JULY 19, 2019
Beyoncé has recorded an extensive body of work over the course of her twenty plus year career in the music industry. She has sold millions of albums, singles, and concert tickets. She’s starred in blockbuster films, and created her own documentaries. However, if we’re speaking strictly about the music, there is one project that, for now, is perhaps the most underrated: her concept album inspired by The Lion King, a curated compilation entitled The Gift.
Since 1997, Beyoncé has recorded five albums with Destiny’s Child, four movie-musical soundtracks, six solo albums, five live albums, and one collaborative album with husband JAY-Z. Conceptually, structurally and sonically, her 2019 release, The Gift, is unlike any body of work that came before it. It is based on the story of The Lion King, but it is not a soundtrack. It is a reimagining of the classic tale, and her upcoming Disney+ film BLACK IS KING will serve to bring her vision to life.
Upon its release, reactions to The Gift were mixed. Released three years after 2016’s LEMONADE, one year after The Carters’ EVERYTHING IS LOVE, and just three months after HOMECOMING, it’s understandable that the Beyhive’s response was lukewarm to yet another pit stop on the road to “B7”. The Gift is a curated collection of songs by Beyoncé and various other artists. She enlisted a long list of collaborators; some familiar (JAY-Z, Pharrell Williams, Kendrick Lamar) and some up-and-coming (Jessie Reyez, Tierra Whack) but the majority of the songs feature African artists, writers and producers.
Beyonce’s mission to spotlight African musicians on an album bearing her name is, of course, commendable. Surely, she introduced them to a wider audience; a feature on a Beyoncé album is perhaps the best co-sign any artist could ask for. However, it’s almost a double-edged sword. The album has ten songs that feature Beyoncé, and as a result, the four songs that don’t almost get lost in her immense shadow. The most effective moments on the album are when the two sonic worlds collide. On album highlights such as “Brown Skin Girl,” “Water,” and “My Power,” Beyoncé elevates the tracks with her contributions but her presence doesn’t overshadow.
“Brown Skin Girl” and “My Power” are both unlike anything she’s ever recorded, and completely different from each other. While both tracks have numerous vocalists, Beyoncé fits right in. Despite different languages, accents, flows and styles, the tracks just work. In different ways, both songs are empowering and exude pride and strength. They both sound and feel effortlessly genuine. Of course, Blue Ivy’s guest verse and the Kelly Rowland shout out are both adorable.
Cameroonian singer Salatiel leads “Water,” joined by Beyoncé and Pharrell Williams to create one of the album’s smoothest grooves. The title is apt, because the trio rides the “Water” beat like they’re professional surfers. Vocally, Beyoncé swells to new heights, proving that though she’s pushing forty, she’s lost none of her vocal chops.
The Gift also boasts Beyoncé’s best ballads since the 4 album: “Bigger” and “Otherside.” They are both lyrically poignant and vocally breathtaking. Gorgeously raw, these ballads take inspiration from The Lion King story, but when repurposed from Beyoncé’s point of view, sound all the more powerful. “Otherside” has guest vocals from Nigerian singer Bankulli, sung in Yoruba, while Beyoncé closes the song singing in Swahili. “Bigger,” meanwhile, is a sort of reconceptualization of the idea of “The Circle of Life”; it’s music video features Beyoncé and her eldest daughter Blue Ivy, likely intended to be a female equivalent to the father-son dynamic between Mufasa and Simba. Last summer, she released the visual as a short film alongside the Academy Award nominated ballad, “Spirit.”
One of the two songs most akin to the rest of Beyoncé’s catalogue, though, is the undeniable bop that is “MOOD 4 EVA.” While she never says it in the song, the interlude that precedes the song references “Hakuna Matata,” and it is to be assumed that the famous Lion King catchphrase is the #Mood she’s referencing. Featuring Beyoncé’s signature rap-sung speed singing atop a multifaceted, afrobeat track, “MOOD 4 EVA” would’ve been the perfect contender to represent the album as its lead single. This unique amalgamation also features her favorite collaborator (JAY-Z), film co-star Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover, aka Simba), and a sample from Malian artist Oumou Sangaré. This infectious jam is endlessly quotable and will surely put you in a good mood – 4eva and eva.
The other moment of more typical Beyoncé fare is “NILE,” a short and sparse duet with Kendrick Lamar that ends when it feels like it’s just getting started.
THE GUEST STARS
There is no shortage of bops on the album, though. “Already” intersects Beyoncé, Major Lazer and Ghanaian singer Shatta Wale for an energetic dancehall moment. Meanwhile, on “Find Your Way Back,” Beyoncé stands alone for what isn’t the album’s most interesting song, but a jam nonetheless. The standout non-Beyoncé song is by far “JA ARA E” by Burna Boy, but “Don’t Jealous Me” is a close second in the uptempo category, followed by “Keys to the Kingdom” in third.
The only ballad not sung by Beyoncé, “SCAR,” features hip-hop artist 070 Shake and singer Jessie Reyez taking on Scar’s point of view. It takes the album for a chilling, dramatic turn on what is otherwise a rather uplifting and upbeat album. However, Beyoncé’s “Spirit” quickly lifts the mood once again, closing out the album with all of its theatrical flourish.
LISTEN TO THE GIFT:
Take out the distracting interludes, skip over the non-Beyoncé songs if you must, but do not write off The Gift. Simply put it is one of the most unique and interesting projects in the Queen B’s catalogue. No, it wasn’t made for mass commercial consumption and, “MOOD 4 EVA” aside, there is nothing remotely (US) radio-friendly. Nevertheless, if you are looking for an album with diverse sonic landscapes, meaningful themes in its lyrics, and movingly soulful vocals — Beyoncé certainly has just The Gift for you.