2018 has been a monumental year for diversity and representation in the media and pop culture. There’s still plenty of progress to be made, of course – but the resounding success of films like Roma or The Favourite, which put women front and centre of their narratives and shoved men aside, or of Jodie Whittaker‘s Doctor Who, or of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which finally gave us the big-screen debut of Miles Morales (aside from his brief cameo in the MCU), signified an industry-wide response to audiences demanding that the people they see on screen look and act like them. But nowhere was this more emphatic than in Black Panther, the first major superhero film to feature a black protagonist, black director, and mostly-black cast, and also the second-highest grossing film of 2018.
Black Panther was terrific for its representation, for its themes of race, insurrection and liberation, for the performances from its actors, and for its (mostly) tremendous action set-pieces; but it was also the film’s soundtrack that catapulted the film to success. For in Black Panther: The Album, Kendrick Lamar and an assortment of other Top Dawg Entertainment-signed artists redefined what could be achieved through a movie soundtrack.
Black Panther: The Album is not a pure movie soundtrack in the conventional sense. Yes, certain tracks find their way into the final movie – ‘Pray For Me’ plays in the background once or twice, ‘Opps’ highlights a thrilling chase between Black Panther and the villain Killmonger, and ‘All The Stars’ introduces the credits – but many were produced to accompany the movie rather than feature in it. The result? An unrivalled level of freedom for the album’s artists to take the themes of Black Panther and produce their own artistic statements from them, without having to consider how their tracks would work their way into the screenplay. In the end, it means Black Panther: The Album is not only the perfect sonic accompaniment to Black Panther the film, but also an exceptional album in its own sake.
Over the course of its 14 tracks, Black Panther: The Album takes inspiration from the film’s afrofuturistic aesthetic to incorporate traditional African instrumentation and cutting-edge afrobeats production into its own hard-edged, borderline-industrial interpretation of hip-hop, as well as to bring a hopeful tinge to its radio-friendly R&B bangers. It all comes together to produce a compelling body of work that knows when to hit hard with growling basslines and barking drums (‘Opps’, ‘Bloody Waters’, ‘King’s Dead’), but also when to let loose and soar with anthemic vocals and liberating instrumentation (‘All The Stars’, ‘Pray For Me’). It is utterly engaging, achieving the mission brief and more: not only does the album evoke the same emotions and sensations as the film, but it is also a thoroughly rewarding listen beyond its namesake, with Kendrick Lamar using the opportunity of a TDE-produced album to fit in ideas from the cutting-room floor of his previous two albums.
Wherever Lamar shows up – and he shows up plenty – it is a highlight. His verses and choruses draw on the kind of literate, conscious hip-hop he became renowned for through Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN., bringing thoughtful, expressive bars to bounce off the soaring vocal performances of SZA, The Weeknd and Zacari throughout the album. It adds a layer of lyrical depth unexpected not only for film soundtracks but also for mainstream music, elevating Black Panther: The Album above its peers through the sheer creativity of its artist.
Already we have seen the industry responding to Black Panther: The Album‘s sheer quality with albums of their own. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has also released an accompanying album – though this time headlined by Post Malone, Swae Lee and Nicki Minaj – in an effort to emulate Black Panther: The Album‘s runaway success. But it is TDE’s instrumental ingenuity and Kendrick Lamar’s lyrical dexterity, perfectly fusing the themes and aesthetic of one of the most successful films of the year with TDE’s artist’s own artistic statements, that makes Black Panther: The Album stand out not only among the very imitators it ushered in, but also among the records of its time, deservedly earning its spot as The Edge‘s favourite album of the year. Strong, dynamic, proud and emphatically liberating, Black Panther: The Album stands with its namesake as one of the boldest and best artistic expressions of 2018.
Black Panther: The Album was released on 9th February via Interscope Records and Top Dawg Entertainment.