The Gift, a companion album for the rebooted Disney film, sees the superstar connecting to “something way bigger.” What is it?
When it was released in 1994, The Lion King was billed as Disney animation’s first original story: No fairy tale inspired it. But in the development process, the creators noticed—and then played up—similarities to Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the script they’d come up with. They thought about the Old Testament figures Joseph and Moses too. Some viewers called out similarities to the Japanese cartoon Kimba the White Lion. Others saw a resemblance between Simba and the 13th-century ruler often referred to as the Lion King of Mali. Still others who’ve seen the original or the 2019 remake think of the Egyptian myth of Horus. Or of Black Panther’s T’Challa. Or of Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow. The Lion King resembles so many other works less because it is retelling an old story and more because it is telling a simple story, one that people across cultures can’t help but see themselves in. It is about exile, awakening, and restoration; it is about growing up, death, and duty. Narratives of its kind are like some lightweight super-material, able to bend to multiple purposes, but not break. The 1994 Lion King radiated madcap whimsy and awe. The new one is serious and clenched. Both get their messages across.
No wonder that Beyoncé gravitated toward The Lion King. Fundamentally, she’s a mythmaker. Again and again, she’s taken universally fascinating narratives and refitted them so that they can be newly enjoyed up close, in the detail work, and from afar, as a whole picture. Her 2016 project Lemonade concerned an ultra-abstract, almost elemental story: sour turning sweet, lemons becoming lemonade. But it was also a tale about betrayal and reconciliation in marriage. It was also about the possibility of black families disarming centuries-old traps set for them. As music, it thrived on inversions and surprising alchemy: rock rages that felt good, swaying reggae that felt bad, forgiveness ballads disguised as breakup songs and vice versa.
The Lion King’s remake presented Beyoncé with the chance to participate in a surefire cultural phenomenon without having to spend too much time in the voice-acting studio. But undoubtedly the social implications appealed too. The new Lion King takes what had largely been a white fantasy about Africa and repopulates it with black actors, somewhat in the manner that Beyoncé has used America’s biggest stages—the Super Bowl, Coachella—to flip regressive race hierarchies. It also represented an opportunity to record music that uses the film’s potent themes for Beyoncé’s own purposes: connecting the spectacle of her own success to a greater whole.
Released a week after the official soundtrack’s rerecordings of Hans Zimmer’s 1994 score and Elton John’s 1994 show tunes, Beyoncé’s contribution, The Gift, is in the tradition of star-studded “soundtrack albums.” Beyoncé (and her team) oversaw A&R and production, and she sings on most of the songs, and so it’s not a stretch to consider The Gift a Beyoncé album—even if one major goal is spotlighting African talent. She called the project “sonic cinema,” which may sound pretentious, but it’s really a way of saying it’s another of her song-along exercises in storytelling and signifying.