The latest hip-hop based movie soundtrack has lofty expectations to meet. Fortunately, Kendrick Lamar and TDE deliver the goods with Black Panther the Album.
Black Panther the Album is something the culture has not seen in quite a while. During the 1990’s and slightly beyond it was a common affair to have a thumping soundtrack to accompany a film. The films Juice, Belly, and 8 Mile come to mind. The issue I hold with most movie soundtrack tie-ins is that they typically feel like a loose collection of tracks. However, there is typically a gem or two to be found on these soundtracks. With that history in mind, I was delighted to hear the news that Kendrick Lamar would be curating the soundtrack for the Black Panther film. After all, this is the very same Kendrick Lamar that is hot off the heels of his stellar album Damn. Preceding that album is To Pimp a Butterfly and a collection of unreleased music called Untitled Unmastered. I mention these projects because, in terms of critical acclaim, it seems that Kendrick Lamar can do no wrong. Therefore, aligning himself with Marvel to curate Black Panther the Album seems like a layup.
Initially, I met this album with skepticism because I was unsure about the level of involvement to expect from Kendrick Lamar. Firstly, he was announced as the curator for the soundtrack just a month before the album release. Indeed, reading the tracklist on paper did little to assure my doubts about his contribution as I did not see his name being featured more than a handful of times. The songs that he does rhyme on are true highpoints for Black Panther the Album as he frequently delivers raps from the perspective of the film’s protagonist T’Challa. He does occasionally deviate from the role of T’Challa and gives us strong rhymes in which he is simply flexing his skills on the microphone. Some of these moments feel a little oversimplified and I believe Kendrick could have dug a little deeper in terms of lyrical complexity. Do not misunderstand me, there are certainly moments in which he absolutely shines in spite of the simplification of his lyrics. The tracks “Black Panther” and “Pray For Me” are some of the best moments on the album. Outside of his primary features on the project, I was happily surprised to discover that Kendrick is actually deeply involved with nearly every track on the album. He does not have verses on every song, instead, he has a constant presence throughout the album by way of appearing on hooks, refrains, and by adding in adlibs. While some may have hoped for more, his consistent presence on the record goes a long way in giving the album its much-needed cohesiveness.
Black Panther the Album is not solely a Kendrick Lamar record, so allow me to focus on the other contributing artists on the project. Kendrick enlisted much of the TDE collective including Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, and SZA to contribute to the album. The inclusion of these artists is a good look but I feel like they are underused. This was a perfect opportunity to give us listeners a new Black Hippy posse cut but it did not materialize. I also would have prefered to see them appear more on the 14-track album. As it stands, outside of Kendrick, each TDE member only appears on one track respectively. However, where they do appear, they deliver some of the stronger moments on the album. Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q are specific highlights where they appear. Outside of the TDE family, other notable features include Jorja Smith, Khalid, Vince Staples, Anderson .Paak, and The Weeknd. Jorja Smith delivers a soulful solo cut on “I Am” and Anderson .Paak delivers a great hook on “Bloody Waters”. Vince Staples and Yugen Blakrok turn the heat up on “Opps” with some of the most ferocious rhymes on the entire album. The features on this album are not all positive. Future is an example of how not to show up on a track. He manages to be an absolute stain on this record as he delivers an uninspired and completely terrible guest verse on “Kings Dead”. I would go as far as to say that his appearance here will go down as one of the worst features of the year. Aside from the one blemish, the featured artists on Black Panther the Album are mostly strong and make the project all the more enjoyable.
Production on the album comes primarily from the hands of Sounwave. Other notable producer credit goes to Mike Will Made It, !llmind, and BADBADNOTGOOD. The production on Black Panther the Album is greatly dynamic from track to track. The opening track “Black Panther” is a great example of the dynamic production on display here. It starts off slow and almost somber and matches Kendrick Lamar’s delivery. As his flow shifts to a more aggressive delivery, the beat follows, adding in pounding drums and strings. As he slows down the beat returns to its original form and adds dark and gloomy keys. Another track that stands out is “Opps” which brings a huge instrumental that is aggressive and offers a rumbling soundscape for Vince Staples and Yugen Blakrok to flow over. It is easily one the best moments on the album from a production standpoint. Overall, the production on Black Panther the Album offers a great sense of urgency and aggressiveness that drives home the themes from the film.
As a standalone project, Black Panther the Album is a solid and cohesive record from top to bottom with few low points. As curators, Kendrick Lamar and TDE should feel immense pride in the collection of tracks they have given us. Kendrick Lamar deserves a special nod for putting in the effort to connect ideas and rhymes with the T’Challa character. Credit also goes to Kendrick Lamar for finding ways to creatively add his presence to the album without simply dropping a verse. By finding ways to weave these tracks together with his vocals, Kendrick avoids the pitfalls of other movie soundtracks of the past. Where those soundtracks suffered from a lack of direction and a sense of looseness, this album shines in its ability to have cohesion. This was a tough task considering the great variation amongst the tracks presented here, but Kendrick Lamar managed to toe the line brilliantly. This is one of the better movie soundtrack tie-in projects in a number of years. My hope is that we continue to see projects like Black Panther the Album going forward. My personal favorite tracks on Black Panther the Album are “Opps”, “I Am”, “Bloody Waters”, “Kings Dead” and “Pray For Me”.