Various Artists – Black Panther: The Album
Genre: Rap, R&B
Black Panther is not the first black superhero movie. It’s also nowhere near the first black blockbuster, but that’s less important. While it may not be the first black superhero movie, no superhero movie has ever been so filled with black talent. Featuring an all-black cast including Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, and Chadwick Boseman, and directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed), Black Panther follows in a line of black-oriented, Oscar-winning movies such as Get Out and Moonlight, and the movie is especially important for bringing such power to the Marvel universe. So who better to curate the movie’s companion piece than an artist whose music prominently tackles black power and race relations: Kendrick Lamar.
Coogler has said he’s always wanted to work with Lamar, and not only did he get Lamar to curate the album, but he basically got a full-length album out of him. While only credited on 5 tracks, Lamar appears on 12 out of the 14 tracks in some way or another, whether just speaking a few words or delivering an entire uncredited verse (“Opps”, which was also previewed in part in one of the movie’s trailers). Lamar is one of the most ambitious and daring MCs of this generation, so even though a Disney superhero movie soundtrack won’t feature the bold risk-taking of his solo work, the album still feels just as unique and sweeping, just in a different way than usual.
Black Panther: The Album takes risks in two major ways. The first way is in its sonics. Whether utilizing the sounds of an African tribal dance on “Redemption” or offering a futuristic vision of contemporary R&B on “I Am”, the album’s sonic landscape is sculpted to fit the otherworldly universe of the movie. The second way it takes risks is in its diverse pairings of guests. Making the smooth, polished vibes of Khalid blend with Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee shouldn’t work on paper, but the velvety “The Ways” makes it happen. Future and James Blake are polar opposites, but the several directions that “King’s Dead” takes during its duration makes room for both of them to fit (ignoring Future’s jarring and unnecessary falsetto section).
The guests here not only mesh together successfully, but all of them sound excellent and at the top of their game. Kendrick is at his hungriest on the opening title track, twisting flows like a contortionist in the way that only he can. “Who am I? Not your father, not your brother/not your reason, not your future/not your comfort, not your reverance”, Kendrick rattles off on “King’s Dead”. “Not the title y’all want me under/All hail King Killmonger”, he raps, sounding just as villainous as the character he’s personifying. Ab-Soul delivers some of the best wordplay of his career over the reggae-soul of “Bloody Waters”, balanced out by a butter-smooth hook from Anderson .Paak before the track takes a complete left turn to welcome James Blake’s signature crooning. “Paramedic!” puts the hard-nosed raps of Bay Area crew SOB X RBE on the map, over slapping DJ Dahi production that is sure to knock out car speakers. African artists are also given a big opportunity to shine here, fitting the theme of the movie. Underground Johannesburg rapper Yugen Blakrok steals the show from Kendrick and Vince Staples on “Opps”, while Saudi sounds like a bilingual Quavo on “X”, and Sjava sings his entire verse in Zulu on the piano-led “Seasons”, where up-and-coming Sacramento rappers Mozzy and Reason tackle racial inequalities.
However, being for a movie soundtrack, there has to be some hits, and that’s where the album hits a wall. Despite having a changed SZA verse, “All the Stars” is still underwhelming, with its stars performing to the least of their capabilities, of which they both have much more. “Big Shot”, with its whiny, generic verse from Kendrick and a slightly better but still forgettable Travis Scott verse, is a misstep for both artists. “Pray For Me” pits two of the biggest stars of modern hip-hop/R&B together, who have already proven they’ve worked well together in the past on 2016’s “Sidewalks”, and while the song’s vibe will perfectly fit a final fight scene in the movie, as a song, we can’t help but feel like we’ve heard this before from both artists.
So while the real tie-ins to the movie prove to be the worst tracks, TDE and company have still managed to not only create a great album on its own, but also introduce rap to the Marvel world, a big step forward for both Marvel and for the genre of rap. It’s one thing to create a great movie soundtrack à la Guardians of the Galaxy as just a collection of songs. It’s another to create a great movie soundtrack of all original songs. It’s yet another to create both a soundtrack and an album that can stand just as perfectly on its own. Black Panther: The Album has done just that. Encompassing the movie’s vision of black excellence, the album opens up a whole world for artist-curated soundtracks. Even when the album does fall flat, the album is still important for what it is; a collection of mostly great, sometimes generic songs that can be listened to on their own and still fit the world of the movie. Black Panther: The Album is just as big a step forward as the movie itself is, a welcome addition to the Marvel universe and what is perhaps their most important movie.
Photo courtesy of Interscope Records