Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg curate a strong soundtrack to accompany one of the biggest movies of the year.
Modern movie soundtracks tend to be a total mess, mashing up the hottest artists on pop songs to lacklustre results. However when it was announced that Top Dawg and Kendrick Lamar would be executive-producing the Black Panther soundtrack it was clear the project was in good hands. Luckily, the project manages to showcase the creative freedom the creators had for such a mainstream film.
For a soundtrack album, Black Panther OST does well to stick to recurring themes and mirror its movie as much as possible. Across the 14 tracks there are constant lyrical references to the movie characters, where artists often rap from the perspective of T’Challa and Killmonger. The complex production on tracks like “King’s Dead” matches up to these perspectives, where the beat switches up to match the fast-paced, ominous verse by Kendrick Lamar.
The variation in production on a single track is what elevates most of the Black Panther soundtrack. “X” (Ten) by Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, 2 Chainz and Saudi is an intense headbanger with serious replay value, led by Kendrick’s simple yet memorable hook (“Are you on ten yet?”). When it comes to the verses, ScHoolboy Q does not disappoint, and neither does Saudi who was surprisingly impressive and fitted the track well. 2 Chainz is the one who handles the beat switch with his usual braggadocio (“Digi-scale, fingernail, went to Hell, came back, went to jail / Left jail, went to Benihana”), continuing to prove why he’s the king of features.
Perhaps even more enjoyable than “X” and “King’s Dead” is “Paramedic!”, a surprising curveball when considering it came from the unestablished rap collective SOB X RBE. Zacari’s intro cleverly masks the direction of the song, eventually revealing the most infectious beat of the soundtrack consisting of a loop of trap bells and chimes. Kendrick’s diluted hooks continue to work well thanks to his sarcastic, provoking delivery, as the song is performed from the perspective of movie villain Killmonger. Alongside “X”, “Paramedic!” carries the most replay value out of all the songs, not forgetting its memorable one-liners (“New baby chop, let it sing, it’s a Drake”).
Ab-Soul provides even more one-liners on the laidback “Bloody Waters”, continuing to argue his case for being the most lyrical MC of Top Dawg (“Draw to stick you for your figures, that’s how they hang man”). It is one of many tracks that take a break from the heavy hip hop sound to offer soothing vocals instead, such as “The Ways” by Khalid and Swae Lee, whose auto-tuned vocals are undeniably pleasant. At a mere 1 minute and 25 seconds, Zacari’s “Redemption Interlude” is the most sonically pleasing track, alongside Jorja Smith’s “I Am”, who provides a necessary inclusion of stellar female vocals to stand out on the soundtrack.
Although it sounds like a leftover off Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory, “Opps” is the most chaotic song of the soundtrack thanks to the subdued bass and intense flows by Kendrick and Vince.
Weak moments arrive towards the back end that prevent the soundtrack from being excellent. “Big Shot” with Travis Scott is based around a stale flute beat and a hook that Kendrick borrows from his “New Freezer” verse. The closing song with The Weeknd struggles to fit the soundtrack, sounding more like a leftover from Starboy. The pop angle of “All the Stars” is off-putting, especially coming from someone as abstract as Kendrick, but the magnitude of the soundtrack and film probably warranted at least a couple pop songs.
Even though the tracklist doesn’t suggest it, Kendrick Lamar appears on nearly every song, often unnecessarily. As Kendrick has set such high standards for himself over the years, not all of his contributions on the Black Panther album are satisfying. They are merely decent, watering down his artistic creativity in order to match the requirements of a soundtrack album. While that’s understandable, a few of the album’s offerings could have benefited from stronger replay value.
For a soundtrack album, Black Panther exceeds expectations in terms of conceptual prominence, creativity and relevance to its actual associated film (something that other recent big-film soundtracks cannot boast). Perhaps the songs will become even stronger within the movie itself, but as a standalone album the Black Panther soundtrack has exceeded expectations.
Rating: 7.5 / 10
Best tracks: “Paramedic!”, “X”, “I Am”, “Redemption Interlude”, “King’s Dead”