On February 16, 2018, the Black Panther movie was released to widespread audiences throughout the United States. The movie has been considered a massive success in regards to both a box office point of view and a cultural impact status. Of course, considering this is a modern-day Marvel movie with help from both Disney and LucasArts (the latter in regards to certain effects), is that really a surprise to see? No, it isn’t. Not by a long shot! However, what may surprise some people is the technical “soundtrack” entitled Black Panther: The Album, a project that was released a week before the film’s official release that was spearheaded by Kendrick Lamar. Yeah, that guy’s got a hand with this superhero flick if you weren’t aware of it beforehand, and it’s been performing rather well also, being the best selling album the week it was first released.
Now to preface this album, I should mention that while the project was fully supported by Kendrick Lamar, not every song has a credited appearance from him. Granted, nearly every song on this soundtrack (save for one particular song) does have his voice involved, but only 5 or 6 songs flat out say that he’s a credited artist there, with every other song not including his name, regardless of how major or minor sounding the role in question is for those other songs. Anyways, much like the film itself and any other Kendrick Lamar album released, this soundtrack has also met with success from both critical and mainstream audiences alike. Three songs from that soundtrack have also reached varying degrees of mainstream media success (with two of them even reaching the Top 10 for hit songs at the time of this writing), with at least five more already charting decently and maybe a few more along the way for one reason or another. Some of these songs also feature artists you almost certainly never heard of before this album’s release, whether it’s because of them being less mainstream conscious (like Jorja Smith, SOB X RBE, or Reason) or because of the fact that they’re artists from South Africa (i.e., Saudi, Yugen Blakrok, Babes Wodumo, & Sjava). Regardless of who they are, they all have performances that can rival some of the more easily recognizable names within the soundtrack in the first place, including Kendrick himself.
So what do both of those things have to do with each other if this album isn’t the actual soundtrack to the Black Panther movie? Well, the album has its songs feel more like interpretations of particular moments or scenes than something separated from the film in question. In fact, that status reflects itself more clearly when you actually see the film and notice some leitmotifs from the soundtrack enter the film in certain scenes (which yes, will be touched back upon later on). However, the differences in terms of tone between film and soundtrack do feel somewhat stark with how they view different things there, which kind of reflect upon my differing feelings between the two projects. Therefore, the question for me is which project is better as a whole, and does reflecting on one thing ultimately hinder the other thing? (It’s at this point where I get into some major spoiler territory, just so you’re fairly warned here. If you don't want to be spoiled on anything major here, I recommend you go see the movie first before you read the rest of this piece properly. Otherwise, enjoy the show.)
Well, since the soundtrack headlined by Kendrick Lamar was released first and I did listen to the project (multiple times) first and foremost, I think it’s best if I begin from that product first instead. Just as well, since for an opening song (even for a soundtrack), the song “Black Panther” by Kendrick Lamar works wonders with setting up the Black Panther movie and character in its own right (similar to how Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” works fantastically for both 8 Mile and as a standout track in its own way), especially with the parallels Kendrick has between the main character, T’Challa, and Kendrick Lamar himself as kings of their respective areas (King of Wakanda and the King of Rap respectively). By contrast, we do have the younger T’Challa being told by his father, T’Chaka (who’s played by John Kani and, spoiler alert, had previously died in Captain America: Civil War as one of the unfortunate causalities there), the story of how Wakanda came to be, who each of the five tribes are that make up the nation, and how the Black Panther came to be who he is today (all of which relate to the substance vibranium). In terms of setting things up, I’d argue the Black Panther soundtrack did it a bit better between not just setting up who the Black Panther is, but also the significance to his character is moving forward in the movie. However, while the soundtrack does set things up perfectly, one of the downsides to this project is that once you actually do see the movie itself, some of the songs are honestly better set-up in a different order compared to what happens in the soundtrack, especially when noticing where “All the Stars” by Kendrick Lamar & SZA and “Pray for Me” by The Weeknd & Kendrick Lamar are in the movie against within the soundtrack.
I am T’Challa...
