This is, notably, a proper album, with real effort and thought put into it. The production on individual songs is high-quality, and the stack of popular artists who’ve been roped in are mostly well-used. As master of ceremonies, Kendrick Lamar takes centre stage, appearing constantly across the runtime. You won’t find any of his best work here – the verses generally sound like they could have been on 2016’s collection of B-sides Untitled Unmastered. However, that’s still to say that if another rapper had delivered them we’d be impressed. From Lamar, they are mostly merely good.
Sonically, Lamar’s tracks often follow quite clearly after last year’s DAMN. in that they vary wildly in sound – some are poppy and generic, some sound a little more left-field. “X”, with its bumping beat and squeaky, infectious hook, sounds like a tasty leftover from that album. Elsewhere, the loop-heavy beat and urgently-spat bars on opening track “Black Panther” have an enticing, melancholic drama to them, only slightly undercut by some weak “King!” adlibs. Single “King’s Dead” gives us that dream collaboration of Lamar and Future, but is unfortunately quite the miss. The two-part instrumental underwhelms, and Future ruins things further with his shrill, horrific bridge. Lamar does his best to drag things back with a killer verse in the second half, but he can’t quite drown out the screeched “La-di-da-di-da, slob on me nob” which now echoes between the ears.
Most of the guest performances, however, are genuinely pleasing. Khalid’s smooth crooning on silky, sexy “The Ways” is a favourite, as are ScHoolboy Q’s and Vince Staples’ verses on “X” and “Opps” respectively. “Opps” throughout is a fun, dark track, with a thunderous beat and an explosive feature from South African emcee Yugen Blakrok. Other lesser-known artists jump into the spotlight across this album, providing some of its biggest highlights. A top track is “Seasons”, a sombre, thoughtful show of strength from Californian Mozzy and South Africans Sjava and Reason. Tracks like “Seasons” and “Opps” stand out because they do something different (at least within the context of an album like this), a quality large parts of this album lack. “All the Stars” and “Pray for Me” are serviceable, but fail to be interesting or worthy of revisiting because we’ve heard them so many times already.
Its identity is solely that it’s from that big, important movie… and shares its politics
So: qualitywise, this is a mixed bag. There are good songs and weak songs. That’s to be expected from a soundtrack album. The issue here, though, is as much the fluctuation in sound as in quality. Steps have been taken to make this more of a cohesive project than your average soundtrack, but it seems that the attempt at cohesion mostly comes from consistent lyrical references to the property on which Black Panther: The Album is based. There are songs from the perspectives of the characters; there are political verses; there are Black Panther references scattered throughout (as well as, bizarrely, occasional lines recalling DC properties such as “Power Girl” and “Gotham City”). However, the album does not craft a solid sonic identity for itself. It jumps from dark to poppy to sexy and back in a clear attempt to be as marketable as possible. Its identity is solely that it’s from that big, important movie we’ve all heard of, and shares its politics.
A theme of the fervour around Black Panther is that its politics justify, perhaps necessitate your purchasing of movie tickets and album streams. GQ’s review tells us that “it’s what the album is getting at, rather than simply what it sounds like, that makes it so important”. Maybe that’s true – the pro-diversity, pro-representation politics of Black Panther: The Album are sympathetic and valuable. But maybe it’s also a cynical purchase-as-activism marketing scheme, a real cause hijacked to get you to pay money for mediocre entertainment. I suspect both are true, so I’ll go by simply what this album sounds like: alright.