Prepare for the Black Panther to be your new favorite Avenger. Not only is the film opening to rave reviews, the excellent Ta-Nehisi Coates now writes the comics, and we’ve been granted worthy enough to receive this incredible soundtrack curated by Kendrick Lamar, featuring a who’s who of hip hop. Kendrick is the reigning king of rap, and his production and choices have made this the most fun rap album to come in a long time.
What’s most important to remember kicking off the album is that this is a Kendrick album posing as a soundtrack. He doesn’t rap on every song, but his fingerprints are all over, whether it’s the zulu R&B of “Seasons” or Khalid and Sway Lee’s “The Ways” that sounds like a cover of “LOVE” from DAMN. Lamar’s production here, while still not near To Pimp a Butterfly level, is a massive step up from DAMN. He’s working on making distinctive beats that blur the lines between hip-hop and R&B, with influences from soul and African music. It’s also a perfect mix of energetic, laid back and emotional songs. While it doesn’t have the same political charge that past Lamar albums have, it does show off his musical chops. Even though the album is enjoyable on its own, it does ebb and flow the way a Marvel movie does, and it should be interesting to see how much these songs end up scoring the film, especially with all the gratuitous expletives.
Since this is the soundtrack to a film that isn’t out yet, we’re left to infer so many of the plot points on their own. Kendrick raps with the same vigor as he did on Good Kid, M.a.a.d. City when he speaks from the perspective of the titular hero. On “Black Panther,” Lamar shows some sense of pride but also uncertainty with his place as the king of rap, as T’Challa does with his place as the king of a nation. When Kendrick raps,
Fuck integrity, fuck your pedigree, fuck your feelings, fuck your culture
Fuck your moral, fuck your family, fuck your tribe
Fuck your land, fuck your children, fuck your wives
Who am I? Not your father, not your brother
Kendrick has the same intensity as he had on his “Control” verse. He shows off his pop sensibility while never abandoning his rap roots. The SZA feature on “All the Stars” could’ve come off of any franchise soundtrack, but it is one of the best songs on the album. It’s sure to be a breakout hit. “X” with Schoolboy Q, 2Chainz, and Saudi is the other end of this spectrum, where it’s just a pulverizing rap song. It shares DNA with trap, but it’s so classic-Kendrick that it’s great.
Next week, we’ll get the whole experience when Marvel’s Black Panther hits theatres, but as someone who adored TPAB but didn’t love DAMN, this was really the album that a fan like me was looking for. It sees Kendrick in a real spot of hip-hop royalty. We all knew he was heading there, but now it’s finally set.