When the original Black Panther from 1992 (T’Chaka) travels to Oakland, California to see his brother N’Jobu (played by Sterling K. Brown), it’s revealed to him that his brother was working with a black market arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue (played by Andy Serkis), which ultimately proves to be a critical point to the movie once we see our proper antagonist. In regards to where the soundtrack plays into this scene, it’s probably best represented by the song “Paramedic!” by the previously unheard of rap group SOB x RBE (who also have Kendrick Lamar and Zacari helping out at points), primarily with the introduction by Zacari and the last verse from Yhung T.O. where the verse of his own life revolving around him being raised by both his grandma and the gangsters at 8 years old surprisingly relate relatively well with our future antagonist’s own probable lifestyle after that moment in time. However, since the film wants to build up what happened there to a proper point later on in the movie, we get transported into the present day, where T’Chaka dies from events back in Captain America: Civil War and his son T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) takes on the roles of both the titular Black Panther and the new leader of Wakanda moving forward (the latter being earned after a fair fight against rivaling Jabari tribe leader M’Baku (played by Winston Duke) on top of a waterfall). Before I go about with what songs from the soundtrack best fit those particular moments, I want to point out a musical leitmotif from one of the later tracks of the album that made it onto the film that I noticed almost immediately the moment it played within the film. Near the end of the song “Bloody Waters” by Ab-Soul, Anderson .Paak, and James Blake (which turned out to be the one song without any Kendrick Lamar found on vocals at all, although Zacari somehow has vocals on there that I can’t quite notice at all), you’d notice the way the song transitions from the end of James Blake’s vocals to the beginning of “King’s Dead” by Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Future, & James Blake has an interesting tone to how it’s done. Well as it turns out, it becomes a bonus for future film watchers that during scenes like the fight between T’Challa and M’Baku for rule over Wakanda, as you get to hear that particular beat from the talking drum by Ludwig Göransson throughout the movie, with it becoming more and more intense the further those scenes with it go on.
The way the beat is represented throughout the film is downright fantastic when you hear it, and the sound also works relatively well for the soundtrack made by Kendrick Lamar. The only problem, though, is that “Bloody Waters” is one of the weaker tracks of the soundtrack, if only because the sound to it feels underwhelming, despite the fact that it would have fit in no problem on Anderson .Paak’s Malibu album otherwise. Anyways, going back to those scenes for a bit, I think I can say “X” by Saudi, ScHoolboy Q, 2 Chainz, and Kendrick Lamar on the chorus primarily fits some of the more action-packed scenes during the beginning, with the surprisingly well-done “The Ways” by Khalid (not DJ Khaled) and Swae Lee of Rae Sremmurd fame actually fitting just about any of the main female characters supporting the Black Panther in this movie via Wakanda’s international spy Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong’o), Border Tribe Dora Milaje (special forces) member Okoye (played by Danai Gurira), or even T’Challa’s young sister Shuri (played by Letitya Young) or the Queen Mother of Wakanda (and mother of T’Challa and Shuri) Ramonda (played by Angela Bassett), but I’m getting a bit too ahead of myself here. After T’Challa officially becomes the king of Wakanda, we get to see Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (played by Michael B. Jordan, no relation to the more common Michael Jordan you’re thinking of) and a sort of partner-in-crime in Ulysses Klaue (played by Andy Serkis) rob some older, vibranium laced technology (with it being under the guise of old, African artifacts) from the Museum of Great Britain, with them showcasing what kinds of characters they are (and the song “X” also fits this scene, just so we’re clear here). Honestly, while I’m a fan of Killmonger’s character, I have to come clean when I say I’m not a major fan of Klaue’s character at all. While he may have some moments that can work, more often to me, he just has that same kind of attitude that made that “What are those?!” joke from earlier in the movie exist in the first damn place (I wish I were joking with the latter quip, by the way), which kind of hurt the movie at times. Thankfully he’s not there for too long and isn’t 100% annoying, but he also makes me wish we had more moments with Killmonger early in the movie instead.
In any case, the robbery would lead to a lead of Klaue going to a South Korean underground club scene to sell the stolen Wakandan technology to a CIA agent named Everett K. Ross (played by Martin Freeman), which would result in T’Challa trying to fulfill a promise by his friend and confidant W’Kabi (played by Daniel Kaluuya) that Klaue is brought back dead or alive. It’s during this time in Busan, South Korea that two of the three songs from the soundtrack gets played in the movie properly (albeit modified to varying degrees). The first song, “Pray for Me” by The Weeknd & Kendrick Lamar (which is the final song for the Black Panther soundtrack), is played when T’Challa, Okoye, and Nakia first enter the club, with the modification coming from the moment Everett enters the scene and talks to T’Challa, which had Kendrick Lamar’s verse being muted completely for the scene to hold more merit in its name. However, once the deal between Klaue and Everett goes haywire, we have the firefight scene where shit goes down for real (and honestly is one of a few moments where Klaue’s character worked for me), which leads to Klaue wrecking up the club for robbery purposes and leaving for the car chase scene. It’s when the Black Panther and his associates start going after Klaue and his partners in crime that we hear the second song from the soundtrack get played in the movie, which turned to be a nicely remixed version of “Opps” by Kendrick Lamar (who was strangely uncredited here, despite the fact he had both a full and did the chorus here), Vince Staples, and Yugen Blakrok (who was the only person I didn’t really hear in the movie) that had some lush instrumentals during that scene, although the original works just as well as a standalone song in its own right (even in spite of the weird censorship at hand). Better yet, the same could also be said for the other song mentioned here, as that honestly sounds like something that could have fit for either artist’s previous albums (Starboy and DAMN. respectively) and worked in those regards. Not only that, but the car chase and firefight both are certainly one of the most memorable scenes of the entire film due to the ways they worked (i.e., some of Klaue’s dialogue, the action scenes with the Black Panther and associates, the Wakandan technology that Shuri used) and how things went down there.
