Kendrick Lamar Channels African Heritage And A King’s Spirit On The ‘Black Panther’ Soundtrack


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Compton is about as far away as you can get from the fictional, unconquerable African nation of Wakanda from Marvel Comics’ Black Panther film. 10 miles square, the small city is tucked away in South Los Angeles County and for the last several decades, it has been riddled with the ills of poverty, crime, and urban decay. It’s practically the opposite of the technologically-advanced, yet culturally-rich Wakanda.

I should know. It’s where I grew up, and where I return every birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Mother’s Day. It never felt connected to the generations of rich heritage and the intricately-woven cultural lineage of the African diaspora. It’s ironic that a soundtrack from a film based on a comic book would be the bridge over that chasm, but it’s fitting that Compton’s own Kendrick Lamar is that bridge’s primary architect, builder, and chief foreman.

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Black Panther The Album (Music from and Inspired By) is an incredible album, an eclectic exercise in blending ideas, ideologies, traditions, and cultures that have long been entangled but rarely acknowledged. It’s the perfect sonic companion to the film that has so much emotional context and nuance built into it, from the grand themes of the plot and setting all the way down to its cast and crew, the first major studio superhero production to feature nearly all Black participants. The Black Panther was the first Black superhero, but over the decades, as his backstory became more fleshed out, he took on the hopes and dreams and complicated pathologies and cultural context of Black people in America.

It’s even more fitting, then, that when the time came to nominate a navigator for the musical journey that would accompany the film’s visual one, Marvel saw fit to place the project’s reigns in the capable hands of Kendrick Lamar, someone who undoubtedly understands the weight of being chosen to lead. He’s been appointed his city’s spokesman, its savior, its ambassador, and its aspiration — whether or not he asked for it, it was given to him, and as another great Marvel Comics character often says, with great power comes great responsibility.

Which is why the Black Panther soundtrack is so much more than just a collection of songs that will sound cool during the film’s action sequences. The assembled artists and their songs wrestle with the implications of rule and responsibility, such as on the titular “Black Panther,” where Kendrick channels T’Challa’s inner thoughts. He addresses the pride and associated dangers that come with the crown, the pressures, the insecurities, the ambition. “ What do you stand for? / Are you an activist? What are your city plans for? / Are you an accident, are you just in the way? / Your native tongue contradicting what your body language say / Are you a king or you joking, are you a king or you posing?” He asks, never really expecting an answer, knowing that there is no one to answer to but himself.