by Will Carsh | Staff Writer
In addition to the release of the excellent “Black Panther” film last week, an accompanying soundtrack curated by modern music legend Kendrick Lamar dropped on the Febr. 9. It debuted at the No.1 position on the Billboard top 200 and has earned a fairly positive response from critics thus far. The film’s director, Ryan Coogler, personally selected Lamar for the job, statingin an interview with Collider that Lamar’s “artistic themes align with those we explore in the film.” The album doesn’t necessarily function as a new Lamar project as much as a various artists’ compilation that carries his personal touch and influence from track to track. And really, it is overall pretty stupendous.
The album opens with Lamar going solo for the titular track. Clocking in at 2:11, it’s a short piece, but one that adequately sets up the direction that Lamar has chosen for the project. Historically, he has made a bit of a name for himself for his ability to tell stories and experiment in his music, and this album is thankfully no exception.
The soundtrack works best after one has already watched the film: Kendrick’s exclamation of “I am T’Challa” at the end of the opener makes it clear that the lyrics and the film’s story are meant to be tied together closely. The track itself features a lovely piano bit that transitions into more dissonant, exotic sounds.
Next up is the album’s lead single, “All the Stars”, a collaboration piece between Lamar and SZA. The track peaked at No. 9 on the Hot 100 chart, and it’s not hard to see why it was a success. Catchy, soothing, defiant, and equally fitting for both the film and for pop radio, the song is musically one of the album’s strongest. It’s lyrics, however, seem more disconnected from the narrative. One could be forgiven for not recognizing it as part of what’s essentially a concept album.
The next cut, “X”, is oddly the first track that carries what becomes the general vibe of the album. A pure hip hop track, it features Schoolboy Q, 2 Chainz, and Saudi coupled with some memorable, enjoyably repetitive lyrics. The oft-repeated line “Are you on ten yet?” quickly becomes infectious. From this point on, the songs stick to the format of solid grooves, beats, and performances by some great choices of guest artists.
A favorite of mine is “Opps,” a track that’s featured predominantly during the film’s centerpiece action sequence. Featuring performances by Vince Staples and Yugen Blakrok and boasting a flute as part of its main beat, the track is lyrically one of the more aggressive ones, the line “You’re dead to me” over a heavy bass and tribal drumming patterns drilling into the listener’s head.
Another highlight is “I Am,” performed by Jorja Smith. Featuring dissonant chords that give the track a chaotic feel despite Smith’s lovely vocals, it’s one that slowly grows on the listener over time. “Paramedic!” is another fun one, the lyrics taking on the voice of the film’s villain for the first time.
“Redemption” and “Pray for Me” are other tracks to look out for, the latter of which features an unexpected collaboration between Kendrick Lamar and The Weekend. Overall, there isn’t an incredibly weak track on the record musically speaking. It doesn’t stray far from the hip-hop genre, but manages to find variety through guest collaborations and different sounds to go with the beats.
Lyrically, the album as a whole makes more sense once one has seen the film. Kendrick focuses more on the themes of the story than plot details, allowing the album to fit in fairly well with the themes featured within his body of work. It’s not hard to see why Coogler chose him for the job; his wit, wordplay, and honesty remain intact on every track. “Black Panther” is a thought-provoking film, and Lamar has made a name for himself penning thought-provoking lyrics. He is a perfect fit for this sort of project.
It may be a controversial claim to make, but as a whole, the record actually may be a bit better than last year’s already strong “Damn.” It certainly leans less in a pop direction- a couple of tracks aside- and generally features a more aggressive, harsher-sounding hip hop direction. It’s a solid addition to Kendrick Lamar’s catalogue, and while it may not be quite as groundbreaking as the film that inspired it, fans of hip-hop and the film will definitely want to check this one out.