Over the course of three years and four albums, Kendrick Lamar has made his way from “King Kunta” to King T’Challa of Wakanda. Kendrick’s body of work has always explored what it means to be African-American. In Black Panther The Album Music From And Inspired By, Kendrick instead explores what is means to be African.
Kendrick transitions from the role of rapper to the role of curator in the album, which is his sixth release (not including his mixtapes). Over the course of fourteen songs, which coalesce into a forty-nine minute experience, Kendrick explores the world of Wakanda. The tracks are either included in, or inspired by Marvel’s recent project, Black Panther. The film follows the life of the King, T’Challa, as he faces enemies challenging the safety of Wakanda.
For the project, Kendrick gathered plenty of veteran rappers (Schoolboy Q, Travis Scott, 2 Chainz, Future, Vince Staples, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, Mozzy), a select handful of seasoned R&B singers (SZA, The Weeknd, Swae Lee, Khalid, Anderson Paak) and a few fresh new artists (Saudi, Yugen Blakrok, Jorja Smith, SOB X RBE, Zacari, Babes Wodumo, Sjava, Reason), most of which are of South African descent, to sing about T’Challa’s struggles and moments of heroism. He also welcomed James Blake, a singer-songwriter (and the only white artist featured on the album), to add some unexpected flavor to "King's Dead."
The two biggest standout songs of the album are, “Pray For Me,” and “All The Stars.” Kendrick and the Weeknd team up for “Pray For Me.” The Weeknd leads the way with choruses and verses about sacrifice and support, while Kendrick jumps in at the middle to rap about heroism in the face of “mass destruction and mass corruption.” The song sounds like any typical track from The Weeknd, with an earnest vocal line that gradually crescendos into the chorus, but Kendrick gives it a fresh spin. The pop-oriented song gets some welcome touches of hypey-African-energy. Kendrick introduces Afro-centric drumbeats and background chants that caffeinate the song, effectively carrying it through to completion.
SZA chimes in for “All The Stars.” SZA (along with Yugen Blakrok, Jorja Smith, Zacari and Babes Wodumo) infuses the masculine album with some empowering feminine energy. SZA takes the reins for the choruses while Kendrick dominates the verses. SZA sings about her dreams being within reach, while Kendrick talks about the struggle to overcome adversity. The continuous pounding of the bass drum invigorates the song, which is the second track on the album.
While the other songs may not seem as radio-friendly as the two previous hits, they managed to make their onto the charts. Eight of the fourteen total tracks charted on Billboard’s Hot 100 list. Beyond that, the album stayed at number one on The Billboard 200 list for two weeks straight, only falling to number two for its third week.
Part of the appeal of the album is the amount of featured artists—twenty-three to be exact. Out of the fourteen songs, thirteen of them are collaborations (“Black Panther” being the only solo song). Collaborations have been sky-rocketing singles to the top of charts lately. Today (March 9th 2018) fifty percent of the top 40 songs charted are collaborations. There is something about seeing two artists come together to create their very own sonic offspring. Also, anyone who is a fan of any the twenty-four artists will likely be more willing to check out the rest of the album. In addition, soundtracks notoriously chart well. Today, four of the top twenty-one albums are soundtracks. Moviegoers will likely be induced into listening to the album more, after hearing three of the songs in the film. However, unlike other soundtracks, this album is truly crafted and curated, with a common thread linking all the songs together. Ryan Coogler, the director of Black Panther, didn’t haphazardly throw songs together. Instead, he gave Kendrick creative license to tell a cohesive story. I may not be “on ten yet,” but I’m definitely at an eight or nine. Time to Bow down to King Kendrick.