Over the course of three years and four albums, Kendrick Lamar has made his way from “King Kunta” to King T’Challa of Wakanda. While the former song, off his junior effort, To Pimp A Butterfly, explores slavery and bravery, the following identity explores leadership and brotherhood. Kendrick’s body of work has largely 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 gathers many guests to sing about T’Challa’s struggles and moments of heroism as well as to give insight into the murky mindset of his enemy, Killmonger. Kendrick welcomes a diverse group of veteran rappers (Schoolboy Q, Travis Scott, 2 Chainz, Future, Vince Staples, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, Mozzy), slightly seasoned R&B singers (SZA, The Weeknd, Swae Lee, Khalid, Anderson Paak) and fresh new artists (Saudi, Yugen Blakrok, Jorja Smith, SOB X RBE, Zacari, Babes Wodumo, Sjava, Reason)-most of which, are of South African descent. He also welcomes one seemingly surprising guest-singer-songwriter James Blake (who is the only white person featured on the album).
Together, the diverse lineup crafts a cohesive African experience that can stand on its own two feet, without the support of the film. The album uses its source inspiration wisely, drawing on characters, landscapes and themes, but it never relies on the movie to guide its direction. After Kendrick introduces the album with “Black Panther,” a song that cements Kendrick’s role as the leader, he steps back and lets the other artists shine. He shows a surprising amount of restraint, but manages to spice up every song with sparse amounts of hooks and ad-libs. The album rises and falls with slower and more upbeat songs juxtaposed against one another. However, the transition from “Paramedic!” to “Bloody Waters” to “King’s Dead,” feels absolutely intentional. The three songs blend together into one mini three-act play.
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.
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 immediately be sucked in 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 (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.