Beyoncé, “The Lion King: The Gift” (Columbia)
No one takes possession of a cultural space like Beyoncé.
We saw it happen in 2016 during the Super Bowl halftime performance with Coldplay. We saw it happen last year when she remade the world’s most prestigious music festival as Beychella. Now we’re seeing it again with Disney’s new version of “The Lion King,” in which she voices the role of Nala — and for which she assembled an ambitious companion album that says more than the movie does about family and tradition and responsibility and Africa.
The album features new songs by Beyoncé along with a handful of other hip-hop and R&B acts, including her husband, Jay-Z; her “Lion King” co-star Donald Glover (in his Childish Gambino guise); and Kendrick Lamar, whose 2018 “Black Panther” album was clearly a model for this one. And, like Lamar’s disc, “The Gift” also showcases singers, rappers and producers from a number of African countries.
Snippets of dialogue between tracks tie the music loosely to “The Lion King’s” durable tale. As always, though, the real story Beyoncé is telling is her own.
In the bubbling “Find Your Way Back,” a sequel of sorts to “Daddy Lessons” from 2016’s “Lemonade,” she ponders her complicated relationship with her father and former manager, Mathew Knowles. The hymn-like “Bigger” touches on the ideas of legacy and cultural ownership that ran through “Everything Is Love,” the recent duo album by Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Their 7-year-old daughter, Blue Ivy, appears on “Brown Skin Girl,” a tender and cheerful tune.
Then there’s the swaggering “Mood 4 Eva,” in which Beyoncé and Jay-Z trade playful boasts about their pop domination: He’s “feeling like Prince in ’84, Mike in ’79, Biggie in ’97”; she points out that while she’s “piña colada-ing, you stay Ramada Inn.”
Sonically, “The Gift” uses the movie’s setting as an opportunity to deepen Beyoncé’s continuing exploration of African music. Sometimes the sounds are secondhand, as in “Mood 4 Eva,” which rides a sample of an old song by Malian singer Oumou Sangaré. But more often Beyoncé is creating new material with young artists from the sprawling set of styles known collectively as Afrobeats.
The gently propulsive “Water” pairs her and Pharrell Williams with Cameroon singer Salatiel while “Already” features Ghanaian dance hall star Shatta Wale; Lagos-born Wizkid, who appeared on Drake’s smash “One Dance,” lends his imploring vocals to “Brown Skin Girl.”
For several tracks, Beyoncé actually steps aside, as in Burna Boy’s silky “Ja Ara E.”
Yet even when she’s not heard directly, Beyoncé, who co-produced each track here, can be felt in the meticulousness of the arrangements. For all the natural force of her singing — best displayed here in the piano ballad “Otherside” and the grand Oscar-bait “Spirit” — Beyoncé puts more thought into her records than anybody else, and what’s on her mind now isn’t just where all these sounds came from but how useful they remain.
You can understand “The Gift’s” African focus as part of the branded “Lion King” universe. And after Lamar’s “Black Panther” you can understand this album as evidence of Disney’s determination to attract more of the black creative vanguard. But for Beyoncé it also signals her excitement about a moment when pop feels as globalized as it ever has.
Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times
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