I am Killmonger...
Anyway, once Klaue was captured by the Black Panther, he’s apprehended by the CIA for questioning (in part to avoid international conflict), which would lead to a major mistake on Everett’s end. After T’Challa is questioned by Everett on what Wakanda’s technology is all about (due to him questioning Klaue on his own), Klaue winds up escaping from the CIA thanks to Killmonger’s help, but he doesn’t leave without giving Everett a little present by a bullet to his spinal cord, which would ultimately kill him if he doesn’t have Wakanda’s technology help him in time. As a result of this literal life or death situation, T’Challa chooses to help him live over fulfilling the promise he made to bring Klaue back dead or alive, but it doesn’t mean the guy gets away that easily. It’s around this point in time that Killmonger shows his true colors to Klaue and kills him in a rather nice action scene, which ultimately helps him enter Wakanda through his own means (and also the scene that probably best represents the song “Bloody Waters” that I had mentioned earlier). Before that point, though, T’Challa confronts the elder statesman Zuri (played by Forest Whitaker) about the situation that happened in 1992 that Klaue mentioned to Everett earlier, recalling the situation of how T’Chaka’s brother, N’Jobu, was dealing Wakandan technology to Klaue to help the people of African descent fight back against the people that suppressed them centuries ago. After Zuri reveals who he really is to N’Jobu, T’Chaka winds up being forced to kill his brother to help save Zuri (and by consequence, the world from pure destruction or chaos), which inadvertently left his son N’Jadaka (who winds up becomes Erik Killmonger) alone in the U.S.A., forcing him to grow up into being the black-ops solider that he became. It’s in this scene that I was also thinking about the song “I Am” by Jorja Smith and how the tragedy from that scene helps make the song sound more potent than it already was on its own (although one funny fact is that “I Am” samples a Travis Scott song called (no joke) “Drugs You Should Try It”). It’s also around this time where the influence of the movie for the soundtrack becomes a lot more apparent.
After T’Challa learns the truth about his father and uncle, N’Jadaka reveals who he is to everyone in T’Challa’s kingdom in the native Wakandan tongue (markings on his lower lip and all) and demands that he fights T’Challa for the right to be the new King of Wakanda. When T’Challa accepts N’Jadaka Killmonger’s request, they fight a fair fight on top of the same waterfall that T’Challa won his previous fight against M’Baku earlier in the movie, with Killmonger showing off the scars all over his body that made him the man that he was today. Throughout the fight, it’s where you notice the transition moment from “Bloody Waters” truly holds more of an impact above anywhere else you might have heard it during the movie, especially before he winds up killing Zuri in his feeble attempt to save T’Challa (as well as his justification for failing to do anything to save his father’s life back in 1992). It’s also where I feel the song “King’s Dead” by Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Future, and James Blake absolutely fits best for the event I had only one scene to put it under, primarily due to Kendrick Lamar’s second verse near the end between him having that Killmonger vibe to it and having the part of him yelling out “All hail King Killmonger!” before ending the song altogether works best for when Killmonger throws what would be T’Challa’s battered body off the waterfall and leads to the tribes witnessing the fight forcing themselves to see Killmonger as their new Wakandan king. However, I have to admit that “King’s Dead” is arguably one of the weaker songs from the soundtrack, if only because of Future not only really adding next to nothing that anyone else there could have done on their own, but also him interpolating the Three 6 Mafia’s “Slob On My Knob” in a very weird way that just makes it more prone to meme status than anything else. Like, it’s to the point where with most people, they don’t really remember Kendrick Lamar’s fantastic final verse or even the fact that it’s actually a Jay Rock song that primarily features Kendrick Lamar altogether, but instead focuses a lot of their time and energy on Future’s strange “singing” that was more strained than anything else there. The point is this is a great fight scene with a good enough song interpolating Killmonger as a character, but the song itself could have been so much better.
