Words by Zee Ntloko
Black Panther is not just a superhero movie. To have a film with not only a black director, black writers and a predominantly black cast coupled with the sheer scale of anything Marvel Studios touches, it is only fitting that the music to accompany it is equally big, brash and most importantly, black. Director Ryan Coogler enlisted this monumental task to cultural beacon and rap behemoth Kendrick Lamar who together with Top Dawg Entertainment CEO Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith curate a solid and diverse 14 track album that is packed with power and a few surprises.
It’s no coincidence that Coogler has selected the Compton rapper to helm this project. Kendrick’s musical ethos is that which heavily parallels the themes of the story. His work is steeped in blackness – both of self and as a collective, spirituality and his own examination and measurements of a man. Lamar immediately delves into this on the title track album opener which finds him occupying two mindsets, something he is oft to do within his own work. Here Kendrick questions himself and assumes the role of our hero T’Challa battling an internal conflict with a heavy crown. “King of my city, king of my country, king of my homeland” Lamar raps over the scattered and meandering beat. As the listener follows this train of thought, T’Challa wrestles with the pressure and responsibility of leading his people and this is easily interchangeable with Lamar’s musical and cultural status as the king of his own city and one of the reigning kings of hip hop. This is Kendrick at his most potent on the album.
Next is the leading single All the Stars, an almost flawless collaboration with label mate and alternative R&B/Soul princess SZA. Yes it’s formulaic and maybe a bit contrived with Kendrick not exactly showing us anything of note but SZA’s raw and raspy voice propels the song to its’ heights as she delivers a high pitched and spell binding chorus. X finds Schoolboy Q, 2 Chainz and Soweto’s own Saudi with an attention grabbing opening verse which is highly impressive in melody and flow. Another album highlight is Opps with Vince Staples and Eastern Cape born MC Yugen Blakrok. Vince Staples rapping over a sparse house beat is something he has almost trademarked at this point but it’s Yugen who completely steals the show. She comes in scorching with arguably one of the best verses on this project and I found myself wanting to hear her for the rest of the record. Opps is a welcome alarm to wake you up after the first dud on the album The Ways with singer-songwriter Khalid and Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee. This track is not only too laid back but it feels completely out of place to the rest of the offering and should have been best left off completely.
The DJ Dahi produced Paramedic! Is the first real banger by four man collective SOB X RBE. It’s quintessentially West Coast complete with blaring sirens. It literally slaps. Bloody Waters brings LA native Anderson .Paak, British crooner James Blake and Ab Soul together over abstract steel drums. Ab Soul provides his trademark wordplay and Blake closes with the smooth, meditative and airy delivery that he does so well. One of the few songs to feature prominently in the film is King’s Dead, an exploration of T’Challa’s main nemesis Killmonger. Just as Kendrick assumed the hero’s role earlier, here he takes on the character of the villain and like any good villain; he looks out only for himself as Kendrick declares that he is “not your father, not your brother, not your comfort, not your reverence, not your glory”. A word of warning, Future’s verse almost derails the entire thing with the most nonsensical bars imaginable. Did Kendrick owe him a favour or something because it’s hard to think of any good reason why he would defile an otherwise great body of work with that?
Keeping with the Cali artist spotlight, singer Zacari teams up with the Gqom queen herself Babes Wodumo who is unsurprisingly at home on the afrobeat. There’s also an un-credited Mampintsha feature (you didn’t think you were getting Babes without him, did you?). Babes’ Wololo is also heavily present in the film as Shuri’s unofficial theme song which I think is pretty cool.
The album starts to wind down on Seasons, a strong offering from Reason, Sjava and Mozzy as they muse on race relations and poverty. To have the opening verse and hook completely in Zulu is monumental and refreshing. Big Shot is a flute-driven collab with Travis Scott which isn’t all that interesting and quite forgettable among the many other highlights. The final act is Pray for Me, which is actually an inexplicable addition. As lauded as The Weeknd is, this does feel like a left-over from Starboy and is for some odd reason placed in a pivotal action sequence onscreen. It’s a misfire and doesn’t deserve to be the finale of this work.
Black Panther the Album can easily stand independent of the film. In many ways it is inspired by it and not as heavily featured in the film as most soundtracks are. TDE has done a great job of putting together a big, high energy compilation piece with a talented roster of artists and collaborations. If (fingers crossed) Black Panther is gifted a trilogy, it would be great to get a collection of similar soundtracks much akin to other big budget, fan-driven film franchises. With such a presence of our own local acts, think of this as a cultural exchange of black excellence that will introduce not only Mzansi talent to an international audience but Africa’s as a whole.