Fresh off 2017’s album of the year DAMN. (well, #3 according to Albumism staff vote, #1 according to me), Kendrick Lamar continues to check off more boxes in his Hall of Fame career. Think runaway NBA Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons, except now a fully grown veteran with a wet jump shot. This time around, the artist formerly known as K-Dot, turned King Kendrick, is coming for the executive-producer crown, while curating a star-studded Black Panther soundtrack.
This practice was a rite of passage for many musical legends during the 1970’s blaxploitation cinema heyday: Curtis Mayfield (Superfly), Marvin Gaye (Trouble Man), James Brown (Black Caesar), Aretha Franklin (Sparkle), Bobby Womack (Across 110th Street), and Isaac Hayes (Shaft) among others.
But with Lamar incorporating many of his talented peers, including a heavy dose of fellow Top Dawg Entertainment members (SZA, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, Bacari), projects from subsequent decades come to mind: Trent Reznor helming 1994’s Natural Born Killers soundtrack, JAY-Z showcasing his crew on The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, even Lamar’s mentor Dr. Dre passing The Chronic.
The list of A-list acts and rising stars involved in this one is long, but Lamar’s touches remain all over it throughout. His voice is the sole constant from start to finish, surfacing on background vocals for any song he didn’t provide verses or hooks. “Kendrick Lamar Duckworth” appears in the writing credits of every track.
“Are you on ten yet?!” exhorts Kung Fu Kenny on “X” alongside Black Hippy homie Schoolboy Q. Lamar lives on ten. He’s been existing there for virtually the entire 2010s, since dropping the Kendrick Lamar EP at midnight ’09/’10 New Year’s Eve.
Black Panther: The Album, by deadline necessity cobbled together relatively quickly, could’ve been a cynical cash-grabbing exercise in corporate synergy, or a promotional placeholder for T.D.E.’s upcoming “Championship Tour” lap this summer. A few naysayers might even still try to make that case. But that comes perilously close to questioning Lamar’s artistic integrity, which would just be silly. Under his stewardship, Black Panther succeeds as both a strong accompaniment to the most hotly anticipated movie of 2018 thus far, and as a standalone work of art for non-Comic-Con folks like yours truly.
This isn’t to say that the project is flawless, or scales the heights of a Kendrick Lamar solo album. Perhaps the anthems that bookend Black Panther: The Album, “All The Stars” and “Pray for Me,” will be more impactful in the context of the film. As singles, both underwhelm slightly. SZA’s hook on “All The Stars,” repeated ad nauseum, flirts with monotony. “Pray for Me” is further evidence that The Weekend’s Michael Jackson mimicry is wearing thin these days, like his vocals. Much of the best stuff on Black Panther happens during the 40 minutes in between.
Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee flexes his melodic gifts for auto-tuned-freakishness, used so effectively in 2017 on “Unforgettable” with French Montana and “Don’t Judge Me” with Ty Dolla $ign among others, on “The Ways” with Khalid. “King’s Dead,” with producer Mike WiLL Made-It’s infectious beat containing traces of 2Pac’s “Ambitionz as a Ridah” for Lamar and Jay Rock to ride out to, while Future acts a complete fool, is an instant classic with the video to match it.
20-year-old UK soulstress Jorja, whose profile was first raised with a pair of appearances on Drake’s More Life, will get another bump via “I Am,” which becomes a showcase for her tasty vocal phrasing, as TDE in-house producer Sounwave reconfigures the soundscape he cooked up on Lamar’s “Lust.”
While Black Panther: The Album is principally a Los Angeles creation, much like the Hollywood studio producing the Marvel film, it’s fitting that Lamar along with Black Panther wunderkind filmmaker and Oakland native Ryan Coogler (who directed Fruitvale Station and Creed before turning 30) take a trip up to the Bay. Vallejo’s SOB x RBE inject the album’s mid-section with energetic recklessness on “Paramedic!” In the midst of honoring earlier hyphy-era luminaries like the late Mac Dre, young MC Slimmy B also manages to address the #BlackLivesMatter era, plus pay tribute to Oakland’s roots as the birthplace of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in a single line, proclaiming “One fist in the air, I ain’t finna put my hands-up.” Be on the lookout for “Paramedic!” to be playing loudly in parking lots outside theaters showing Black Panther all across Northern California.
2016 Musical MVP, Oxnard CA’s Anderson .Paak, drops in to bless “Bloody Waters” with Ab-Soul. In the process of doing so, he builds further anticipation for his two planned albums (one solo, one with his band The Free Nationals) coming in 2018. Ab spits two sixteens on the song, rapping like he’s got something to prove. .Paak recorded his parts on short notice at a South African studio, shortly after receiving a text from Lamar on the day he landed there for a tour.
Lamar’s South African recruiting efforts didn’t end there. He handpicked four South African artists to feature on this project: Babes Wodumo, Sjava, Yugen Blakrok, and Saudi. Each one, likely being introduced to most of the American popular music audience for the first time, hold their own collaborating with heavy hitters, sprinkled across the album’s 49 minutes.
With the guidance of a great artist, currently in the pocket of cultural zeitgeist, Black Panther multiplies to make a satisfying sum of its disparate parts.
Notable Tracks: “All the Stars” | “King’s Dead” | “Paramedic!” | “X”