Review: Black Panther: The Album by Kendrick Lamar

This might usher in a wave of modern soundtracks like Shaft and Superfly.
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Amongst other things (namely formulaic structures and uninteresting villains), Marvel films have been plagued with unmemorable soundtracks and/or film scores. A recent example: using “Immigrant Song” in a Thor film had so much potential that they couldn’t resist using it in the trailer and two times in the proper film. So when it was announced that Kendrick Lamar was curating the Black Panther soundtrack, I was understandably excited; anyone with their pulse on music doesn’t need to read an internet review to tell them how exceptional Kendrick Lamar’s output has been, or why it makes sense that he helms the Black Panther project given the themes he often explores. 

Some people have compared this to Cruel Summer, the mostly forgettable release showcasing the GOOD Music roster. Makes sense, given the mainstream sound and how a handful of features are either the Black Hippy crew or are previous connections with Lamar (Zacari, Travis Scott, The Weeknd). But for me personally, Donnie Trumpet’s Surf was one of the first things to come to mind. Not sonically, of course, but on that album’s highlights, Donnie Trumpet paired the unlikeliest of people together. Whereas on Cruel Summer, it sort of made sense to see Big Sean’s name alongside Kanye West and Jay-Z given the star power, on Surf, Big Sean set up Kyle to knock “Wanna Be Cool” out of the park. Similarly, on “Warm Enough,” a heavy-hitter like J. Cole teamed up with Noname, a pairing that would likely have never have happened otherwise, and maybe her presence brought out a bit of poetic flair that’s rare in his discography.

On Black Panther, Kendrick showcases artists from South Africa, placing them in posse cuts that’ll get them far more attention than otherwise: on “Opps”, Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples teams up over a bass-heavy track that would’ve slotted fine on yesteryear’s Big Fish Theory while Yugen Blakrok doesn’t just go toe-to-toe against the west coast veterans; she does one better. On “X”, Saudi weaves Zulu phrases into his rap before ScHoolboy Q and 2 Chainz arrive. Generally speaking, where Black Panther succeeds most is in these moments where Kendrick blends South African and American sounds together: Zacari and Babes Wadumo team up for the South African house track “Redemption” (those backing vocals bouncing around in the chorus!); Johannesburg rapper Sjava finds himself rapping in Zulu alongside Californians Mozzy and Reason on “Seasons.”

On “Redemption”: I was first introduced to Zacari on Isaiah Rashad’s The Sun Tirade, which I confess I underrated. So far all of “Wat’s Wrong”, “LOVE.”, and now “Redemption” wouldn’t be the highlights they are were it not for him. I don’t know if this will turn out to be a BJ the Chicago Kid case where Zacari reveals himself to be a boring songwriter but a tremendous feature, but I hope he goes far.

Anyway, given the roster here, and the production team that’s mostly responsible for DAMN. including BadBadNotGood, Mike Will Made It, DJ Dahi and Sounwave (is it too early to consider Sounwave as one of the greatest hip-hop producers, or do we have to wait a few more years’ worth of beats?), I was expecting something better. Put simply: most of the songs are good, but very few of them work all the way through.

Examples: Kendrick doesn’t do anything noteworthy on “All the Stars”, and that his name appears on the billing and not on other songs that he also gets a verse in (e.g., “Opps”) suggests a strategic maneuver to get more people excited when they released it as the lead single. It doesn’t help that the beat doesn’t do anything to detract, which tends to be a pervading problem: a single loop is repeated throughout “Big Shots”; “Pray For Me” could’ve been an out-take from Starboy were it not for the backing vocals in the back half; the drum programming on “I Am” just plods loudly. Elsewhere, Future and James Blake are enlisted to connect the two parts of “King’s Dead” but Future sounds like he cooked up the verse on the spot (one of those “blink and you’ll miss it”-deals were it not for the falsetto), and James Blake’s contributions are a waste. (Put it this way: he wasn’t credited on Travis Scott’s “the ends”, and he shouldn’t have been credited here.) And speaking of Travis Scott, “Big Shot”’s loop was going to be divisive to begin with (it made me think of Drake’s “Portland”, which also featured Travis Scott but had a similarly divisive beat), but Kendrick’s choruses add another hurdle.

Which isn’t to say that these tracks are entirely unworthy: the choruses to “All the Stars” are SZA at her most melodically direct and “Miss me with that bullshit, bullshit” has been running through my head since it was released, and—speaking of Drake’s More Life—Jorja Smith’s flicker when she sings “And I know that we have asked for change…” is one of the album’s best moments. On “King’s Dead”, both Jay Rock and Kendrick Lamar deliver some of the album’s most visceral verses with Jay Rock delivering short phrases in a breathless manner and the latter merging “For Free?” (“Fuck integrity, fuck your pedigree, fuck your feelings, fuck your culture…”) and “XXX.” (the way he checks off the things he’s not) and coming up with something almost on par with either. 

Most surprisingly: Ab-Soul, the guy who was rapping circles around Jay-Z in 2012 and who smoked a blunt so thick he lost his mind ever since, comes back to Earth on “Bloody Waters.” Wordplay like “It’s warfare, is war fair?” and “And general get off my genitals, I got your general” might not be as impressive as what he used to do with homophones, but he proves he’s still got a few bullets in the chamber (“He tried to channel the balance but never found the remote”). Oh yeah, dig how the beat of “Black Panther” sounds like two different tracks from Aphex Twin’s drukqs (“Avril 14” to one of the ones with prepared piano and back again).

Merely solid, and this would’ve been better with some more thought-out verses and more cared-for beats. You could write this off as “the soundtrack to a Marvel film, so who cares,” but maybe this might usher in a wave of modern soundtracks like Shaft and Superfly. Given the number of superhero films coming out these days, I for one, welcome better soundtracks. B PLUS