Black Panther feels less like a movie soundtrack and more like a new Kendrick Lamar project. That’s a compliment, of course. Black Panther has more heat than most albums. The soundtrack succeeds in delivering bangers with replay value, something few film or TV shows have managed to do. But continuing on the trajectory that properties such as Luke Cage and Atlanta brought to mainstream, the Black Pantheralbum stays just inside the box in the context of blending traditional African sounds with modern pop/rap into an entirely new thing. Perhaps with good reason—it’s digestible for all audiences, and I’d like to think of it as only the second layer of the film’s complete musical vision. Black Panther: The Album is an incredible gateway that, combined with Ludwig Goransson’s score, is destined to ease Marvel fans into the Wakandan dimension.
It may be the first original soundtrack fans will know the words to prior to entering the theater. That in itself is an unprecedented accomplishment. But what the soundtrack doesn’t do is give Black Panther a sonically unique identity... yet. It’s unique in the sense that Kendrick Lamar’s influence is all over it, but not as a standalone. A handful of these records could exist outside the realm of Black Panther. The best example is“X” (featuring 2 Chainz & Saudi). It’s a radio hit that you could find from a Kendrick or 2 Chainz album. That being said, from Marvel’s commercial standpoint, it couldn’t be more perfect. Ryan Coogler and the cast of Black Panther don't necessarily have the privilege to be imperfect. With less at stake, we may have seen a little bit more risk in production and lyricism from the Top Dawg Entertainment crew, which may have resulted in a more sonically unique version of the soundtrack. In this respect,“Seasons” with Sjava & Reason is the album’s most distinctive rap offering.
The best part of the soundtrack is that it’s memorable and easy to identify with, even if the records are by no means Kendrick’s best or most original work. Riding the wave of the flutes in “Mask off,” Travis Scott and Kendrick Lamar team up for “Big Shot.” If you recognize part of the hook, it’s because it’s a line from Kendrick’s verse on Rich The Kid’s “New Freezer.” Swae Lee and Khalid embrace the wanderlust wave of artists like 6lack and Syd on “The Ways,” and nail it. “Paramedic!” channels the sounds of the young generation of rappers. The record is pretty much a better version of "The Race" by Tay-K.
For the most part, Black Panther: The Album strays away from the mainstream formula of rapping about lean, percocet and xanax. “Bloody Waters” with Ab-Soul, Anderson .Paak and James Blake is stylistically the chanciest record on the album, combining the strengths of each into a cohesive fusion of all hip hop has to offer. The same goes for“Redemption” with Babes Wodumo and Zacari and “Opps” with Yugen Blakrok and Vince Staples. We’ve not heard songs like these before, created by a collaboration only a platform like Black Panther could bring to existence. That being said, a soundtrack including all songs like these probably wouldn't have had the same mass appeal. Kendrick had to throw tracks like “King’s Dead” featuring Future and Jay Rock into the mix and for the RnB fans, “I Am” by Jorja Smith.
It’s likely the score from Ludwig Goransson will interact with the soundtrack in a way that will give the music another dimension, incorporating the traditional African sounds some fans were hoping for. The capacity of depth is there. We see this with “All of the Stars,” which on its own was a sub-par SZA song, but put against visuals was a stunning and empowering music video that celebrates African culture. Same goes for“Pray For Me.” The record drives full speed at the piercing, nasally line The Weeknd walks on all his songs, but that chorus up against a portrait of Wakanda or Dora Milaje heading into battle could be epic.
Lamar is what ties the album together. Swerving through genres and voices, Kendrick transforms his journey into T’Challa’s. Only he could make a song like the titular “Black Panther.” He embodies everything this film stands for. And while I can’t speak for the score yet, I have a strong intuition that combined with the soundtrack, the impact ofBlack Panther will extend beyond the visual narrative.