Black Panther soundtrack review: Kendrick Lamar creates a powerhouse of an album firmly rooted in black politics

Abhinav Jai Singh

Feb,14 2018 16:54 06 IST

Before we start discussing the soundtrack that fuels Black Panther, we need to recognise how monumental it truly is.

The history of gross injustice and crimes committed against Africans is hidden from no one. African men, women and children were loaded onto ships and brought to America to be sold as slaves. This practice continued for 246 long years. Fast forward to 2018, the effects of centuries of enslavement lingers on across America, but, in the midst of all the darkness, Black Panther is an example of something much greater, cinematically.

Director Ryan Coogler knew right from the beginning that he wanted Kendrick Lamar to create the Black Panther soundtrack. Lamar's style was perfect for what the movie represented. Black Panther is not the first black superhero movie. Earlier there were movies like Hancock and Catwoman that featured black lead actors with super-powers. What makes Black Panther stand out is its representation of the black community as it truly is: self-sufficient and intelligent with the spirit of warriors.

Lamar's lyrical themes deal with spirituality, inner-power and self-reflection, perks and ills of rampant materialism, and, most importantly, coming to terms with one's black identity. That's the one thing all black men and woman – be it in America, or elsewhere in the world – have in common. They've all lived through the trials and tribulations of growing up as a black person. The history they carry with themselves; of ancestors who were once slaves; of grandparents who fought in the streets to be treated with dignity; binds them all together in an ethereal way. Black Panther: The Album (music for and inspired by) treads on the very same path.

The album cover of Black Panther: The Album/Image from Twitter.

The cover for Black Panther: The Album/Image from Twitter.

Kendrick Lamar is no stranger to the stereotypical black existence in America. The emcee, who hails from the legendary town of Compton, taps perfectly into the black experience once again after his 2017 release DAMN. Listening to the Black Panther soundtrack is like getting hold of another Kendrick album. Through his lyrics, Lamar gives Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman, his own spin.

In the opening title track, Lamar raps from the perspective of King T'Challa, aka Black Panther. The track carries with it a peaceful and uplifting vibe as Lamar raps about the burden of being a king. He paints T'Challa as a king who doesn't rule over his population using fear; he understands that peace keeps them all together. Black Panther's unbending resolve is what makes him truly powerful, and Lamar slips right into his skin.

What's exceptional about the Black Panther soundtrack is the balance that Lamar has been able to strike. The album is consistent in its flow, energy, and the impact it makes. There are tracks that are poppy and potential chart-toppers; and there are tracks that can easily end up becoming dance floor bangers.

'All the Stars', for instance, is one such track. Released as the lead single from the soundtrack, 'All the Stars' features an incredibly catchy hook by SZA. The dreamy landscape SZA creates is enthralling and is briefly interrupted by Lamar for his sole verse on the track. Lamar talks about his over-the-top fame and the social consequences of it. He unloads mercilessly on the impostors – ones who are around him only to bask in the glory of his greatness – and takes ownership of everything he does and says, like a true king would. No matter how crude or contemporary the language is, the conundrums of a powerful figure forms the foundation of the soundtrack.

The following track 'X' — which features ScHoolboy Q, 2 Chainz, and South African rapper Saudi — is funny, ballsy, and an outright killer hip-hop track. Throughout the album, Lamar shifts from one mood to another, and on 'X' he's all pumped-up, locked-and-loaded, and ready to take his opposition out for good.

A still of Kendrick Lamar from the music video of 'All The Stars'/Image from YouTube.

A still of Kendrick Lamar from the music video of 'All The Stars'/Image from YouTube.

'X' is not the only track on the album to feature a South African artist or rap verses in the Zulu language. Rapper Yugen Blakrok (on fifth track 'Opps' alongside Vince Staples), Babes Wodumo (on eleventh track 'Redemption' also featuring Zacari), and Svaja (on the twelfth track 'Seasons' alongside rappers Mozzy and Reason) all are South African artists. The album features verses in Zulu; a language spoken widely in Southern Africa. The heritage and culture of African nations, and their shared experiences, both the good and the harrowing ones, form a major part of the album.

Black Panther soundtrack attempts to do more than just create a soundscape for the movie; it's a tribute to the struggles that Africans face in their everyday lives. On 'Seasons', Mozzy and Reason fire verses about growing up in the hood. They recount their experiences of living in underrepresented, violent and forgotten slums, and embrace their past while breaking down the systemic suppression of their people (Trapped in the system, traffickin' drugs/Modern-day slavery, African thugs/We go to war for this African blood/When I put nig**s on, it was all out of love).

Kendrick Lamar brings forward a line-up of fast rising artists like Khalid and Swae Lee on the track 'The Ways' (based on the character of Nakia played by Lupita Nyong'o). The super laid-back and smooth-flowing R&B track is dominated by Khalid's inviting vocals and Swae Lee's unrepentant swagger. Twenty-year-old Jorja Smith, Californian four-piece rap group SOB x RBE, and Anderson .Paak are other upcoming artists who find a place on the record. There are big names too, like The Weeknd on the track 'Pray For Me', and Travis Scott on 'Big Shot'.

The Weeknd and Lamar collaboration is eerily similar to their earlier combined effort on Starboy; with bass-heavy production and an infectious underlining groove. Lamar preaches loyalty and sacrifice while The Weeknd takes up the role of a despondent hero. But, one track that elevates the record to whole another level is the third official single 'King's Dead'.

Kendrick Lamar and a still from Black Panther/Image from Twitter.

Kendrick Lamar and a still from Black Panther/Image from Twitter.

Black Panther's arch nemesis, Erik Killmonger, finds a space on the last verse of this track, and it's the best one by Kendrick on the entire album. The track carries with it an in-your-face feeling of pompousness, frivolousness, and absolute disregard. Jay Rock, Future and James Blake star alongside Kendrick, and each bring their own unique touch to the song. While Future delivers a facetious chorus that will leave you in splits, Jay Rock declares his intentions of destroying anyone who stands in his way. Kendrick effortlessly places himself into the mind of an antagonist like Killmonger, delivering a scathing and a destructive final verse.

It almost seems as if he is looking at the fictional African nation of Wakanda through the eyes of a colonial exploiter.

"F**k integrity, f**k your pedigree, f**k your feelings, f**k your culture
F**k your moral, f**k your family, f**k your tribe
F**k your land, f**k your children, f**k your wives
Who am I? Not your father, not your brother
Not your reason, not your future
Not your comfort, not your reverence, not your glory
Not your heaven, not your angel, not your spirit
Not your message, not your freedom
Not your people, not your neighbor
Not your baby, not your equal
Not the title y'all want me under
All hail King Killmonger"

The historical context is important because African Americans have come a long way. Does the existence of a Marvel superhero movie like Black Panther mean that black people are free of prejudices and hatred? No. But it gives them a voice; a thriving representation, and a space to call their own.

Kendrick Lamar, throughout his career, has been the voice of the voiceless. At a time when African nations have been called a "sh**hole" by the leader of the free-world, Black Panther is a bold statement, and the soundtrack is a shotgun blast that'll ring in the ears of its listeners for years to come.

Published Date: Feb 14, 2018 16:54 PM | Updated Date: Feb 15, 2018 00:06 AM