Now that I got that bit taken care of, I can mention that while the main female characters (save for Okoye due to her duties as a member of the Dora Milaje) and Everett go out searching for T’Challa’s body in the belief that he’s still alive (with that journey probably best fitting the shortest song of the soundtrack, the “Redemption Interlude” by Zacari (with uncredited vocals from Hykeem Carter and Kendrick Lamar)), Killmonger officially enters kinghood by ingesting the herb that helped make T’Challa become the Black Panther and going into the spiritual realm soon afterward to see his father again to see what advice he’d get from him. It’s here where I have to say it’s one of the absolute best scenes of the movie in terms of how it’s shot and represents Erik Killmonger’s past with his father and the relationship (or lack thereof after his death) that ultimately lead to Erik being the man he is now, with N’Jobu expressing regret towards his past actions and hoping what he says to him helps his son while he still could reach out to him. However, instead of heeding his father’s warning (being in a panicked state of mind during his spiritual journey), Killmonger continues on with his plan he set for Wakanda by first destroying the rest of the herbs that set up future kings (save for one that Nakia extracted earlier on) and carrying on what his father first set out to do, which is giving Wakanda’s advanced technology to operatives around the world. Around this time, the three women and Everett go out into the mountains of the Jabari Tribe to seek aid, which also lead to one of their fishermen finding him in a comatose state of mind, thus leading to the Jabari putting him in a snow tub of sorts to help make sure he continues living through the battle in his mind. In his comatose state, he meets his father and ancestors one last time, confronting his father in particular about his situation before he leaves them in a better state of mind with his own way in mind moving forward, as he is saved by the herb that had vibranium in it and returns to life back in proper health. It’s also where the proper “Redemption” song, sung by Zacari & Babes Wodumo (with uncredited vocals from Kendrick Lamar & Mampintsha), would come to mind for me, and let me just say that it’s one of the best songs from the album thanks to the combination of the upbeat African influence of the song mashing well with Zacari’s singing (who seriously needs a proper album at some point). Granted it’s not a perfect interpretation for the scene in question (ironic that Zacari mentions that the body’s on fire when T’Challa’s covered in snow), but for songs inspired by the film, you could certainly do worse than this song, especially since the scene in question is actually another good one.
One world, one God, one family... Celebration!
With the proper King of Wakanda and Black Panther back alive and kicking, he looked to make sure that he could use M’Boku and his tribe for help as proper payback for sparing his life earlier, but he would originally decline for the purpose of him already doing T’Challa a favor for keeping him alive in the first place. Meanwhile, Killmonger begins his plans to fulfill his father’s wishes back when he was still alive with his shipment of vibranium built weaponry. Before the first shipment officially takes off for flight, though, the people of Wakanda find out that T’Challa’s alive and kicking, and he’s back to reclaim what’s his. The only problem is that no one besides those at the Dora Milaje actually sees him as the proper ruler, which means that an all-out battle occurs between the Dora Milaje (and Shuri and Nakia) and the rest of the other, non-Jabari tribal members, as well as T’Challa and Killmonger fight their own fight for the throne and Black Panther name with the shipment flying off, meaning Everett has to learn how to use Wakanda’s technology quickly to shoot down the cargo before it leaves Wakandan territory. It’s around this time that I see the parallels of the fight relating to what’s arguably the best song of the soundtrack: “Seasons” by Sjava, Mozzy, and the Del Oro, California rapper named Reason (not to be confused with the South African rapper of the same name). From the somber tone to Sjava’s Zulu tongue translating to how he came from a place where being 35 is old and his teachings from where he was in to his cries of poverty, jealousy, and negativity not belonging here and commanding them to go away; not to mention the powerful lyrics from both Mozza and Reason (with the former having a hint of what the resolution to the climax is going to involve and the latter reflecting how his race hurts his family and how it feels so familiar to hear about nowadays) which make it be one of the hardest hitting tracks of the entire album, especially for emotional weight. However, while it may be the best track of the album, the point where the music would arguably fit best with is honestly just average at best, especially when the M’Boku and the Jabari Tribe change their minds and join T’Challa’s fight to reclaim Wakanda. Really, all you’re going to be expecting from this fight is the standard, Hollywood type of action affair that you might see in any other Marvel film. If you like that, more power to you; the only thing I wish for is that it had more weight to anything for me than it really did, especially since Kendrick Lamar’s monologue at the end of the song held a unity of hero and villain as one with a celebration at hand.
