It’s an understatement to say that in the short span of just the past few years Hip-Hop has made greats lengths and strides in its progression as both a musical a genre and a global art form. Inspiring hit television series, its icons serving as the topic of exploration for major Hollywood motion pictures and enjoying an ever-growing mainstream acceptance that would have been unfathomable just a little over a decade ago. It goes without saying the genre has been propelled to new heights as its mainstream appeal continually spreads throughout the rest of the world aided through the ever-expanding presence of social media and artists who have come to expertly utilize the platforms as a vehicle for their music. Perhaps no other performer currently active in the scene best exemplifies this work ethic none other than Kendrick Lamar. As one of the most prominent artists in the genre to date, since the release of his seminal album To Pimp A Butterfly back in 2015; not a year has gone by where the Compton emcee hasn’t released a project in some form or fashion. With that being said 2018 is no exception to this rule, with the release of Black Panther, the accompanying original soundtrack to the highly anticipated Ryan Coogler directed Marvel Studios film featuring music both from and inspired from the motion picture. Coogler, who’s prior work includes both the critically acclaimed Fruitvale Station and Creed specifically enlisted Lamar for the project citing his “artistic themes align with those we explore in the film”. Lamar, who initially only intended only to make the contribution of few songs for the film, later decided to create a full-length soundtrack after watching a rough cut of the film, delivering what is surely set to be one of the most dynamic and intriguing releases of 2018.
Much like the critically acclaimed motion picture that it accompanies, Black Panther is a high energy, artistically driven soundtrack that manages to reproduce the same mood, demeanor, and vibrancy sonically to accompany that which is captured on film through Coogler’s own afrofuturist vision. Executively produced and curated by Kendrick Lamar, Black Panther features a varied assortment of collaborators; many of them including fellow Top Dawg Entrainment label mates. Featuring familiar faces such as fellow regular collaborators Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, ScHoolboy Q, and SZA; as well as a cavalcade of established and rising stars which includes the likes of Anderson. PAAK, Babes Wodumo, Jorja Smith, Khalid, Future, Mozzy, Reason, SOB X RBE, Sjava, Swae Lee, Travis Scott, Vince Staples, The Weekend, Yugen Blakrok, Zacari, and 2 Chainz just to name a few. Much like the film’s own cast, the performers enlisted to provide their musical talents to the project represent a diverse cross-section of the African diaspora with talent hailing from South Africa, the United Kingdom Canada and of course the United States. Creating a sonic collage of Hip-Hop, R&B, Pop, Trap and U.K. Soul which gives the album its own unique, eclectic soundscape.
Lamar himself also makes an appearance on practically every one of the album’s fourteen individual tracks, whether it be solo tracks, brief guest spots, spacey, intermittent and unaccredited vocal contributions and interludes which are done in a Puff Daddy-esque manner throughout the entirety of the soundtrack’s fifty-minute run time. While not nearly as concept-driven or disciplined as one would expect from a solo release from Lamar, the album certainly has ample evidence of his fingerprints all over the project, both sonically and thematically. Lamar manages to give just enough creative input, without being too domineering or overstaying his welcome on other performer’s tacks on the album. With both Kendrick Lamar and SZA topping many of last years best-of album lists it would have been easy to keep Black Panther a largely an in-house TDE affair, however, Lamar manages to strike a good balance between performer and executive producer giving the soundtrack’s lesser-known and upcoming performers ample time to shine on what is likely to be hailed as one of the top releases of 2018.
