Nick Bollinger reasons that Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther soundtrack is a blockbuster in its own right.
The Marvel movie Black Panther looks like being the blockbuster of the summer, but the soundtrack album is a blockbuster in its own right.
It opens with an atmospheric collage, setting the scene for a cast of characters who step out of the soundscape to address their audience in the first person.
The first voice you hear is that of Kendrick Lamar, and it’s his voice you hear more than any other over the fourteen tracks.
Not only that, but the tracks he doesn’t feature on are clearly there under his curatorial hand.
On the title track he is nominally writing in the voice of T’Chella, the fictional African hero of this pioneering black superhero movie, but he could just as easily be speaking about himself as hip-hop’s current king of the culture.
It’s just the first example of how this whole album is not so much a soundtrack as a parallel work that uses the movie more as a series of metaphors or jumping off points.
There were hints of how big this album was going to be at the start of the year when the first single was released. Pairing Kendrick with the rapidly ascendant R&B singer SZA, ‘All The Stars’ is a hooky piece of pop-soul, and it’s beautifully art directed video is a small movie of its own.
A light soul groove runs right through this album. Built on an almost-dancehall feel by recent Laneway visitors Badbadnotgood, Kendrick trades lines on ‘The Ways’ with current R&B crooners Khalid and Swae Lee, while they muse about a mysterious and alluring ‘power girl’, who may or may not be one of the characters in the film.
One of Kendrick’s uses for this high-profile release is as a way of introducing a lot of new and lesser-known talents. There’s Jorga Smith – a 20 year-old English singer who duets with a heavily disguised Kendrick on ‘I Am’ - a slow jam with a fashionably dirty guitar.
Most significantly, the film’s African setting gives Kendrick the opportunity – you might say say responsibility – of throwing the mic to a bunch of current African hip-hop artists. And these turn out to be some of the best moments of all.
There’s ‘X’ with South African rapper Saudi on the verse and Kendrick coming in again on the chorus, while for the distinctly Afro-beat ‘Redemption’ the chorus is owned by Durban dancehall artist Babes Wodumo, who leads the singalong in her traditional Zulu tongue.
Then there are other tracks where the connections to the movie’s theme and location are more metaphoric. A personal favourite is ‘Bloody Waters’: a collaboration between Kendrick, Ab-Soul and Anderson .Paak, with a cameo from James Blake, a hypnotic loop of keys and percussion and the apocalyptic tones of a street-corner sermon. It’s clear in this track that we’re back in the parallel world of ghetto gangstas ‘sweatin’ in chess games tryin’ to move like kings move’.
The album does have a couple of semi-misfires, like the closing ‘Pray For Me’ – Kendrick’s duet with hip-hop crooner The Weeknd – which, with its tinkling arpeggios and swelling synth chords, sounds artificially cinematic. Yet even this rather formulaic track resolves by slipping satisfyingly into its parallel world, with vocal ululations sounding very African.
If it’s been said many times that it is Kendrick’s moment, that moment has been going on for a long time now and Black Panther makes it clear it’s not over yet. The timing of the film – when issues of black rights in the United States are more visible and volatile than at any time since the 60s – just adds to the relevance of the whole thing. Meanwhile Kendrick has compiled an album in a tradition of soundtracks that stand as works in their own right, with or without the movie: Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, Issac Hayes’ Shaft; Prince’s Batman. Black Panther is right up there.
Black Panther: The Album is available on Top Dawg