The “original motion picture soundtrack” is evidence of both popular music’s grandest artistic achievements and its crassest commercialism and commodification. There are movie soundtracks that represent watershed moments in singular artists’ careers: projects like Prince’s Purple Rain and Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly rank near the pinnacle of their discographies. There are also compilations that expertly summarize and celebrate an era or sound, like 1983’s The Big Chill or 1995’s Dead Presidents. Throughout the 1990s, as a new generation of black filmmakers and filmgoers carved out space at the multiplex, the most popular black movies (New Jack City, Boomerang, Friday) were typically accompanied by blockbuster soundtracks featuring major hits by a wide swath of popular artists—from Boyz II Men to 2Pac to En Vogue.
Black Panther is set to explode into theaters Feb. 16 with the kind of anticipation typically reserved for the latest Star Wars flick or a Beyoncé awards show appearance. It’s a cultural flashpoint, with black storytelling, history, art and music all on display in one of the biggest movie events of the year. When it was revealed that Kendrick Lamar was helming the soundtrack to director Ryan Coogler’s epic movie about the Marvel superhero, fans reacted with the expected fervor. No one really knew what to expect, though. Kendrick has managed to position himself at the intersection of hip-hop’s most uniquely bold and pop culture’s most famous. He’s a rapper whose outtakes could become the year’s most acclaimed release. What could he do with a soundtrack—especially for this movie?
Lamar’s collection of songs isn’t a solo album that doubles as a movie soundtrack, a la Superfly; he pulls together an impressive grouping of artists. Vince Staples, Anderson.Paak, 2 Chainz, SZA, Khalid, ScHoolboy Q, James Blake, Future, and The Weeknd share space with Babes Wodumo, SOB x RBE, and Mozzy—it’s an inspired compilation of talent with a markedly serious tone. There are lighter moments, but this is a project concerned with tracing the film’s spirit (informed by African art and culture and America’s distortion of history) while also referencing its specific narrative (it name-checks the movie’s protagonist, the Prince of Wakanda, and his archnemesis, Killmonger). Lamar’s voice ties it all together, both creatively and literally.
“I am T’Challa.”
On the title track, Lamar channels the movie’s imagery (“King of my city, king of my country, king of my homeland”) and the reality of why Black Panther feels like more than a movie for so many (“King of the filthy, king of the fallen, we living again”). He co-produced the track with Sounwave, who helmed most of the first half of the album, and it sets the tone for the broad but cohesive selection of songs that follow.
“Are you a king or you posin’?”
The slinky groove of “All the Stars,” featuring singer-songwriter SZA, dropped at the top of the year with Sounwave delivering the kind of spacy melodicism that became definitive on early Kendrick singles like “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and which reached a zenith on last year’s DAMN. It feels much more routine here; SZA’s hook is just weighty enough to cut through the shimmery sonics without losing any of the track’s pulsating charm. This is a song that works best as an appetizer for the most ambitious tracks surrounding it. “X” is a swift turnaround—with ScHoolboy Q and 2 Chainz talking more shit than a lil’ bit over the hard bounce of another Sounwave track and a Kendrick hook commanding, “Fuck the place up.”
Khalid shines on “The Ways,” a radio-ready standout amid the moody, atmospheric vibes that permeate the soundtrack. The sort of simple, easygoing love song that Khalid seems to do better than anyone these days, it is one of the more unexpected triumphs of the album, with its gorgeous melody belying just how conflicted the lyrics feel and its standout pairing with Swae Lee.
Aggression defines the thumping “Oops” with appearances from Vince Staples and Yugen Blakrok. “Bring a friend, bleedin’ hands from the genocide / Clean me up, beam me up to the other side / Brothers die, ’cause coons turn to butterflies,” Staples rhymes. “I Am” has Jorja Smith’s achingly resigned vocals and a distorted guitar line jaggedly cutting through the dark, as Smith sings one of the most evocative hooks on the album: “When you know what you got, sacrifice ain’t that hard / Feel like dependin’ on me, sometimes we ain't meant to be free.”
“Paramedic” is similarly somber in its Zacari-led opening, but things get bouncy quick. Vallejo, California, quartet SOB X RBE set the stage for Black Panther’s nemesis Killmonger, as things get gangsta but stay revolutionary (“Fucking with the gang, yeah I had to man up / One fist in the air, I ain’t finna put my hands up”). It suddenly segues into “Bloody Waters” with Anderson.Paak and James Blake. Over a percolating drumbeat, an echo-laden Paak intones “My nigga, we lawless.” The song’s laid-back vibe masks the urgency of its message, outlined in Lamar’s enthusiastic hook: “I need this.” Cooing backing vocals sneak in periodically as Paak spits, and Blake adds a chilly presence to the song’s coda. It’s a well-crafted showcase for all involved.
Lamar opens “King’s Dead” with a flurry of bars that dwell on two of his favorite subjects: rage and pain. Jay Rock and Future add to the proceedings, with Lamar swinging back in on the second verse, declaring that he’s “looking for euphoria, but I don’t see it / I don’t feel it / I’m paraplegic,” He is a stream of aggression and angst, but the rapper Future, also featured on the track, sounds more phoned-in than locked in.
Following a ghostly interlude, Zacari and Babes Wadambo’s “Redemption” kicks off properly with samba drums and twinkling piano notes, and Mozzy, Sjava, and Reason deliver the goods on “Seasons.” Plaintive guitar sets a soulful backdrop for the kind of passion and testifying that critics keep pretending contemporary hip-hop lacks. “Trapped in the system, traffickin’ drugs / Modern-day slavery, African thugs / We go to war with this African blood,” Mozzy rhymes, with Reason closing the track by offering musings like “I carry my city like guilt that ain’t got no forgiveness.”
“Big Shot” features Travis Scott and is probably the album’s most freewheeling moment, with Scott and Kendrick poppin’ wisdom (“don’t be the center of attention, just play your position”) while riding a synth-flute riff that surely makes Future proud.
The Weeknd closes the album with “Pray For Me,” which opens as a particularly somber benediction for an album with no shortage of dour-faced moments. But things come to life through rolling percussion, with the R&B singer cooing, “Who’s gonna save me from myself, when this life is all I know?” It’s standard-issue Abel at this point, and may not be the most obvious choice for a closer, but Lamar brings things into sharper relief as he alludes to fighting enemies that include the government and himself. “Who need a hero? You need a hero” he declares, and the clarity elevates a staid Weeknd hook.
This collection of songs feels both industrial and ghostly—a fitting sonic template considering the aura of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, where the film takes place.
It’s both a testament to Lamar and his label Top Dawg Entertainment’s creativity and ability to seize the moment that the collection holds up as well as it does independently of the specifics of the movie, even if it does feel grander as a whole vision than it does as a series of singular triumphs. This feels like a concept album, as do most Lamar-related projects. But it’s still a compilation, and that’s the soundtrack’s strength. The music captures the spirit of this moment in black pop culture, which is what Superfly and Shaft did for previous generations. Even albums like The Bodyguard and Saturday Night Fever, obviously devoid of the kind of political import attached to Black Panther, represent watershed releases and snapshots of a moment in time. With this particular soundtrack, it feels like Kendrick Lamar has accomplished a similar feat. This is an excellent soundtrack and just right for this moment. We can save the historical proclamations for later.