The soundtrack’s opening title song, a Lamar solo track spoken from the perspective of King T’Challa, the film’s protagonist and alter ego to Black Panther is slow-building, laced with sparse haunting piano keys which sets a reflective tone not unlike what T’Challa himself experiences during the course of the film’s events. This is in direct contrast to ‘King’s Dead, the Jay Rock, Future and James Blake assisted cut which appears on the latter third of the album. ‘King’s Dead’ is done from the perspective of Erik Killmonger, the film’s villain and T’Challa’s nemesis. Delivered in a far more aggressive and violent manner, and laced with far much dark and grimmer production the track is the album’s mirror reflection equivalent to capture the anger, rage, and determination which is embodied in Killmonger during the film. This being said, not all songs are deep character studies or emotional journeys. Cuts such as ‘Opps’, albeit a slower, slightly altered version not featured in the film is still an album highlight that simply serves a high energy track to accompany one the film’s standout action sequences. While ‘All the Stars’ which closes out the film’s end credits likewise carries little in the realm deep subtext or character exploration but is still a good excuse to pair what are easily the album’s two flagship artists. However, the album’s biggest highlight is easily ‘Pray For Me’ featuring Toronto-based singer The Weekend. The track is an exploration of sacrifice loyalty and redemption; again mirroring the same themes and events experienced by the film’s hero. The track gains another level of complexity when one looks at it through the lenses of the hero/messiah complex also explored in the film which also parallels Lamar’s own reputation placed upon him by fans and Hip-Hop critics alike for being this generation’s ‘savior’ of rap which has followed Lamar around since making his debut into the mainstream several years ago. Other highlights also include the ScHoolboy Q and 2 Chainz assisted ‘X’ as well as the Ab-Soul and Anderson .PAAK laced ‘Bloody Waters’. By in large the album manages to maintain an upbeat and energetic tempo throughout much of its run time, the lone exception being the Jorja Smith helmed ‘I Am’ which brings the soundtrack’s momentum to a grinding halt halfway through the album. A quality which constantly plagued Lamar’s own solo album Damn. last year, this album’s creative decision being no exception with evidence of Lamar’s own influence and direction all over it.
However, with this one lone exception Black Panther and most of its featured artists by in large hit all of their intended targets on the soundtrack. Clocking in at a brisk fifty minute run time, Black Panther is easily one of the best original soundtracks to come out in years, perhaps being the best to accompany a major Hollywood motion picture in the last decade. In an era where original soundtracks made up of original content both featured and inspired from its parent film increasingly becoming an endangered, species, it’s good to see both Coogler and Marvel willing to take a risk on enlisting some of the hottest talent currently in the industry to create a sonic tapestry to accompany what is arguably not only one of the biggest, most groundbreaking releases in the studio’s history but also a monumental step towards broader inclusion and expanded diversity in the swiftly changing makeup of the movie industry and our own broader country. Much like the film itself, Black Panther is likely to retain its replay value, undoubtedly extending far beyond its own initial release and will hopefully reinvigorate Hollywood to once again invest in crafting original Hip-Hop soundtracks to accompany more films in the future.
Black Panther is available now to purchase on CD in stores and available on both vinyl and cassette as a special pre-order online now exclusively through the Black Panther music shop. Black Panther is also available on digital platforms as well to stream on Tidal, Spotify, Apple Music, Prime Music, and iTunes. Black Panther the motion picture is also currently playing now in theaters everywhere and is on track to gross over a billion dollars worldwide.
Full Album Track Listing & Credits:
1. “Black Panther,” Kendrick Lamar
2. “All The Stars,” Kendrick Lamar & SZA
3. “X,” ScHoolBoy Q, 2 Chainz & Saudi
4. “The Ways,” Khalid & Swae Lee
5. “Opps” Vince Staples & Yugen Blakrok
6. “I Am” Jorja Smith
7. “Paramedic!” SOB x RBE
8. “Bloody Waters” Ab-Soul, Anderson .PAAK & James Blake
9. “Kings Dead” Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, Future & James Blake
10. “Redemption Interlude” Zacari
11. “Redemption” Zacari & Babes Wodumo
12. “Seasons” Mozzy, Sjava & Reason
13. “Big Shot” Kendrick Lamar & Travis Scott
14. “Pray For Me” Kendrick Lamar & The Weekend