Nowadays, it’s not unusual to see big studios enlisting famous musicians to write and curate scores for movies. Lorde’s pop touch was brought to the soundtrack for the penultimate Hunger Games film, Mockingjay – Part 1, JAY-Z brought hip-hop to the Roaring ’20s with his score for The Great Gatsby, while Daft Punk wrote an entire new body of music for the TRON: Legacy soundtrack back in 2010.
But when director Ryan Coogler and Marvel Studios (owned by The Walt Disney Company – one of the most powerful brands in the world) announced that they’d be bringing in Kendrick Lamar to head up music duties on their next venture, Black Panther, rap fans and comic book obsessives alike were left shaking in anticipation. What was already being billed a monumental step forward for representation in cinema was also going to give us a record covered in the fingerprints of one of modern rap’s most respected figures.
In film form, Black Panther tells the story of T’Challa, a newly-reigning king who returns to his home country of Wakanda to rule after the death of his father. He also has the responsibility of being a low-key member of the Avengers, as the slick and dangerous Black Panther. His coronation clashes with the arrival of an evil power, eager to shake things up, threaten humanity itself, etc. So far, so Marvel, but the film does a brilliant job of mixing its fantastical storyline (which alone makes it one of the studio’s strongest), with social and political subtext. Beneath the artistry, there’s a purpose.
Refreshingly, there’s no cop out euphemisms directed towards the historical plight of people of color under the violent hands of white figures in power: instead, it’s right there in front of you. For a Disney film, Black Panther is proudly political, shaped with urgency and energy by its director. The strong praise it’s received so far challenges that blindingly white, and often toxic, entertainment zeitgeist.
It’s no surprise that for a film defined by such an anti-establishment stance that a musician of Kendrick Lamar’s caliber was the best man to head up music duties. Any project helmed by him will, by proxy, have a political element to it. It’s a vital component of the master’s work: using his platform as the current king of rap to steer clear of soulless art, imbuing it with social importance.
But does Kendrick’s Black Panther record, presented to its audience through the lens of one of the world’s biggest media conglomerates, carry the same political weight of his previous albums? It’s a compilation more than a cohesive body of work, and it doesn’t, particularly lyrically, have the same hammer-strength impact as DAMN. or To Pimp a Butterfly, but its brazen power as a great rap showcase is still pretty dazzling.
With the exception of Kendrick’s favorite current collaborator (and tour mate) James Blake, the entirety of his Black Panther record is comprised of PoC musicians, emulating the cultural portrait Coogler has set out to make. It’s defined by the presence of Top Dawg Entertainment, Kendrick’s label, and the finest members of their roster like ScHoolboy Q, SZA and Jay Rock, while looping in rap/RnB greats like Anderson .Paak, Khalid and Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee too.
In Coogler’s film, the women of Wakanda are elevated from lazily constructed positions of subservience to become powerful characters with narrative-shaping responsibilities. They are warriors, scientists and even henchwomen, rather than the love interests and mothers that comic book history has usually painted them as. Similarly, on the Kendrick-curated record, women are defined by their ambition, and by how they weigh in on the debate at hand rather than the balladry and love songs they may have been subjected to otherwise. SZA’s sweeping verse on the album’s lead single “All the Stars” still bangs like it did the first time you heard it, and after her gross snubbing at last month’s chauvinistic Grammys, her attention-commanding performance reminds us of her influence and respect in RnB.
Jorja Smith, the Brit Awards Critics’ Choice winner who made her Stateside impact on Drake’s More Life mixtape, provides one of the record’s more low-key entries with “I Am,” seemingly dealing with the issue of her own identity being debated and suppressed by those who don’t value her perspective. “Try and shoot me down for voicing my own opinion / Triggerin’ a part of me that’s always been indifferent,” she sings.
Perhaps one of the record’s biggest surprises comes on “Opps” – the relentless, brutal track from Vince Staples and Yugen Blakrok. Hailing from South Africa, Yugen Blakrok is a name few of us have heard, but her no bullshit verse on “Opps” is Black Panther at its most bombastic and effective. “Flowers on my mind, but the rhyme style sinister / Stand behind my own bars, like a seasoned criminal”, she spits, owning the space she shares with one of the industry’s most prolific rappers.
SOB x RBE are another burgeoning talent making their mark here. Hailing from Vallejo, California, the six-strong hip-hop group lay down belligerent bars on a DJ Dahi & CuBeatz produced beat for “Paramedic!.” Kendrick paves the way for them on the intro, before the group parlay their individual verses into an expletive heavy track about the dangerous nature of their delivery.
Similarly, Coogler’s Black Panther makes great use of its young talents. Letitia Wright who plays Shuri, the super smart, science-savvy younger sister of T’Challa, gives a scene-stealing performance, mixing intellect with surprising, millennial-friendly comedy – her character slips in a “What are thoooose?” gag! Wright and her character are the epitome of what makes this Marvel venture so great. Its inclusiveness, for once, doesn’t feel like a forced, conscious decision; it’s just a part of Black Panther’s blood.
For those who are only here to witness a new Kendrick record, don’t go off the track list as a pick-and-choose way of what songs you want to listen to, because all of it is pretty impressive. Beyond his curating role, K.Dot makes his mark on pretty much every song on here. He appears uncredited on nearly every track, delivering surprise verses and jumping in on hooks left, right and center.
The idea that the work of Ryan Coogler and Kendrick Lamar would wind up being so brilliant is nothing miraculous, really; we should expect excellence from those who have had a track record of giving it to us already. But if there’s anything revelatory we can take from Black Panther – as a film and a curated soundtrack – it’s the way these two artists have managed to prove to major film studios, the vast majority of which are ran by white men, that stories and projects helmed by people of color have the same mass appeal of their unwaveringly supported counterparts.
Kendrick’s Black Panther soundtrack is a unifying work – like a great, mixtape-like artist showcase – that captures the spirit of Coogler’s film perfectly. He gets to the heart of what the film is so excellent at portraying: that the discussion of identity in popular media can be thorough, articulate and perception shifting; that women’s voices are an interesting and vital part of the narrative; and that young, or unsung talents can prove their worth on their own terms – approval not needed.
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