Are you on ten yet? You will be once you hear Grammy Award winner Kendrick Lamar’s latest stylings in Black Panther: The Album. Part movie soundtrack, part hero-inspired concept album, Lamar teams up with some of the biggest names in Hip-Hop and R&B to craft a groove fit for a king. Does The Album live up to the hype? Let’s journey to Wakanda and listen in…
The moment Lamar says “Wait” on the title track, you realize he means business. Lighting a match to precede the rhyme spitting, Lamar uses “Black Panther” to contrast his ambitions in the rap world with T’Challa’s role as King of Wakanda. “King of my City, King of my Country, King of my Homeland,” he says, setting the stage for a character driven, politically active album.
The opener feels cozy and simplistic compared to the rest of The Album, where Lamar employs longtime collaborator Sounwave and an array of vocalists to design a layered experience. “All The Stars,” carried by the velvet vocals of R&B singer SZA, is a pop love anthem for a contemplative generation. “X” is a pulse-pounding braggadocios affair, “Opps” is a lyrical assault that canonizes DC Comics in the MCU, while “King’s Dead” is a full-on gangsta rap track.
Lamar & co. frequently shift between emotional tones; anger, love, failure, success, jealousy, and selflessness are all themes that surface for air. “Seasons,” carried by Hip Hop vocalist Mozzy, is the best example of this, with filtered vocals reminding the listener that “seasons change/there’s still time for us to run away.” But the primary delivery method of the tonal switch comes from Lamar himself, who plays the roles of T’Challa and Killmonger across the album. “Paramedic!” opens with the words “I am Killmonger” before taking a u-turn, blending the Northern California life into a stew and applying it to Michael B. Jordan’s character. Touches like this are really intriguing from a storytelling standpoint, and they give The Album replay value it might have lacked.
Where Black Panther: The Album begins to show weakness is in its function as a movie tie-in. By design, the musical stylings remain distinctly American, and that comes with its ups and downs. Ludwig Göransson, Black Panther composer and a producer on The Album, described the challenge in an interview with Pitchfork, saying “The most difficult part is that as soon as you put production and orchestra on top of African music, it doesn’t sound African anymore. So the challenge was incorporating these things and making them still feel African.”
By funneling the story of an African king through the African-American experience, Lamar compares police brutality, blood in the streets, and even the electoral college to being a superpowered legend. This is a unique way of bridging the gap, but the downside comes in reaching the finish line with Marvel’s first soundtrack to bear a Parental Advisory warning. There’s a raw political message behind that warning label; and for many, it’s par for the course with their listening habits. But there’s going to be folks who wish to skip The Album or listen to the radio friendly version instead, which itself feels stripped of the artist’s intended meaning. Such is the nature of artistry in a diverse commercialized world.
It’s hard to grade a work as abstract as Black Panther: The Album, a work designed to make you feel more than think; a work created from the ground up to illicit the strongest of reactions, whether you love it outright or really don’t like it. I used to wonder why Kendrick Lamar was considered one of the best and most divisive artists in recent years. After hearing Black Panther: The Album, I finally get it.
Original review written by Landon Beall
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