When it was announced that Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE), record label of among others Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and SZA, would curate the soundtrack of the new movie Black Panther, hopes were high for both fans and critics. TDE, with its highly-gifted set of producers and its eye for detail, has been known for delivering cohesive and well-worked projects. Whereas not every album on the label is a direct slam, in the past few years the label has been one of the major creative powerhouses in hip-hop. It’s just those aspects that the Black Panther soundtrack misses: it feels rushed, unoriginal and at times simply dull.
Now – it is of course strange to discuss a movie soundtrack without mentioning the movie. One should wonder why Kendrick and friends decided to take on this project in the first place though. Naturally, the movie can be seen as a step forward for the emancipation of African-Americans. Not only is this the first superhero movie with an all-black cast, it is also (one of) the main commercial victories that features a black protagonist. Black Panther, however, is not a movie that suits Kendrick’s music. Whereas in the past few years Kendrick has appealed more and more to the mainstream, especially due to tracks such as HUMBLE and his appearance of tracks by artists such as Taylor Swift and Maroon 5, the music he has released under his own belt has always shined because of its nuance, its somewhat alternative approach and its ever-changing nature, thereby never avoiding risks. Black Panther is the opposite – a mainstream movie that, despite its ‘progressiveness’ in regards to people of color, is nothing new in terms of cinematography and storyline. A routine job for Marvel, which was already certain to become a box office hit even prior to its release. That is not to say that it’s a bad movie – rather, it’s a movie that excels due to its decent execution of rather easy and standard ideas. Quite the opposite of Kendrick as an artist.
This is not to say that Kendrick shouldn’t venture in mainstream pop culture. From an artist of his caliber, however, we can expect him to change and shape what is considered mainstream art. To Pimp a Butterfly, an album that can hardly be called “mainstream” in terms of style and originality still broke Spotify stream and sale records. Damn., although a tad poppier than its predecessor, was even more successful commercially, thereby creating waves for new up and coming “alternative” artists such as Steve Lacy and R&B singer Zacari. Kendrick can be considered a mainstream artist, although one that so far has made very few concessions to appeal to the masses – especially on his albums. This is why his participation on this soundtrack, but also the soundtrack itself is so disappointing: for the first time, it feels like Kendrick has moved further down the path of Don’t Wanna Know individually. This, naturally, is not a direction we’d want to see him going.
Moreover, the soundtrack feels like it has little eye for detail. The album starts off with the smooth piano-driven Black Panther, in which Kendrick raps from the perspective of movie protagonist T’Challa. Whereas Kendrick’s flow and the beat are both fantastic, the song’s concept cracks within the first minute when Kendrick raps: Kings did it / King vision / Black Panther / King Kendrick / All hail the king. This line would’ve made sense if the final line of the song wasn’t “King, King, King, King, I am T’Challa”. Why would T’Challa, a fictional character in a fictional world rap about a currently existing rapper, who plays no role in the movie whatsoever? Whereas this may seem like just a small detail, it is one of the countless of examples that showcase how little care was put into these songs. What purpose could ScHoolboy Q’s braggadocious verse on X potentially serve? Is there a scene in the movie in which we see him driving his Maybach around Wakanda? Similarly, whereas Paramedic! is an absolute highlight on the soundtrack with its banging beat and its aggressive verses by rising rap crew SOB x RBE, it seems highly unlikely that they even realized the song would be featured in a Marvel movie. That is, unless there is somehow a cut scene that takes place in north Vallejo. Also, is anyone slobbing on Future’s knob in the extended version?
Musically, the soundtrack is also quite easy to criticize. Songs like All The Stars by Kendrick Lamar and SZA, Pray For Me by Kendrick Lamar and the Weeknd, and Redemption by Zacari and Babes Wodumo are incredibly uninteresting and overproduced pop rap songs. Big Shot by Kendrick and Travis Scott sounds like a Rodeo outtake and The Ways by Khalid and Swae Lee of Rae Sremmurd sounds like it was created in less than an hour. This, however, is not to say that there aren’t any highlights on the soundtrack: Jorja Smith surprises with the powerful self-empowering ballad I Am, which eventually crescendos with gorgeous, lush strings. The posse cut Bloody Waters, which features Ab-Soul, Anderson. Paak and Kendrick’s touring buddy James Blake works surprisingly well and contains the best verses of the entire album. And even though Opps is almost ruined by a terrible hook, the final verse by young South-African femcee is charismatic and suits the beat perfectly.
For a Marvel soundtrack, it certainly isn’t a bad project. Sonically, it’s a tad overdone but that definitely suits an action-packed superhero movie. The issue is that we’re not just dealing with any artists here though. An album curated by the likes of Kendrick Lamar, James Blake, Vince Staples, Anderson. Paak, Ab-Soul and other highly-rated (mainstream) artists should simply be more exciting. It’s clear that TDE gained a massive bag of cash for this project and that’s fine – unfortunately it resonates in the music though. This is flimsy music that is supposed to please (nearly) everyone under the age of 25 written by a team of incredibly talented team of artists. Unfortunately, it deals with the same issues as the movie: it’s amusing for an hour or so but it never leaves an impression.