In an interview, Kendrick Lamar stated he and Top Dawg never actually planned on producing the soundtrack to Black Panther. Nevertheless, Black Panther The Album is a very solid project.
Kendrick is on nearly every track, sometimes with a more prominent role, and sometimes carrying only a refrain. The first half features the bulk of Kendrick’s contributions. ‘Black Panther’, the first track, is paranoid and urgent. One of the central themes of the project, the King, is introduced in this song. It’s short, but has a nice start featuring original bars from Kendrick. The soundtrack then transitions into ‘All the Stars’, where SZA’s powerful vocals steal the show from Kendrick’s Kanye-like auto-tune crooning and boring bars.
Next up is ‘X’. This is easily the best produced, best performed and most exciting track. It kicks off with the bang of a drum and what sounds like a jungle bird on loop, over Kendrick’s rapping. Its bass hits heavy and the “Are you on ten yet?!?! Wait. Are you on ten yet?” is hilariously catchy. The song just keeps getting better with Saudi nailing his vocals. Then ScHoolboy Q steps up, aggressive and playful. He serves up this great line: “N***** December been good to me/ Not even Kendrick can Humble me.” The tempo then slows down to a more nocturnal style and 2 Chainz knocks his verse out the park. This is, without a doubt, the highlight of the soundtrack.
‘The Ways’ is more subtle but also too ambient. Swae Lee does an alright job, but Khalid’s vocals just feel somewhat vacant. The song fails to really leave its mark. ‘Opps’ does much better. This track features another all-star cast of Californian rapper Vince Staples and South African rapper Yugen Blakrok. The beat is tailored to Vince Staple’s strengths with its banging kick, its blaring sirens and the “You’re dead to me” byte. Vince packs some heat, but it’s really Yugen Blakrok who impresses the most with her creative word play.
‘Paramedic!’ is definitely the surprise gem in this album, featuring the Bay Area duo SOS X RBE. Kendrick’s role is quite limited in this song, but it’s for the best – SOS X RBE balance each other beautifully. RBE’s flow sounds unapologetically Bay Area-esque. You get the sense that he’s reloading his verbal shotgun between each firing of a consonant.
The final highlight of the album is ‘King’s Dead’, featuring Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, James Blake and Future. James Blake’s influence in this album is clear throughout with skeletal percussion, but it’s flaunted in this track in the best possible way. It doesn’t feature the densest, grittiest verses that Jay Rock fans might hope for, but he certainly isn’t a hindrance. Future is perhaps the most divisive feature, bringing some playful lyrics in a high-falsetto voice. Some think it sounds immature, but others have enjoyed the creative direction he’s taken.
Outside of the highlights, getting through the rest of the album can be somewhat tedious. It’s obviously not anywhere near the standard of any of Kendrick’s solo work, but it’s not meant to be. It’s a movie soundtrack and it’s a brilliant one, especially when it’s compared to other hip-hop movie soundtracks (looking at you Fast and the Furious). It’s a fun project with some really fun songs. Overall it’s well produced and while there’s some recycling, it isn’t mind-numbingly repetitive.
Image: Batiste Safront via. Wikimedia Commons