Going as far back as Curtis Mayfield‘s contributions to Superfly or Marvin Gaye doing Trouble Man, it is not unheard of for a popular Black artist to provide the music for a prominently Black film. The difference between Black Panther and these aforementioned films is that those are two blaxploitation movies remembered more for their soundtracks than the films themselves; Marvel’s recent masterpiece is instead a superhero blockbuster existing under the umbrella of one of the most profitable movie franchises. Sure, we have had other Black superhero blockbusters like Blade, Hancock, and Catwoman (though maybe we wish we hadn’t gotten that last one…) but Black Panther undeniably stands out among the pack.
The film is a comic book extravaganza that boosts an unprecedented array of Black talent in front of and behind the camera. Getting a hot talent like Ryan Coogler to direct is the same type of perfect decision-making as was DC’s hiring of Patty Jenkins for last year’s Wonder Woman. Next, the already existing hype skyrocketed with the announcement that Kendrick Lamar would be producing the film’s album. It is worth noting this is indeed an album and not a soundtrack, as there are no sweeping orchestral scores to be found here. This album has one of the best rappers currently working shepherding an eclectic record that showcases other top-notch artists. It features Hip-Hop, Pop, R&B and more, culminating in a celebration of Black music to parallel the cultural celebration of Black excellence that is to be found in the movie itself.
Many of Kendrick‘s albums present a narrative thread which exists within individual songs while also flowing through the album as a whole. A big part of his appeal is in his authenticity, his commentary on life filtered through external and internal perspectives. Though he is only credited on five of the fourteen tracks, he can be heard on every track in some form, whether in a distant echo or a full verse. He does have a writing credit on every track, so he is very much the one at the helm of this entire project.
Let’s start off with the title track: a murmur of drumming is quickly cut off by a “Wait,” the song switches gears with a piano lead-in before Kendrick begins rapping, “King of my city, king of my country, king of my homeland…” This builds and builds until he declares a triumphant, “I am T’Challa!” at the end. This raw intensity sets the tone well and presents Kendrick as the undeniable force that he is. Within this one track, he provides the line, “King’s did it, king’s vision, Black Panther, King Kendrick.” His duality at play, taking on the titular hero’s role while still existing as himself, shows the creative liberty he possesses.
The following song, the early single “All The Stars” featuring SZA and Kendrick, is a satisfying blend of pop sensibility and lyrical poignancy. Kendrick‘s verses never disappoint, but he also allows SZA‘s huge chorus to carry the track, singing, “This might be the night that my dreams might let me know, All the stars approach you, All the stars approach you.” Another standout is “Opps” with Vince Staples and Yugen Blakrok over a heavy beat that would not be out of place in a club. The constant line “You’re dead to me” pulses throughout in a conversational form always building with forward momentum. This may tie into the narrative of the film through the Black Panther’s (and later Killmonger’s) interactions with his ancestors in Wakanda’s spirit realm.
The imagery of “kings” and politics show up throughout, yet the album still works simply as a record of Kendrick and his friends creating music together. One of the most memorable lines which fans of his album DAMN. will enjoy is from ScHoolboy Q on the track “X” when he says, “Not even Kendrick can humble me.” It’s evident that anyone who already enjoys these artists will enjoy this album regardless of any anticipation for the film. It is full of music that does not need to check off boxes in relation to its cinematic counterpart, yet any nods or hints toward it only work to elevate the music.
Another highlight is album closer “Pray for Me”, featuring Kendrick and The Weeknd. The perfect juxtaposition of The Weeknd‘s soul-fused electro-pop and Kendrick‘s fervent lyricism caps off the album perfectly. The beat stays with you and it makes the song one that invites repeat listening. The single best moment of the entire album is in the song “King’s Dead,” specifically in its last minute. It is yet another track spotlighting Kendrick, where he takes on the perspective of the film’s villain, Killmonger, and raps with sheer ferocity. It moves faster and faster, as he attacks his opponent with language and all the things he is not, saying, “…Not your people, Not your neighbor, Not the title ya’ll want me under, All hail King Killmonger.” The lyrics are made all the more powerful within the context of the film. Each line might as well be a punch Killmonger throws at T’Challa when they fight for the title of king.
While Kendrick is undeniably the star here, the entire album and everyone featured on it is fresh and satisfying. The album cover reads “Music From and Inspired By” which means that some songs will be in the film but not every single one. After all, this soundtrack is capital-E Explicit which might make it difficult for everything to work its way into a PG-13 movie. But whether working as a soundtrack or a Kendrick-driven musical endeavor, there is a lot to like here. Its cultural relevance at hand cannot be denied and fuels the entire experience. The album, like Black Panther, is purely, unapologetically Black and its lasting power comes from its powerful authenticity.
For a full list of songs, check out the album on iTunes and Amazon. Did you listen to the Black Panther album? What is your favorite track? Let us know in the comments or send us your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter!