Blockbuster soundtracks often snake their way to mainstream success, establishing themselves with great critical acclaim and are proven money-makers. Soundtracks to Tarantino’s 1994, Pulp Fiction and Winding Refn’s 2011, Drive have reaped the benefits of pop-culture’s ongoing thirst for something to parallel a mainstream solo release, but also one that offers a little versatility. For me, the Black Panther album validates this exquisitely. Kendrick’s role as chief exec. has been surrounded by mystery for some time now, with smatterings of rumours pointing towards his involvement in the project. Following this confirmation in the wake of the new year, Black Panther director, Ryan Coogler expressed his admiration for the “inspirational” Lamar, noting that his “artistic themes align with those we explore in the film”.
Just thirty seconds into the record, it is astonishing that this is for a Marvel production. Lamar’s juxtaposing tempos and bleak nihilism, explored in his own To Pimp a Butterfly, immediately evolve into Black Panther. The artist that is currently untouchable, arguably at the prime of his career since the release of DAMN., he toys with the production on the title track by switching between an over-simplified piano riff, off-key notes, and an Afrofuturistic beat. As the lead curator, Lamar is credited as the writer on all fourteen tracks. Despite the pop-heavy sounds of the SZA collaboration, All The Stars and The Weeknd’s influence in Pray For Me, the complexity and fluctuation of sounds across the piece produce a sensation of individuality that cannot be found on a solo project.
For me, this record doesn’t feel like a vanity induced stunt by Disney, produced with the aim of reaching a mass audience. Of course with big names like Weeknd, Future, Vince Staples, Anderson .Paak, James Blake, Travis Scott, Khalid and ScHoolboy Q, the artistry is overflowing, but this does not shadow the lesser known artists. The performance from Zacari and SZA foretells the bright future of the industry, there is a heavily socio-political performance from Mozzy in Seasons which demonstrates the continued racial inequalities in the US highlighted by lyrics such as “They trynna tell us that we all equal, we gettin’ no justice so it ain’t peaceful”. Jorja Smith’s gorgeous I Am lingers over a guitar riff so painfully sluggish that it creates a melancholic atmosphere, it is perfect. The single focus of the record cuts back its raw motive, a statement of intent from all involved using their artistic excellence to tackle social and racial inequalities.
I have the same feelings towards this project now that I did when I first listened, it continues to put a grin on my face. The head bouncing beat of X with ScHoolboy Q, bounds between a heavy bassline, high hats and a pokey, keyboard foundation. From here, it evolves into a surge of Latino-pop, currently finding its popularity, with Khalid’s The Ways. This one can be likened to Lamar’s own LOVE., a highlight on his most recent album. Admittedly, if you are not a fan of Kendrick Lamar then this album may not be for you. Vince Staples’ Opps rides on top of a chopped, distorted bassline, tribal drums, and intermittent alarm-like pipes. The tracks constant stopping and starting disrupts the flow, creating one of the most complex beats on the album. The fast-paced beat is broken down by a sample of Yugen Blakrok chanting “you’re dead to me” over what has become an iconic tone of Lamar’s, the lethargic talk rap. This album appears to have freed Kendrick to sample a new sound without the risk of jeopardising his own discography. Despite the abundance of artists featured throughout the piece who all exercise their own unique style, Kendrick’s influence flows through each single.
Bloody Waters sees the introduction of singer-songwriter and producer, James Blake, who is currently supporting Kendrick Lamar on his ‘DAMN. Tour’. The isolated cries of Blake’s vocal contrast captivatingly with Anderson .Paak’s impassioned delivery, further estranged by Ab-Soul’s perfectly balanced verse which is abundant with word plays and intertextual references. As the song builds to a crescendo by means of Blake’s vocals, ominous tribal drums and calls announce that the third single from the album has arrived, King’s Dead. Directing the listener to intertextual references from events in the film and comic, the title alludes to the death of King T’Chaka of Wakanda in the previous ‘Captain America: Civil War’ film, with Kendrick, even rapping from the perspective of the main antagonist Killmonger throughout the single. King’s Dead becomes the latest of Lamar’s offerings to cut short the listeners attention with the sudden musical shift. Experimented with in DAMN.‘s, XXX, King’s Dead is cut up by a brief interlude from James Blake, washed with Beach Boy-like harmonies. As the tempo falls, the 808s rise and the car revs and crashes become one with the track in the distant background. Kendrick produces the most relentless verse of the album on this one, “lookin’ for euphoria, but I don’t see it” alluding to Lamar’s journey to find sanctuary whilst detailing with inner and outer turmoil addressed in To Pimp A Butterfly. In the concluding verse, Kendrick not only makes a reference to the film but also confides in his work on DAMN.. He repeats the line “fuck your feelings” seen on the track FEEL. and in For Free? Notable comments regarding pedigree, royalty, and lineage all feed into DNA., a single heavily focused on socio-politics, it addresses racial injustices and inequalities.
What will be most intriguing with this album is how it’ll fit the context of the film, even as such a strong standalone record. The energy from singles like King’s Dead and Redemption hint at how they may be integrated into the film, but with the standalone production of those including Paramedic! and X, I question whether the complexity of this album will clash with the commercial power of the film. What I adore about this record the most is that it’s for a Marvel film. Going into it, I expected a collection of simple pop beats to appeal to the masses – I was very wrong, Black Panther: The Album is far from it. It’s so gritty, powerful and so nearly perfect. The socio-political focus of this album is balanced perfectly without making the album exclusively about the black community or being forceful by shoving a viewpoint down your throat. Along with the film, this work is a milestone in the strive for equality and despite there still being a long way to go, the moral impact of this album will not be forgotten anytime soon.
(I’m deducting 0.1 byte because of Future inhaling helium half way through King’s Dead)