So long story short, T’Challa wins the fight (with both of them having their Black Panther abilities being neutralized at the vibranium mine) over Killmonger with clever thinking on his end, the rebellion ultimately convinces the rest of the tribes that they should be on T’Challa’s side of things, and Everett destroys all the cargo of weapons in time. However, Killmonger mentions the regret of not seeing the sunset in Wakanda to T’Challa, with Erik’s father claiming that it was the most beautiful thing to witness. So to respect the wishes of his cousin, he allows Killmonger to see the Wakandan sunset before he dies his own way (as a free man over likely being incarcerated somewhere (or in Killmonger's words, being bound in bondage)). During that scene, I was thinking in addition to how beautiful and a bit clever that scene was, it also best related to the song “Big Shot” by Kendrick Lamar & Travis Scott, a song which I thought was the worst song of the album, which is a shame considering I know they worked well together in the past with “Goosebumps.” While it’s a song that celebrates everything good about the world or Wakanda as we know it, the way both Kendrick and Travis tackle the subject feels a bit underwhelming, and not just because of the fact that Kendrick used an interpolation of a song he did earlier this past year with Rich the Kid called “New Freezer.” Even if Kendrick wasn’t being a bit lazy on that song, the lyrical content isn’t that memorable, with the only memorable thing being that flute melody used throughout the entire song. In any case, with things in Wakanda back to the relative status quo, T’Challa has one thing left to take care of in Oakland: purchase the apartment building that his uncle N’Jobu died in by his brother’s own hands and modify it to be an outreach center for young kids there, which would then be run by both Nakia and Shura. Once that’s taken care of, we cue the second song of the soundtrack “All the Stars” by Kendrick Lamar & SZA being played as the closing song for the movie (or the regular starting credits song) with enjoyable visuals taking place throughout the song before the scene where T’Challa reveals the truth about Wakanda to the United Nations comes up and the end credits scene has Shuri helping out a guy named “White Wolf” on the outskirts of Wakanda. Basically, both things were decent ways to end things (at least in relation to the movie), although the song “Pray for Me” is easily the better album closer.
Well, that just about takes care of things for both the film and the soundtrack from Kendrick Lamar at the exact same time. So now I have to ask myself what exactly did I think about both Black Panther products? Well, long story short, while I did like both projects, the soundtrack to me honestly holds more weight in regards to what it was going for than the movie did. While the movie did provide plenty of good moments that are bound to make any general audience enjoy the film, regardless of what race anyone is, it really doesn’t feel like a statement film for a certain race as it is just another superhero film from Marvel that does just about what any other Marvel superhero film would. The only real difference here is the kind of superhero and setting that the Black Panther has, which combined with the political conflicts of our modern day era is what ultimately got it into a political crossfire in the first place. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few months, the general audience kind of forgets about this film and moves on to the latest Avengers movie coming out this year.
With the soundtrack, however, it honestly has a bit of everything that you could ask for with the rap and R&B scene. Songs that are bangers, soft listeners, love songs, introspective, or environmental are all galore on this album. Just about everyone on this project manages to do well for themselves here, even the South African artists, some of the more unknown artists involved here (e.g., SOB X RBE, Mozzy, and Reason), and especially some of the artists that I thought wouldn’t perform too well (primarily 2 Chainz and Swae Lee) performing a lot better than I personally expected them to! Granted, while there are still a few moments where I question some of the decisions on certain songs (Saudi’s “somebody’s daughter finna swallow all these children” line on “X,” ScHoolboy Q’s tone and his “not even Kendrick can Humble me” line on that same song, the multiple DC Comics references by Yugen Blakrok for “Opps,” the rather strange censorship on both "Opps" and "Bloody Waters," Future’s “Slob On My Knob” interpretation in “King’s Dead”), they are not only few and far between what goes on with the overall project, with most of them being relatively easy to ignore otherwise. In fact, I’d argue that the closest comparison to this film’s soundtrack I could garner up to it is the 8 Mile soundtrack with “Lose Yourself” setting up the premise of that movie and the rest of the songs there reflecting certain scenes of the movie there. Even then, I’d argue that the Black Panther provided the better soundtrack between the two (although 8 Mile is the better film by comparison), so it kind of goes to show some of the strengths of the Black Panther soundtrack that Kendrick Lamar had his hands on. That’s why I’d have to say the soundtrack has the feeling of either an 8.5 or a 9/10 to me, while the movie gets a good enough 7.5/10 rating at best. Then again, I am fair to accept that my ratings might be more skewed in regards to the things I’ve seen before in movies and what my tastes in music are like. That’s why I encourage you to test both your viewing experience for the movie and your listening experience for the soundtrack out when you have the chance to! You can determine what you think is better from that kind of comparing and contrasting that I did during the film’s debut, and it might open up a whole new experience for you either way. Regardless, I certainly hold no regrets in my stance on things here, and I’m still glad I laid witness to both experiences all the same.