The widely anticipated movie Black Panther released February 16, 2018 with rave reviews. A week prior, Marvel teamed up with hip-hop record label Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) to release Black Panther: The Album, with its curator being the widely acclaimed and Grammy award-winning rapper, Kendrick Lamar. The soundtrack is made up of features of other TDE artists, loosely singing about Black Panther. It is one of the most successful soundtracks of the decade.
The larger-than-life initial and final songs of the album superbly underscore the promotional reality of the soundtrack. The title track booms with dusky pianos and a booming rap by Lamar, while a smooth, vaguely apocalyptic “Pray for Me” opens the field to include the hopeless, non-fiction dystopia of the movie. The opening title track finds Lamar at his most explosive. The beat pounds beneath him as he makes parallels between his own internal conflicts and the movie’s protagonist T’Challa’s weighing burdens that come with being a leader of people. The finale of the album, the tag-teamer, “Pray For Me” with Kendrick Lamar and the Weeknd, is merely a watered-down version of the Weeknd’s most recent solo work, Starboy.
Between those bookend songs is an beautiful, expansive urban-pop atmosphere where every participant knows what they are bringing to the table. On “X,” where producers Illmind and Sounwave recreate an almost 2001-era Dr. Dre beat, the mood is lively. South African artist Saudi lays down his beautiful Jamaican Creole, while rappers Schoolboy Q and 2 Chainz go through autobiographies on their fame. On “Bloody Waters,” Anderson Paak singing coolly while Ab-Soul rapping more militant mixed with interludes of tropical hummings by James Blake. The slow and love-laced “The Ways,” where Khalid and Swae Lee serenade about perfection of romance seems to breeze in from Drake’s More Life.
The tense, scarred “Opps” brings in Vince Staples and Johannesburg-based newcomer Yugen Blakrok to rap over production made up of splintered percussion and synthesizers; sounding like a cut from Kanye West’s Yeezus. It makes for a mesmerizingly cold few minutes with each rap sounding more and more unsympathetic. On the warmer side of the album, singer Jorja Smith smolders in the blues-inspired “I Am” while the sweet, sweeping “All the Stars” catapults SZA’s hopeful wonder and Lamar’s relation to love and the night sky. Sadly, “All The Stars” is still underwhelming, with both its powerhouse artists making a more generic R&B ballad.
The tie-ins to the film can be tenuous, but Lamar and company bring 50 minutes of big-time team-ups and crossovers creating music across three continents: rap, R&B, Afro-soul, and pop from around the globe. The album is a taste of the film’s broader vision of black excellence. It makes sense that an album created for the Marvel Cinematic Universe is just as excellent yet convoluted as the movies within the universe are. In their first roles as small players, the TDE roster delivers a product benefiting the whole. Some tracks stop with the bending of genres and bolstering lyrics for more generic and pop-friendly vibes. There have to be some hits, after all.