This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Genre: Hip Hop
Favorite Tracks: “Pray for Me,” “Bloody Waters,” “Opps,” “X,” “Paramedic,” “All the Lights”
**Warning: This Album Review Contains Spoilers For The Motion PIcture BLACK PANTHER**
Borrowing in strong and subtle ways from the movie it’s based on, Kendrick Lamar put together something really interesting as executive producer of the BLACK PANTHER soundtrack, but it took a few listens—before and after seeing the film—to both really get it and get into it. His all-star lineup delivers, including features from his labelmates ScHoolboy Q and Ab-Soul and contemporaries like Vince Staples, Anderson .Paak, and filled out with crooners and songwriters like The Weeknd, James Blake, SZA, and Zacari.
Set in Wakanda, a fictional African country set somewhere near actual Uganda, the film explores the “Black Panther,” a title given to the warrior that can defend in ritual combat, a title currently held by T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), son of the recently assassinated King of Wakanda, T’Chaka, and heir to the throne. Wakanda, thought to be an impoverished Third World nation by the outside world, is secretly the most technologically advanced nation on earth, and maintains many of its ancient cultural religious practices and political institutions in harmony with its technological advances, which it guards jealously behind its wall of camouflage. The tension between T’Challa as protector of Wakanda’s isolationist history and the larger Black world—like, specifically, Oakland, CA—becomes part of the central conflict of the movie. Importantly, for both the movie and the soundtrack, Black people are the major players on both sides of the conflict; sometimes the sides clearly sort themselves into moral right and wrong, while other times the conflict seems more about perspective.
There’s a battle going on in Wakanda. On one side, there are those that think that Wakanda should remain isolated and uninvolved in the struggles of the larger Black world. Against them are people that think Wakanda should go all in, leave their cloak of secrecy, and become actively engaged in the world. In the movie this plays itself out in conflicts between characters from Oakland and from Wakanda itself. But the characters on either side of this dispute have their own internal conflicts, and are trying to reconcile. Kendrick Lamar picks up on this masterfully, and the music of the album speaks to all of these conflicts. “Paramedic!” is a particularly good example of a track that seems constructed around this conflict, representing the Oakland side. Some beautiful harmonies set the tone of the track’s introduction (“Nobody’s perfect / but nobody’s worth this”). Following the introduction are lyrics with a jarringly different aesthetic: “22 or 23 I’m heavy with the heat / hit you with the top paramedic can’t save you.” Even the the album’s introduction, “Black Panther,” features Kendrick narrating T’Challa’s own internal battle with this conflict: “King of the culture, king of the soldiers / King of the bloodshed, king of the wisdom, king of the ocean . . . ”
This soundtrack is well produced overall and has a few standout performances. As can be expected, Kendrick Lamar’s verses are top notch, especially on “Pray for Me,” but ScHoolboy Q (“X”) and Yugen Blakrok (“Opps”) are also strong, the latter of whom not only had the best individual verse on a song where she was going head to head against the talented Vince Staples, but also makes a decent case for best verse on the whole album. Elements of the soundtrack themed around the movie’s antagonist, Killmonger, also have a special shine to them after seeing the movie, particularly Anderson .Paak and Ab-Soul’s verses on “Bloody Waters.” The singers come through too: both SZA and the Weeknd (“Pray for Me” and “All the Stars”) gave the songs a sense of royal weight to them.
The soundtrack makes use of sonic influences that sound African or African-inspired in spots, particularly the production on the aforementioned standout “Bloody Waters.” The soundtrack included some South African performers as well: Sjava, Yugen Blakrok, and Babes Wodumo, but the possibility of a deeper collaboration between a more balanced cast of U.S.-based artists and the African continent and diaspora seems like a missed opportunity. The BLACK PANTHER soundtrack, in that way, is maybe a bit too clever for its own good; while a few tracks (especially “Paramedic”, “X”, and “Bloody Waters”) could hold up very well on their own as standalone songs, much of the soundtrack seems to depend on the movie to really get into at all and, for some, the movie doesn’t seem to help (“King’s Dead”). Still, the soundtrack lives up to the high standard set by the movie.