Circa 2011, Beyonce Knowles Carter recorded a 20-track album inspired by the Afrobeat god Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. That album never left her engineer’s hard drive.
During this period, King B jumped on the track ‘Lift Off‘ on the Watch Throne, the classic collaborative album by her husband JAY-Z and pop culture icon Kanye West.
One of the producers of that track was Michael Collins Ajereh a.k.a Don Jazzy, who produced the track ‘Oliver Twist.‘
The D’banj track is the seminal record that started the invasion of Afrobeats (contemporary West African pop music) into the UK, other parts of Europe, the Caribbean and eventually North America.
Since then, Afrobeats has had a few inflection points, such as the ‘Apple brand of rap’ Drake working with Wizkid, Davido scoring a global sing-along ‘Fall‘, and Yemi Alade racking over 100m views on YouTube for her runaway hit ‘Johnny‘.
Now, Beyonce is taking a stab at Afrobeats with her latest body of work ‘The Lion King: The Gift‘ inspired by the live-action remake of the classic Disney animation released in 1994.
This is not B’s first sonic body of work that pays homage to Africa. In 2016, she released her cathartic album ‘Lemonade‘.
Beyonce channelled the Yoruba deities Osun and Yemoja for the visual interpretation of her emotional mood at the time. She also worked with Laolu Senbanjo, a visual artist whose works are based on Yoruba iconography and mythologies.
Now, on this LP, she assembles Afrobeats mightiest acts, Burna Boy, Mr Eazi, Tekno, Wizkid, Yemi Alade and Tiwa Savage to help her channel the beauty and strength of Africa. Other African acts include Shatta Wale (Ghana), Moonchild Sanelly (South Africa), Salatiel (Cameroon), and Busiswa (South Africa).
Heavy-hitters from America, Pharell, Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino also appear on the project but don’t get it twisted, the African acts own the narrative on this body of work.
The trio of Yemi Alade, Mr Eazi and Tekno, elevate the tempo of the album with the ‘lamba*‘ driven ‘DON’T JEALOUS ME‘. This is the core of Afrobeats music, easy rhyme schemes, hypnotic melodies sprayed all over an irresistible hard-knocking beat.
The party starter track is followed by a solo offering from the hottest Afrobeats act in the world right now, Burna Boy.
On the mid-tempo ‘JA ARA E‘, he warns you to “watch out for the hyenas” with his commanding voice. Zlatan, one of the hottest rappers in Nigeria at the moment, blesses the track with his adlibs that have induced kicks on dance floors all over Nigeria. Tip: Americans, Google Zanku*.
Ayodeji Ibrahim ‘Wizkid’ Balogun who rattled speakers in America with the BBK-OVO remix of his smash hit ‘Ojuelegba‘ in 2015, teams up with Beyonce for a duet on ‘BROWN SKIN GIRL‘ featuring Ivy Carter and emerging alt-Hip Hop act SAINt JHN.
The track is an ode to melanin beauty. “Melanin too dark to throw her shade/she minds her business and winds her waist” sings Beyonce. The pro-melanin theme is a common trope in global contemporary music but it is still an agenda that still needs to be pushed.
Mr Eazi makes a second appearance on the LP by assisting Tiwa Savage on ‘KEYS TO THE KINGDOM‘, a highlife-driven mid-tempo cut that touches on the themes of destiny and royalty.
Only the rabble-rouser from the Gold Coast, the dancehall warlord Shatta Wale could get Beyonce to flow with an Afrobeat cadence on ‘Already‘ also featuring Major Lazer. The gravel-voiced Ghanaian pounds the beat to submission. “Try to stop it, me say no, no, no/royalty, don’t you say no, no, no” he declares.
Energy goddess Moonchild Sanelly brings her genre ‘Future ghetto punk‘ on the ‘My Power‘. Starring Tierra Whack, Beyonce and featuring Nija, this is a fem-anthem celebrating girl power. “Refer to me as a goddess/I am tired of being modest/100 degrees hottest-if we are being honest” spits the American rapper Tierra Whack in a machine-gun flow that can create holes in a vibranium suit.
A cornerstone track on this album, the South African clicks and tribal drums is a rallying call for Africans to come and dominate the world stage.
Beyonce is as impressive on her solo cuts as she is on the tracks she features acts. On the Sarz-produced ‘FIND YOUR WAY BACK‘ Beyonce tells of a story about independence, strength and resilience. The track is peppered with vocal contributions from top Nigerian A&R Bankulli* who appears again on ‘OTHERSIDE‘.
The latter track is a ballad on friendship, “If it all ends and it’s over, If the sky falls fire, Best believe me, you will see me on the other side“, sings Beyonce. Bankulli elevates the spirituality of the song when he brings down the Holy Spirit in his native tongue, Yoruba.
27 tracks (13 Lion King interludes inclusive) and 54 minutes long, Beyonce has curated a strong, balanced and vibrant album. To hell with it, this could have been the soundtrack for the Black Panther movie.
Beyonce describes this album as her “love letter to Africa” and says she “wanted to make sure we found the best talent from Africa and not just use some of the sound or my own interpretation of it.“
The Beyhive leader achieves this impressively by allowing African artists to do their thing. On the album, she plays the role of a party host who opens her doors to artists from the great continent of Africa to rock the house. And rock the house they did.
Even JAY-Z gives a shout out to Lagos, the city capital of Afrobeats, “Bumping Fela on the PUMA jet like we from Lagos” on ‘MOOD 4 EVA.‘
The Lion King: The Gift albums comes at a time when questions are being asked about whether Afrobeats can dominate America on a mainstream level. This album is a good shot at answering this question.
This however should not be the lens through how this album is viewed. The context is not Beyonce lending a helping hand to African acts but African artistes making Beyonce culturally relevant in a continent that is an emerging powerhouse on the global music scene.
Mrs Carter you are welcome.
Sincerely yours, from Africa.
Rating – 4 out 5
*Bankulli is credited with additional vocal credits on ‘Lift Off’, ‘Illest Motherfucker Alive’ off Watch the Throne.
*Lamba is used to describe a style prevalent in Nigerian pop music songs that have easy going lyrics and enchanting beats.
*Zanku is a street dance in Nigerian created by rapper Zlatan.