By Skyler Romero
Like the film it takes inspiration from, “Black Panther: The Album – Music from and Inspired By” walks a fine line between crowd-pleasing fun and serious, incisive social commentary, and like Marvel’s newest blockbuster, the Kendrick Lamar-curated soundtrack album is a resounding success in that regard. “Black Panther – The Album” is the rare soundtrack album that rises above its corporately mandated origins to become a true work of art, functioning both as a bold statement about current race relations all over the globe and a showcase for some of the hottest artists working in hip hop today, including SZA, Schoolboy Q, Khalid, Vince Staples, Jay Rock and many more.
The album’s origin as a high-profile tie-in to the latest massively anticipated Marvel superhero movie carried an implicit requirement that the album be accessible and engaging to mainstream audiences, and on this front it does not disappoint. This disk is filled with club-ready bangers, from the soaring “All The Stars”, featuring a killer hook by SZA, to the smooth R&B of tracks like Khalid’s “The Ways” and Jorja Smith’s “I Am”. One imagines these tracks blasting out from car stereos and P.A. systems for months to come. The music takes influences from across the entire history of hip hop, soul and R&B, hitting everything from trip hop to Afro-beat to trap. Even in its slower moments, the energy never quite relents, thanks in large part to the social urgency of the lyrics.
These tracks might be crowd-pleasers, but they are by no means lacking in substance or commentary. Song after song deals directly with issues of racial inequality and oppression, never once shying away from the ugly and uncomfortable truths associated with them. Songs like Mozzy’s “Seasons,” featuring Sjava and Reason, grapple with institutional racism in the justice system, where Mozzy raps, “They tryna tell us that we all equal / We get no justice so it ain’t peaceful,” and Reason continues, “No way out, shit we locked in the system / Catch a case and they not gon’ forgive ya / White skin, you’ll be out before Christmas,” while elsewhere, on the pulsing “Opps,” Vince Staples fiercely spits, “They don’t wanna see me gettin’ to the check / They just wanna see me swimmin’ in the debt.”
“Black Panther: The Album” boasts an engaging sequence of tracks from beginning to end, but a few tracks stand out as particularly special. “King’s Dead,” featuring Kendrick (who appears in some capacity on nearly every song on the album), Jay Rock, Future, and James Blake is an absolute beast of a track. Giving each rapper a turn at the mic, the music cruises through a skittering beat before taking a brief detour through a dreamy soundscape, complete with Blake’s famously crooning vocals, before culminating in punishing, sludgy bass aided by some rapid-fire bars by Kendrick. The overall structure of the song recalls “DNA.” from last year’s “DAMN.” album, similarly starting off angry and escalating into an all-out rampage against the powers that be. In the same vein is the incredibly heavy “X”, headlined by Schoolboy Q and featuring 2 Chainz, Saudi, and the omnipresent Kendrick, who repeatedly goads throughout the track, “Are you on ten yet?,” persuasively urging the listener to “fuck the place up,” over a beat that makes it seem like a really great idea.
On the quieter side, down-tempo tracks like “Seasons” and Jorja Smith’s “I Am” take a break from the relentless ferocity of other tracks while still maintaining a tight focus on racial issues. The former has Sjava pleading with the malevolent forces of “poverty, jealousy, negativity” to “go away”, while Smith’s track is a trip-hop tinged lament of inequality that finds her singing about detractors who, “Try to shoot me down for voicin’ my own opinion.”
The album ends with “Pray for Me,” where Kendrick is joined by The Weeknd for a driving, synth-based summation of the album’s themes, drawing a parallel between the responsibilities that fall upon T’Challa, the king of Wakanda, and the potential within us all to be a force for positive change in the world. In the final minutes of this fantastic soundtrack album, Kendrick urges the listeners to find the hero within themselves, rapping, “You need a hero? Look in the mirror, there go your hero,” before the song fades out with the repeated message, “Just in case my faith go, I live by my own law,” a fitting and inspirational reminder that we don’t have to be kings or superheroes to change the world for the better.