The Lamar-led ensemble of today's most exciting rappers serves as a worthy compliment to the film, and pushes the boundary for what movie soundtracks can do.
Kendrick Lamar cannot seem to do wrong recently. DAMN. was a critical and commercial sensation, he swept the rap category at the Grammys’, and he’s now following up by curating the soundtrack to Marvel’s Black Panther film. But to call Black Panther: The Album a ‘Kendrick Lamar project’ is something of a misnomer. He appears in some form on virtually every track, but oftentimes the sonic focal point lies with another Top Dawg Entertainment signee. Lamar’s fans need not be concerned, however, as Black Panther: The Album is as intriguing and fulfilling as most of the Compton superstar’s discography.
Black Panther: The Album can be broadly-speaking split into two camps. First is the songs that ‘go hard’ – represented mainly by ‘X’, ‘Paramedic!’, and ‘King’s Dead’. Secondly, you have the glistening, contemporary hip-hop of ‘All The Stars’, ‘The Ways’, and ‘Pray For Me’. These peaks and troughs are what gives the project a sense of momentum, progression, and emotion. A question looming large over the album in the build-up to its release was how exactly it related to the film it was supporting; the links between the film and the album are understated on the whole. Some lyrical and thematic links to the Black Panther character are woven into the tracks, but these are relatively nonintrusive. There is occasional mention of the eponymous superhero, his real name (the “I am T’Challa” that closes the title track for example), and some lines from the film. This is welcome, as the album can be enjoyed regardless if you have seen the film or not.
The lead single, ‘All The Stars’, features SZA, who has undeniable chemistry with Kendrick. He risks being upstaged during the symphonic chorus, but his verses are just enough to ensure it stays ‘Kendrick Lamar ft. SZA’ and not the other way around. This immediately gives way to ‘X’, perhaps the most hard-hitting of the tracks. Kendrick’s hook is possibly the most infectious and shout-able on display here, with its exhilarating conclusion against a cacophonous bass drop. The takeaway is that whilst the rapper is always capable of subtlety, analogy, or allegory, it is always good to hear him indulge in no-frills rap.
Jay Rock takes centre stage for most of ‘King’s Dead’, a bombastic cut with a distinctly Kendrick hook. James Blake also does an admirable job, but the now-infamous contribution from Future (“La-di-da-di-da/slob on me knob”) threatens to derail all the cohesion and dynamism. Thankfully, if you are willing to grit your teeth through this section, the track is otherwise focused and driving. The reward for not skipping this track after Future’s laughable falsetto is the final beat switch, which serves to further highlight the unintentional humour of those four or so lines. Kung-Fu Kenny reminds us in the closing minute that his technical skills are as sharp as they have ever been, stealing the show with a stunning verse under the persona of Black Panther villain Killmonger. This is another example of the peculiar relationship between the film and the album; it would be easy for the allusions to become overbearing and exclusionary, but Kendrick and TDE successfully walk the line between presenting merely another way to enjoy the film and experimenting with its themes and style.
The circumstances of this album’s creation poses two main questions for listeners – how does it stack up as a Kendrick Lamar-lead project? And how does it perform as a tie-in to a Marvel superhero film? The key takeaway is that the project was always going to contend with a divided listener-base, composed firstly of Marvel fans and secondly of contemporary rap fans. It is an achievement on Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg Entertainment’s part, to still manage to craft an album with as much cohesion as it has variety. Though not quite the artistic statement of Kendrick’s prior releases, To Pimp a Butterfly in particular, Black Panther: The Album is on par in terms of straight-up enjoyment with a great deal of his catalogue. That is to say, those coming to this album via the film will likely not find as much to savour as someone who listens on the strength of TDE’s recent releases.
Black Panther: The Album is out now via Interscope Records and Top Dawg Entertainment