Black Panther: The Album, Music From And Inspired By dropped two weeks ago. Loaded with huge names and arranged by the seemingly infallible Kendrick Lamar, expectations were high for this super-album/soundtrack hybrid. Amid such high expectations, Lamar, et al., delivered a great final product. It’s full of pop hits, hardcore hip-hop, R&B, a little dance hall, and more that will have listeners bumping the album on repeat.
There was crazy buildup around Black Panther: The Album, Music From And Inspired By. As if all of the fanfare about the movie weren’t enough, Kendrick Lamar teased his involvement with the album back in December in his “LOVE” video. Two weeks later, Lamar and TDE officially announced the production of the album. That same day, the album’s only single, “All the Stars,” was released. The album finally dropped on February 9, one week before the movie opened in theaters.
The movie is based on the Marvel comic book character of the same name, the king of an extremely advanced African nation, Wakanda. With an all black cast in the first ever major black superhero movie, Black Panther is a major milestone. The album strongly reinforces the feelings of black and African pride evoked by the movie.
It also draws its other two main themes from the movie: conflict and love.
Protagonist T’Challa becomes king of Wakanda after his father’s death, and struggles against his nemesis Killmonger throughout the movie. Without giving too much away, T’Challa is the rightful heir to the throne, but Killmonger has a claim to the throne as well. Naturally, they are rivals with entirely different backgrounds and views about how to run the country. Lamar and the rest of the musicians featured on the album explore each character’s psyche throughout the album, relating their own lives to the lives of both T’Challa and Killmonger.
T’Challa is very much still in love with his ex-girlfriend, Nakia, in the movie. He struggles to tell her how he feels, though it’s apparent that he feels very strongly for her. The album weaves tender love songs in with songs about conflict and internal struggle. It even does so in a positive way that conveys an ultimate message of unity and positivity.
The album matches the movie in terms of production value and execution. The movie is heavy on visual effects, with beautiful colors and scenes that cinematographer Rachel Morrison framed nicely. With its star-studded lineup of artists and producers, the album is a highly finished product with all the bells and whistles of a major studio album. The music, however, has more layers than the movie. The lyrics of the album delve deeper into the themes of pride, conflict, and love than the movie does. In part, this is due to the difference in media, but Lamar has always been a conscious rapper, so it would have been a shock to get an album he arranged with no deeper meaning to it.
After starting with a couple intense verses from Lamar rapping as T’Challa on the first track, “Black Panther,” it builds in tempo and mood with the poppy “All the Stars.” SZA and Lamar team up to proclaim that “all the stars are closer,” that your dreams may be more attainable than they seem. The song is a bit flat, but it’s catchy enough to get a lot of radio play.
The next song, “X,” really cranks up the intensity, with Lamar incessantly asking if you’re “on ten yet.” It’s reminiscent of his untitled unmastered project with its raw energy and adversarial tone. “X” is also the first of several songs on the album featuring South African artists. Saudi’s verse meticulously combines Zulu with English to spit mind-bending metaphors that require some Googling to decipher, but are worth the effort:
“Somebody ngiph indwangu netissue, I’m dripping.”
Next comes the first song about T’Challa’s love for Nakia, but it feels out of place after hard-hitting “X.” Furthermore, it feels out of place on the album in general. It’s a slow, pleasant R&B love song, but it’s almost too slow and too pleasant. It doesn’t help that the next song, “Opps,” gets right back to the intensity of the album’s first few songs. Maybe Lamar arranged the songs this way intentionally to mirror T’Challa’s up-and-down experience in the movie, caught between fighting for his country and the throne and trying to win Nakia’s heart over. Even if that’s the case, it makes the album a little tough to get into at first.
Starting with “Opps,” the next few songs come from Killmonger’s perspective. “Opps,” “I Am,” and “Paramedics” all deal with coming from nothing, attaining success, and having the courage to stand up for what you believe in. Several artists on these songs can relate to Killmonger in this sense, and the album really hits its stride here. After “Opps” ups the tempo and “I Am” slows it down again, “Paramedics” brings the listener back to life. It starts off slowly, with Zacari singing peacefully after Kendrick announces, “I am Killmonger.” Then, the members of Bay Area group SOB X RBE flip the hyphy switch and rap hard, heartfelt verses in between Kendrick repeating the hook tauntingly, “I wish a n***a would.” It’s tough to sit still during the energetic song.
After “Paramedics,” the album falls into a nice little James Blake-infused TDE hip-hop groove. Ab-Soul and Jay Rock are true to form back to back on “Bloody Haters” and “King’s Dead,” respectively. Mixed with Anderson .Paak and Future, these two songs feature some of the biggest names in hip-hop and don’t disappoint.
From there, the ethereal “Redemption Interlude” segues nicely into dance hall-esque “Redemption.” It’s a fun dance song, but it loses the connection to the movie a little bit. It could loosely refer to T’Challa’s love for Nakia, but only in the sense that it’s a love song.
To begin wrapping up the album, somber “Seasons” puts a positive spin on Africa’s image struggles. In the chorus, Sjava tells listeners that “Poverty, jealousy, and negativity… have no place here.” It’s a statement about Africa shaking the stigma of being full of third-world countries requiring aid from the rest of the world. Within the context of the movie, the world discounts Wakanda as just another third-world country, when in reality it’s the most technologically advanced country in the world. At the end of the song, Lamar unites T’Challa and Killmonger:
“I am T’Challa, I am Killmonger
One world, one God, one family
The penultimate track, “Big Shot,” features Lamar and Travis Scott talking about their immense wealth and success, and all of the things it allows them to do. The instrumental, produced by Cardo, has some serious wings. “Big Shot” should be heavily featured in clubs in the coming months.
The final — and worst — song on the album is “Pray for Me.” Initially dubbed “Starboy on steroids,” (Billboard), it turned out more like “Starboy” ridden hard and put away wet. The only redeeming quality of the tired and annoying song is Lamar’s verse. Otherwise, it’s just another pop song by The Weeknd.
As a whole, Black Panther: The Album, Music From And Inspired By is a fun listen. The songs are diverse and engage the listener with changes of pace and style. It’s no album of the year, but it’s an excellent complement to a momentous movie, and has plenty of value on its own.