Black Panther: The Album (released February 9, 2018)
Black films and iconic soundtracks go hand in hand. From Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly stint to that incredible run in the ‘90s when even the most mediocre films produced incredible music (Money Train, anyone?) it wasn’t unusual for a film’s score to linger long after the credits rolled.
It seems like it’s been nearly a generation since we’ve had a game-changing soundtrack to bless our ears. And it’s only right that we finally get one for a generation-defining film.
The buzz around Marvel’s upcoming Black Panther film has been downright inescapable. Allow me to get my black hipster on for a second and remind y’all that I was down with T’Challa’s crew long before the hype – I was riding for Wakanda when y’all thought it was the name of one of Sheneneh’s ghetto friends on Martin.
As legend has it, Kendrick Lamar was set to contribute a couple of songs to the official Black Panther soundtrack but was so inspired by the film after a private viewing that he decided to create an entire album. So while this album isn’t a proper Black Panther film score, it’s more of a tribute piece – sort of like Jay Z’s American Gangster album.
Some have heralded Black Panther: The Album as an “extra” Kendrick Lamar album but a better comparison is Jay Z’s 2000 Dynasty album. Kendrick certainly leads charge – and when he does, unsurprisingly, the album truly shines – but there are a more guests here than a Wakandan wedding. And that’s when things get slightly shaky.
The opening track “Black Panther” is Afro-futurism at its finest. Sober keys and tribal drums back Kendrick while he preaches from his pulpit.
What do you stand for?
Are you an activist? What are your city plans for?
Are you an accident? Are you just in the way?
Your native tongue contradictin’ what your body language say
Are you a king or you jokin’? Are you a king or you posin’?
Are you a king or you smokin’ bud rocks to keep you open?
Because the king don’t cry, king don’t die
It’s Kendrick in his comfort zone – using his ungodly wordplay to deliver heaven-sent truths. But the biggest surprise of Black Panther: The Album is that Kendrick is thrust into relatively new musical environments.
The energetic pop stylings of “All the Stars” is a bit of uncharted territory for Kendrick and took awhile to catch my ear. But his union with SZA is fruitful, especially when you tie in the song’s magnificent visuals. The shifting production style of “King’s Dead” is a bit jarring but K. Dot, Jay Rock and James Blake keep it all together – even though Future sounds like he’s literally being strangled by Killmonger on his verse.
“X” is pretty off-kilter too but that works to its advantage, with Kendrick, Schoolboy Q, Saudi and 2 Chainz assaulting the track like the Defenders. Of course it wouldn’t be a 2 Chainz track without a weird Benihana’s reference but we can’t expect miracles at this point.
Even with Kendrick highlighting most of the album’s best efforts, Ab-Soul nearly commits a music misdemeanor and steals the show on “Bloody Waters.” (“Draw to stick you for your figures, that’s how they hang, man”). With Anderson.Paak cementing himself as the best hook man in the game and James Blake’s alluring outro, “Bloody Waters” is already one of the better songs of 2018. Both Jorja Smith and Zacari continue to build upon their buzz as well, with “I Am” and “Redemption Interlude,” respectively, being fine showcases for their budding careers.
Many of the albums other tracks, though, feel a little too safe and predictable. “Paramedic” is an interesting fusion of the trap sound and G-Funk but it does little to elevate it above typical radio fare. It’s the same story for Khalid’s bouncy “The Ways” and Zacari’s Latin-tinged “Redemption” – solid songs that fit the mold of current hits but fail to distinguish themselves. As great as Kendrick is, even he can’t keep “Big Shot” (with Travis Scott) and “Pray for Me,” (with The Weeknd) from sounding like throwaway Travis Scott and Weeknd tracks.
Hearing Kendrick ply his trade over such diverse soundscapes is the biggest highlight of Black Panther: The Album. But the glut of guests make it an uneven listen in spots, keeping it from reaching the rarified air of classic soundtracks like Waiting to Exhale, 8 Mile and Purple Rain.
But hey, if Black Panther: The Album can usher in a new age of noteworthy movie soundtracks, that’s win for all of us.
Best tracks: “Bloody Waters,” “King’s Dead,” “All the Stars”
3.5 stars out of 5