Black Panther The Album: Reviewed
By Henrique DaMour
Kendrick Lamar’s latest project serves as the perfect companion to the Marvel movie that celebrates black excellence in all its forms, and takes just enough of a departure from Disney’s safety blanket to anchor itself into the mainstream. In a lot of respects, the album feels like TDE hosting rap’s All-Star Game, with the usual suspects of Travis Scott, 2 Chainz and ScHoolboy Q bringing their irreverent selves to the party throughout. If that’s what you came for, you get it in spades, but it’s the lesser-known, African artists on this project that carve out this album’s place in the culture.
On the standout track “Opps,” (one of three tracks that actually make their way into the film in some form or another) the powerful production, with its deep, distorted thumping, necessitates a comparably mighty vocal flow. Vince Staples delivers one heck of a verse, but it’s Johannesburg native Yugen Blakrok who absolutely bodies hers, perfectly marrying the beat to her bars, flipping the script and making the driving bass beg to be worthy of the force in her delivery. British vocalist Jorja Smith also takes another step into the mainstream on what might be the album’s biggest sleeper, “I Am,” which also produces one of the work’s most potent quotables: “When you know what you got/Sacrifice ain’t that hard.”
The album’s relationship with the movie is tough to pin down. It’s separate enough from the Disney/Marvel label that it can get away with Future referencing Three 6 Mafia’s most infamous lyrics in “King’s Dead”: “La di da di da, slob on me knob,” but it builds in rich, thematic connections to the film. And this is where Kendrick Lamar shines as the best version of himself: Kendrick the storyteller. On “Black Panther,” Lamar opens the album like only he can. In a two-minute rollercoaster of a track, hollow drums and frantic violins build until Kendrick sleepily delivers: “Wait.” A lullaby piano loop then enters, underscoring an introspective verse on what it means to be a king—rapped from the perspective of T’Challa, the movie’s king and protagonist. It drags me right back to DAMN., specifically how Kendrick opens that album with “BLOOD.” And all of that inimitable, almost comical, freewheeling Kendrick-ness is delivered undiluted and in peak form.
Every artist on this album has a previously-established personality that aided their fame in the first place, and a few really cash in on these personas on the album. Kendrick Lamar does so on “Black Panther,” and Sway Lee goes full Swayoncé, on “The Ways.” In this vein, the Weeknd-assisted “Pray For Me” feels like a let-down. The Weeknd ends up being one of the artists that isn’t, for whatever reason, completely himself. He contributes solid vocals, but the lyrical content of being “ready for a war” and “taking lives” feels very un-Weeknd-y. Given the wide spectrum of talent on the album, someone else could have more effectively played this particular character.
K-Dot toes the line between Hollywood commercial and boundary-pushing with surprising success. He performs uninhibited with some familiar faces, leading black artists from the American scene, while also marching hand-in-hand with African talents that capitalize boldly in their first exposure to the Western spotlight.