculous blessings” with a pungent sense of longing. The power of “My Power” owes in large part to an indomitable verse from Busiswa and a taunting, catchy one from Moonchild Sanelly, both of whom are from South Africa.