‘Black Panther: The Album' is a stand-out film soundtrack

Black Panther: The Album features some of American hip-hop’s most prominent and acclaimed voices, but the numerous African musicians featured match their efforts.

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On paper, it was too good to be true: one of hip-hop’s boldest voices ever curating the soundtrack to one of Marvel’s boldest films ever. Could it be possible? Three singles and one monumental film later, Black Panther: The Album holds true. It’s an impressive and surprising collection of songs from musicians, each in their own but different element. Kendrick Lamar has assembled some of hip-hop’s biggest names and rising newcomers to create the definitive movie soundtrack.

The opening track, “Black Panther,” serves as the album’s thesis and is one of the best on the record. As Lamar raps from the perspective of T’Challa, the titular hero, he establishes the theme of kingship that anchors the entire film and soundtrack. The lines “Nine faces, go against ‘em, I erased them with precision/ I embrace them with collision” particularly show the weight of responsibility in being king, along with the problems T’Challa comes across as he ascends to the throne. The song is short but packs in a lot, from Lamar’s mutating flow to the crescendos and diminuendos of its production.

Following the opener, it’s evident the soundtrack doesn’t exclusively adhere to its companion film. Across 14 tracks, Black Panther: The Album bounces between using the film as mere inspiration, playing with the film’s themes and role-playing between its characters. This works in the album’s favor, as it gives many artists the room to work in their comfort zones while keeping in line with the central ideas. Just like how Purple Rain can be listened to without watching its film of the same name, Black Panther: The Album is strong because it stands on its own.

Highlight track “King’s Dead” has the most success in both using the film as simple inspiration and full-on paying tribute to it. As Future and Jay Rock rap about their riches and swagger, James Blake signals a driving beat change. Kendrick Lamar then raps directly from antagonist Erik Killmonger’s perspective, expressing his rage toward T’Challa, the nation of Wakanda and the world that has treated blacks so poorly throughout history.

Meanwhile, the songs that aren’t as intertwined with the film are often still engaging. Khalid is featured on “The Ways,” a song that honors the numerous powerful women in the film as he sings, “Power girl/ I really wanna know your ways.” Later, SOB X RBE deliver one of 2018’s first truly fire tracks in “Paramedic!” using their California roots to embody Killmonger’s American audacity without ever dropping his name.

Black Panther: The Album features some of American hip-hop’s most prominent and acclaimed voices, but the numerous African musicians featured match their efforts. Saudi, a rapper from South Africa, hypnotizes in “X” as he slips in and out of Zulu and English. On the standout “Opps,” fellow South African-native Yugen Blakrok makes following Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples look easy. These are just two of the many features, and no matter where a voice on the album comes from, they all blend together in creating a cohesive sonic and vocal palette to experience.

Lamar and Sounwave — who handle the majority of the album’s production — skillfully maneuver this diverse range of singers, rappers and producers as they focus their production on Afrofuturism, a theme the film fledges very well. Most fitting is a drum motif which appears at several points during the film. Every time it appears in between and during songs, it’s a sharp reminder of why the album exists and its ambitious goals.

The low points on the album actually come from some of the more popular voices. Where musicians like Swae Lee step up their game, a few performers seem like they settled for songs which lack the original spark that made them noteworthy in the first place.

Travis Scott and Lamar pair up for “Big Shots,” a lackluster song compared to other bangers on the album and both rappers’ previous party songs. The high-pitched production sounds promising in the intro, and it at least blends in with the African aesthetic across much of the album, but there isn’t much new ground covered in either of the rapper’s verses.

Lamar also pairs up with not one, but two of R&B’s most popular voices: The Weeknd and SZA. However, their tracks leave something to be desired: Both singers trudge through generic songs about heroism, and Lamar’s verses lack the sharp punch of his solo work. This dulling of quality is understandable, as the soundtrack is made to be more accessible for a larger audience, but that doesn’t make the lyrics less disappointing.

What helps bring the album back up is its numerous connections to the “Black Panther” movie. I enjoyed the album through the first few listens, but watching the film connected more dots for me — the African drums and characters of Wakanda especially brought a new sense of life to their tracks.

The fact of the matter is that film soundtracks are typically not this good. As a standalone record, Black Panther: The Album is a grand statement from both African and African-American musicians. As a companion piece, it is a fitting embodiment of what the “Black Panther” film accomplishes, even if it tends to diverge from the film’s content. As a Kendrick Lamar album, it may not reach the heights of his previous work, but that doesn’t take away from Black Panther: The Album’s better parts. Expect this soundtrack to go down in the books next to other essential film soundtracks like Purple Rain and The Blues Brothers.

Final Grade: B+

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