At first it seemed like director Ryan Coogler was simply listening to cultural kismet when he tapped Kendrick Lamar to put together the companion album to Black Panther. Casting the decade’s reigning monarch (butterfly) of complex blackness in popular music logically followed from assembling a royal procession of black actors (among whom even Angela Bassett can sashay in as the Wakandan queen mother and barely steal focus) and a palatial retinue of behind-the-camera black excellence to mount a redefinition of the decade’s reining genre of popcorn entertainment, the superhero movie.
From Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City onward, Lamar’s always represented his own trinity of black superhero, supervillain, and mortal in one person, exiled in a world not of his making. Who else, then, but King Kendrick or, as he’s more Afrocentrically dubbed himself, King Kunta, for this epic of imagined African kingship transcending an American cartoon mythos? Who else but Kung Fu Kenny for this action film meant to dropkick historical trauma with a kinetic pivot to utopian possibility?
As many critics have noted, this partnership that stretches from the 1970s blaxploitation era on forward: the hit record tie-in. (Indeed, the soundtrack is currently headed for No. 1 on the album charts.) Lamar does for Black Panther what Isaac Hayes did for Shaft, what Curtis Mayfield did for Superfly, what Public Enemy did for Do the Right Thing (at one point in Panther we see a P.E. poster hung prominently on an apartment wall), and what Ice Cube and others did for Boyz in the Hood.
Lamar has showed up to this cultural event the way he takes the stage at award shows, with adrenaline that rearranges the scenery and a passion to discover within the prearranged spectacle a counternarrative that he can inhabit and magnify. Black Panther and Kendrick Lamar’s music are both inheritors of long lines of race-conscious creativity and symbolism that still feel sprung full-grown from the right-now—and even five years ago it would have been hard to picture either of them summiting the box office and the pop charts.
But in some ways the marriage turns out to be even more perfect, having heard last week the album Lamar made from that inspiration, and this week having seen the Marvel movie itself. (I have one major misgiving that I’ll get to later.)
On first listening to Black Panther: The Album, I’d assumed that most of the material in the verses from Lamar and others, presenting more typical hip-hop street scenes of struggles and battles, of coming up hard and getting over big, mainly in Lamar’s home state of California, was incidental to or at best only metaphorically related to the movie. But California turns out to be essential to the film, although the setting is Coogler’s own Oakland rather than Lamar’s Compton. (The spoilers start now.)
As we learn over the course of the first half the film, Oakland, California, in 1992 is where the original sin of Wakanda’s royal family takes place, an act of violence (however justifiable) that unjustifiably leaves our hero’s cousin orphaned in the projects. That child grows up to become the movie’s prime villain, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the traumatized black American foil to the insulated Africans of Wakanda—and thus, you could say, the film’s reality check. Killmonger hones his battle skills not only to avenge his father’s death via Black Panther (T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman), but to seize Wakanda’s advanced resources to gain justice for the world’s oppressed by any means necessary.
Killmonger’s former life in a black America hemmed in by institutional racism is indispensable to the moral dilemma he poses—not a few Wakandans think he’s in the right—though it doesn’t take up much screen time. But, of course, that scenario is central to Lamar’s own music and to hip-hop more broadly. So the album serves to flesh out Killmonger’s world. And along the way, Lamar places himself explicitly in each position, that of the noble hero and of the hellbent dispossessed street fighter, calling himself by their names.
“I am T’Challa,” he declares in the opener “Black Panther,” after having rhymed off all the modes of being “king of the filthy, king of the fallen … king of the culture, king of the soldiers, king of the bloodshed, king of the ocean … king of the answer, king of the problem.” Yet by the second half of the soundtrack, on the aptly (both thematically and narratively) titled “King’s Dead,” he presents a mirror-opposite litany: “Fuck integrity, fuck your pedigree, fuck your feelings, fuck your culture, fuck your moral, fuck your family, fuck your tribe.” And of course it culminates, “All hail King Killmonger.”
But just as with the devil-versus-angel argument on Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and the nurture-versus-nature conflict that runs through Damn, Lamar’s signature, Shakespearean-level feat of negative capability is always to find the unities in the contradictions, to hold them in spiritual suspension. And so near the end of the album, at the close of “Seasons,” he proclaims, “I am T’Challa, I am Killmonger/ One world, one God, one family/ Celebration.” And yet what I thought was just Lamar applying his own sensibility to the tale is also part of the movie: The same synthesis infuses the late scene of T’Challa and the dying, defeated Killmonger watching the sun set over Wakanda. T’Challa then lifts his foe’s corpse in his arms, and all the choices he makes in the film’s denouement are informed by that burden, by that change of season.
Like the movie, the album follows from early on this arc of an ongoing confrontation between forces that really shouldn’t have to be opposed at all, were it not for the distorting influence of injustice. In fact, along with the general thematic setup, it seems to follow the themes and moods of the movie song by song and beat by beat:
• Track 1: On “Black Panther,” the opening fanfare, Lamar not only reintroduces himself as a king but echoes the film’s first formal battle challenge, from border-tribe chieftain M’Baku: “What do you stand for? … Are you a king or you jokin’? Are you a king or you posin’?”
• Track 2: On “All the Stars” (which plays over the credits in the movie), there are notes of the romantic tension between exes T’Challa and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).
