Marvel’s “Black Panther” has become a cultural moment in America. Announced over four years ago among a stacked slate of superhero epics, “Black Panther” immediately led to a mass rejoice of black audiences being able to see a four-quadrant blockbuster comprised entirely of faces and bodies that looked like their own. One of those in the middle of rejoicing was rapper Kendrick Lamar.
Initially called in to make “a couple” of tracks to tie-in to the film made by “Fruitvale Station” director Ryan Coogler, Lamar was inspired to make an entire LP after witnessing a majority of it. What he delivered turned out to be a 50-minute soundtrack showcasing some of hip-hop and R&B’s most dynamic voices from North Cali to South Africa.
Lamar starts off the compilation with “Black Panther,” a short opening track rapped from the perspective of the Marvel superhero’s alter-ego, King T’Challa. With an inspired flow from Lamar and a fairly generic instrumental backing him up, the self-titled track is serviceable for what it wants to accomplish.
Picking things up afterward is “All The Stars,” the album’s lead single featuring Kendrick Lamar and the Grammy-nominated SZA. While the single version left much to be desired, the album cut soars with triumphant violins accompanying a new verse from SZA, giving it a regality fit for our protagonist. “X” features ScHoolboy Q and 2 Chainz trading razor-sharp bars over booming 808s and hi-hats while newcomer Saudi gives a taste of the massive South African influence looming all over the album.
“Black Panther: The Album” can’t quite keep up the momentum from the last song as it segues into “The Ways,” a sleepy track trying to combine R&B, trap and light dancehall elements with middling results. While Swae Lee is able to breathe some life into it towards its latter half, it is not enough to make up for an uninspired performance from singer Khalid.
Vince Staples and the Johannesburg native, Yugen Blakrok, are able to turn up the energy again with “Opps.” Staples sounds right at home giving a snarling flow over a menacing electronic instrumental. Blakrok isn’t out of place either, spitting rhymes at rapid-fire speed with the urgency of someone that knows this is their moment to step into the spotlight. Jorja Smith has a heart-wrenching performance on “I Am,” accompanied with distorted vocals from Kendrick Lamar on the outro.
Marking the halfway point of “Black Panther” is the album’s greatest accomplishment: “Paramedic.” While Lamar gives an ear-worm of a chorus on this one, he gives time in the sun to his fellow West Coast wordsmiths known as SOB X RBE. Their aggression and energy are unmatched by anyone before and after the track, showing the most impressive debut from a rap collective since the duo of Rae Sremmurd.
“Bloody Waters” displays Anderson .Paak in top form with the addition of haunting vocals from James Blake and the most inspired verses Ab-Soul has given fans in years. “King’s Dead” still gets blood pumping as hard as it did as a single, even despite Future’s head-scratching falsetto on his guest appearance. “Redemption” provides the album with its most African-infused track as Zacari and Babes Wodumo sing their hearts out on this club anthem.
“Seasons” is the darkest song on this LP, a mournful stand-out featuring Mozzy with Zulu verses from South African emcees Sjava and Reason. “Big Shot” shows off an exuberant Travis Scott while the album closer “Pray For Me” has a fairly uninteresting attempt from The Weeknd at recreating his hit song, “Starboy.”
“Black Panther: The Album” is able to separate itself from the anticipated movie with a narrative all its own. All throughout Lamar opens and closes tracks with statements comparing himself to the movie’s main hero and villain. “I am T’Challa. I am Killmonger.” T’Challa is an African king surrounded by prosperity while Killmonger is an exile sent to suffer in inner-city America.
Lamar sees the dual nature of the black experience each has and runs with it. T’Challa is the prime example of what Africans can aspire to be while Killmonger is the severed ties African-Americans have had with the motherland due to slavery wiping out entire family trees. Throughout “Black Panther: The Album,” Lamar shows that almost all African-Americans carry this duality within themselves and uses it to comment on how in 2018, no one is as disconnected as they believe.
With numerous guest spots of rappers and singers from Compton, Atlanta, Toronto, London, Johannesburg and beyond, Lamar has delivered the first great mainstream rap LP of 2018. It could only take someone as talented as Kendrick Lamar to create a concept album on how the African Diaspora across Earth is innately connected with one another and do it on the soundtrack for a Disney superhero movie.