Music

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.

Of course, even a king needs a support system, and Kendrick is more than willing to share the spotlight, despite carrying a bulk of the album’s creative weight. All of his Top Dawg Entertainment associates save Isaiah Rashad and newcomer Lance Skiiiwalker appear. While they’re less concerned in general with interrogating the heavier themes the original text suggests, even their brash approaches reflect something of the boldness required of T’Challa in leading his nation. As Schoolboy Q sneers in his “X” verse, “Not even Kendrick can humble me.”

However, that doesn’t mean they don’t leave room for introspection; Ab-Soul gets spiritual on “Bloody Waters” (“There’s 4 footprints in the sand where I walk / I never claimed to be a saint at all”), while Mozzy and Reason both deliver standout verses on the haunting “Seasons.” “Trapped in the system, trafficking drugs, modern-day slavery, African thugs / We go to war with this African blood, We go to war with this African blood,” moans Mozzy, drawing the parallel between ancient tribal warfare and lamenting the cycle of violence that turns would-be kin against one another, while Reason aggressively attacks the double standards born from institutional racism. “Catch a case and they not gon’ forgive ya,” he growls, “White skin you be out ‘fore Christmas.” It’s at the end of “Seasons” that Kendrick returns to make plain the overarching concept of this compilation. “I am T’Challa. I am Killmonger. One world, one god, one family,” he chants, expressing the universal connection that all members of the diaspora share, whether stated or not.

That connection is stated explicitly through the production. Tracks like “The Ways,” with Khalid and a crooning Swae Lee, and Zacari’s “Redemption” borrow liberally from Afropop sounds alongside many of Africa’s up-and-coming performers like Babes Wodumo on the latter, and Yugen Blakrok on “Opps” with Vince Staples (the song from the film’s “Rise” trailer). The addition of the African sounds and artists only strengthens the link between the two families, one hailing directly from the motherland, the other separated by years, seas, and decades slavery and oppression. The bond is clear though; the combination of the rugged, streetwise rappers with the crisp, sleek pop and traditional instruments sounds exactly how the film makes Wakanda look, with tribal clothing patterns and ancient traditions gracing the futuristic hallways and fantastical technology visible throughout the film’s trailers.

The only real misstep here is the inclusion of the jangly, discordant “Paramedic!” from Vallejo, California’s SOB x RBE. Reminiscent of the Bay Area’s mid-‘00s hyphy wave, the song sounds out-of-place and awkward among the more menacing or progressive styles on display throughout the rest of the album. Dropping in out of nowhere almost immediately after the album really settles into its groove and then departing just as suddenly, it hits like a crowd of rambunctious kids interrupting a symphony to blast their own music, throw a loud, aggressive dance party in the middle of the pit, and scramble away before the cops show up. Disruption definitely has its place, and could even be reasonably argued as a thread in the album’s many interwoven themes, but it’s also distracting as all hell, and it’s a welcome relief when “Bloody Waters” returns the project to its regularly scheduled program.

Compton still seems pretty far away from Wakanda, but only because the nation imagined in Marvel’s film is an idealized version of African heritage and tradition, one where those ideas weren’t systematically stripped away by centuries of colonialism, war, segregation, and exploitation. But the Black Panther soundtrack also presents a kind of ideal, a reunification where the best of both sides of the coin come back together to create something new, something that acknowledges tradition while forging its own path, just like T’Challa must do in the film, and just like Kendrick Lamar still strives to do with his musical legacy.

Black Panther The Album Music Inspired By is out now. Stream it below.

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