• Track 3: On “X,” Lamar calls forth his posse the way T’Challa unites with his allies, repeating “My crowd on rotation” and “Are you on 10 yet?”—answered by guest rappers Saudi, Schoolboy Q, and 2 Chainz declaring just how “on 10” they are. (Adding another layer of meaning, the “X” may refer not just to the number 10 but to the shape of the crossed-arms gesture the Wakandans use throughout the movie to salute each other.)
• Track 4: On “The Ways,” Khalid sings an ode to a “power girl” over a sweet groove by Badbadnotgood. The girl could be Nakia, but I actually choose to believe it’s for T’Challa’s scene-stealing scientist sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), an adept in the powers of Wakandan technology.
• Track 5: Fight song “Opps” is used for the blowout car-chase scene set in Busan, South Korea. (It also includes South African rapper Yugen Blakrok making reference to funk-rap godmother Millie Jackson and real-life Black Panther Party activist Kathleen Cleaver, aptly for a movie that includes a lot of communing with ancestors.)
• Track 6: “I Am” echoes the scene in which T’Challa is being initiated as king and must face his own doubts and his father’s sacrifice: “Sometimes we ain’t meant to be free,” sighs U.K. singer Jorja Smith.
• Track 7: “Paramedic,” a song permeated by death drive, as Killmonger comes on the scene.
• Track 8: “Bloody Waters,” a song full of references to contests between kings, with a title perfect for the moment when Killmonger pitches T’Challa over a waterfall to his apparent death.
• Track 9: “King’s Dead,” the aforementioned moment of Killmonger’s triumph.
• Track 10: “Redemption Interlude,” which seems to correspond to T’Challa’s deep-freeze vision quest to “turn it around” by confronting his father’s spirit and returning to consciousness.
• Track 11: “Redemption”—more of a party track here, maybe celebrating Black Panther’s revival but also perhaps getting ready for the big climactic rumble.
• Track 12: “Seasons,” as discussed above: “We go to war for this African blood,” as the characters on-screen indeed do.
• Track 13: Another battle anthem with “Big Shots,” a Lamar and Travis Scott pairing that’s rather a weak link in the sequence.
• Track 14: And finally “Pray for Me,” the gospel-on-downers Lamar and the Weeknd duet that seems to want to be the closing-credits song but wasn’t actually chosen. It hints at upcoming sequels—“I’m always ready for a war again”—but also summarizes again the hard lessons that Lamar (and perhaps T’Challa) takes away from every side of the story: “I fight the world, I fight you, I fight myself/ I fight God, just tell me how many burdens left.”
Just as the superpower-blessed King T’Challa is not the whole story of Black Panther—he’s surrounded by family and not-always-loyal loyalists with their own specific gifts—Lamar made himself only first among equals on the soundtrack album. While his voice is heard on nearly every track, like a protecting spirit always at hand, he cedes the sonic spotlight not only to his fellow American rappers and singers (most, but not all, from his label Top Dawg) but to a series of guests from South Africa, some of them performing in Zulu.
Now, South Africa is not in the same region of Africa as Black Panther’s hidden kingdom of Wakanda, nor is Zulu the language used as a stand-in for “Wakandan” in the movie (which is the South African language Xhosa). But hearing African words from guests such as Durban’s self-appointed gqom queen Babes Wodumo or Soweto rapper Saudi offers the same reminder as hearing “Wakandan” on-screen, that English is not some naturally dominant tongue, that its presence in black mouths is a colonial aftertaste. That there is an expressive alternative. And flip it and reverse it: When African voices make hip-hop their own, it’s the world recognizing how black American creativity has reshaped its captors’ language for its own ingenious and necessary purposes.
Indeed, you might say the real Wakanda—the hidden-in-plain-sight kingdom in which a black culture developed a technical prowess that outstripped the rest of the world—is music. That Wakanda’s legendary metal, vibranium, the secret resource from which countless wonders come, is really black American sonics, that bottomless well of vibration. (The movie’s white vibranium plunderer, played by Andy Serkis, is even shown plugging his SoundCloud page.)
Which returns me to my one misgiving: From my single viewing, it seems that, aside from “All the Stars” in the closing credits, there are only three or four moments in which we hear snatches of music from Lamar’s soundtrack in the whole movie. Instead, the score is dominated by Swedish-born composer Ludwig Göransson, a longtime Coogler collaborator, who has melded samples and borrowed styles from traditional African musics with a much more stereotypical superhero-movie orchestral palette. (There are also a few songs from other sources, including the Senegalese singer Baaba Maal and the vocal group Tumelo.)
Göransson’s work is effective and conscientious, but in a film where black costume designers and production designers and stylists have been able to put their own original stamps on each aspect, one can’t help wondering: Why not get an actual African composer, or at least use more of Lamar’s contributions? It seems out of keeping with the futuristic cityscape of Wakanda, with its gleaming transport and architecture and medical miracles, that its African sounds are mostly drums, strings, kalimbas, and vocals, while electronic beats and waves are kept for city scenes in other lands. With all the gleaming syncretic Afrofuturism that saturates our eyes in Black Panther, it’s too bad more of it does not slake the ears. Thankfully, though, the solution is only as far away as a pair of headphones.
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