By now it’s no surprise that Black Panther is a worldwide cultural phenomenon. It received massive critical acclaim with many praising as one of the best films in the MCU and the superhero genre in general. It broke several box office records and is fast on track to making $1 billion in just 3 weeks since its release. It’s also no surprise that Kendrick Lamar is on the soundtrack. What is surprising however is that Kendrick Lamar along with his record label, Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), founder Anthony Tiffith curated and executively produced the album. The album features many of Kendrick’s fellow artists signed to TDE including SZA, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and Zacari but excluding Isaiah Rashad, SiR and Lance Skiiiwalker. Kendrick was initially only going to work on a few songs for the film, but after he watched a majority of the film, he decided to create the album which he mostly recorded while touring DAMN. (his latest album) around North America.
This soundtrack album can be classified as a solo Kendrick album in the same way as Prince’s Batman (1989) soundtrack is regarded as a Prince album. Kendrick is credited on all fourteen tracks on the album however he only features heavily on five tracks while making minor contributions to the rest of the album. So while the album can be seen as a Kendrick Lamar project it can’t be judged to the same high standards of his studio concept albums. But DAMN if the album isn’t also so good. Kendrick absolutely works well within the limitations of the album and makes it a unique, fresh-sounding and energetic companion piece to the biggest film of 2018 so far and one of the biggest Black cultural events in recent memory. The title track “Black Panther” immediately sets the tone for the album. We hear the sounds of matches being struck and ominous whispering and Kendrick begins to rap “King of my city, king of my country, king of my homeland / King of the filthy, king of the fallen, we livin’ again / King of the shooters, looters, boosters, and ghettos poppin’.” Kendrick makes the song relevant to themes of the film whilst simultaneously relating it to themes in his own personal music – the gang warfare going on in the streets of Compton. Of course, the film is partly set in Oakland, California a city suffering from similar issues making it relevant.
“All The Stars” the lead single from the album featuring SZA is one of only three tracks actually featured in the film, the others being “Opps” and “Pray for Me.” I’ll admit at first I was very lukewarm on the track. I thought the production by Sounwave was too poppy and that Kendrick’s lyrics weren’t his sharpest. I still think SZA absolutely outshines Kendrick on this track, as other collaborators do on this album, and I now love the production. The pulsating beat, subtle sounds, orchestrated strings it sounds incredibly beautiful. When I saw the music video, a visually inventive treat celebrating the diverse cultures in Africa it finally clicked. SZA’s hook is an absolute earworm and the song is so catchy. The album is chock full of bangers. “X” featuring Schoolboy Q, 2 Chainz and Saudi sounds far too good for an album soundtrack. Although Kendrick has a verse he allows his guests to take the spotlight with Schoolboy Q delivering the best verse. On “Opps” he delivers a great verse backed by pounding West African drums, Vince Staples gives a punchy short verse but South African rapper Yugen Blakrok steals the show with her biting flow and hoarse aggressive voice.
Tracks such as “The Ways”, “I Am”, “Redemption Interlude” and “Redemption” along with “All The Stars” are the poppier tracks on the album but the production is still excellent. “The Ways” features pop singer, Khalid, and Rae Sremmurd member Swae Lee who both harmonise with sweet vocals. “I Am” features British breakthrough artist Jorja Smith who adds a British soul flair to the album. “Redemption” and “Redemption Interlude” both feature Zacari with the interlude featuring South African singer Babes Wodumo. “Paramedic!” features California Bay Area group SOB x RBE who dominate the track with unique regional flows and cadences while Kendrick plays background. Kendrick’s hook is however infectious “I wish a nigga would / I wish a nigga would, I wish a nigga would / I wish a bitch would.” “King’s Dead” features James Blake, Jay Rock as well as Kendrick of course. While I really enjoy both Kendrick and Jay Rock’s verses I absolutely love Future’s for how hilariously absurd his falsetto singing of “La di da di da, slob on me knob” is. This album is not only great as a soundtrack album connecting the themes of the film but works as an album on its own. Kendrick Lamar and his collaborators have created a very diverse album full of fresh sounds, bangers and pop tracks, popular and unknown rappers, local West Coast and American and South African artists. As he continues to push boundaries Kendrick Lamar has raised the standards for future soundtrack albums.