Black Panther: The Album

This has been a work that I have wanted to analyze in its entirety since Marvel and TDE announced the project with the release of Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s “All the Stars.” Even after the release of the full album, I told myself that I needed to wait before writing about it in order to let the film contextualize the music for me. Now, after having seen Black Panther, I feel adequately equipped to write about the album from an informed perspective.

Curated by Kendrick Lamar and Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, the album features a wide spread of artists, both well-established and upcoming, that manages to maintain a consistent tone that ties the work together. The album is more than just a collection of songs featuring popular black artists; it is a unified product of the collective effort off the musicians and Black Panther’s creative team. Here are some (spoiler free) thoughts on it:

  1. This album and this movie are not for me.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. I have enjoyed the music on this album more than any other music that has been released this year, and I believe that Black Panther is a nearly perfect blockbuster. When I say that the works are not for me, I don’t mean that they are not my taste. I have had the album on repeat for the past two weeks, and I’m already contemplating when I will see the movie again. At the end of the both the album and the film, I longed for even more Black Panther to dive into. And while I genuinely love both works, the fact remains that neither the album nor the movie were intended for me.

Our culture has ingrained in us a sense that a work’s default audience should be a white one. White people–myself included–instinctually assume that art is made for their consumption, even when people of color create that art. In many cases, white folks feel so entitled to people of color’s art that they appropriate it for their own purposes without acknowledging or paying respect to the experiences that generated it in the first place. Knowing this historical trend, let’s be clear: Black Panther (the film) and Black Panther: The Album, are definitively black works of art meant for black people despite their increased visibility to white audiences through their association with Marvel and Disney. I can enjoy and celebrate them, but I cannot claim to understand the reality from which they were born. In “F.U.B.U.” on  Solange’s extraordinary A Seat at the Table, the hook proclaims “All my n****** in the whole wide world/Made this song to make it all y’all’s turn/For us, this shit is for us/Some shit is a must/This shit is for us.” The same concept applies here. Black Panther is not for me, and that’s ok. My opinions on it are worthless in comparison to the impact that these works will have on the lives of folks who truthfully can identify with the art’s message.  

2. Black Panther: The Album is not the film’s soundtrack, but it is inspired by it.

If you believed that Black Panther: The Album’s songs would serve as the film’s score, you’re not alone. It’s an easy conclusion to come to, albeit  a wrong one. Surprisingly, only three of the album’s fourteen tracks make an appearances in the film. “Pray for Me” plays in the background of a scene, a remixed edition of “Opps” scores a car chase, and “All the Stars” plays the movie out during the credits. The rest of the film’s music comes from a Ludwig Göransson-composed score that utilizes traditional African polyrhythmic percussion and hip-hop inspired beats in addition to more traditionally cinematic orchestral sounds. Göransson also contributed compositionally to Black Panther: The Album, but overall the work relates to the film in a thematic sense more than anything else.

The album does, however, remain inspired by the film in more ways than one. Artists explicitly reference characters like T’challa and Erik Killmonger from the film in the songs’ lyrics, and knowing the ways in which the film develops such characters clarifies the messages and sentiments of the songs that comprise the album’s tracklist. Additionally, many beats on the album interpolate rhythms and melodies from Göransson’s score. Samples of vocals and percussions from the score define the aural texture of many of the songs as well. While I appreciated the album greatly without having seen the film, my experience of the music has been enriched by the perspective that the movie provided me.

  1. Marvel essentially helped fund a surprise Kendrick Lamar album.

Black Panther: The Album is not the average film soundtrack. Kendrick acts as a ringleader for a host of other prominent black artists, contributing to nearly every song, even when uncredited. A wide variety of vibes and styles appear on the album, and each songs’ sound caters to the strengths of its featured artists. The melodic voices of Khalid and Swae Lee shine over the beat of the poppy “The Ways,” while the Heavy Metal/EDM beat of “Opps” clearly draws its inspiration from the cacophonous sonic palette of Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory. One might expect these varied sounds to contrast too strongly with one another, but Kendrick’s presence throughout the album serves as the glue that unites these different sounds into a coherent, unified voice. Rather than be judged on the strength of its individual tracks, the album seeks to be appreciated in its entirety– a trait it shares with Section 80, Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, To Pimp A Butterfly, and DAMN.

The themes that Black Panther: The Album explores also coincide with many themes both personal and political that Kendrick has already explored in his previous works. Kendrick, on all of his albums, has struggled with his sense of responsibility to set an example and advocate for his community given his visibility and influence. In this way, Kendrick relates to the film’s protagonist, T’Challa (the Black Panther himself), as he attempts to rule Wakanda responsibly and with integrity. Kendrick also sympathizes with the film’s antagonist, Erik Killmonger, in his outrage and anger toward the oppression and subjugation of black people all over the world. In his previous albums, such anger has acted as a perceived obstacle for Kendrick in his pursuit of living up to the expectations he has made for himself as a voice of his community. In Black Panther: The Album, the man vs. man conflict of the film becomes the man vs. self conflict expressed in much of Kendrick’s work.

In the context of the greater Black Panther rollout, Kendrick and other artists’ personal struggle regarding the upright and effective use of their influence on Black Panther: The Album takes on yet another meaning. As Michelle Obama and many others have noted, there is an American cultural expectation that black individuals must be (at least) twice as good as white individuals to earn the same recognition. Black Panther, as the largest superhero film to date with this level of black representation in a predominantly white film industry, has had astronomically high expectations placed upon it. Rest assured, the film and its accompanying album are phenomenal and more than live up to their hype, but the white expectation of an entity like Black Panther or an individual like Kendrick Lamar to speak for an entire race is unacceptable.

It is not the responsibility of people of color to justify themselves to white people. As a white person, it is my responsibility to hold myself and other people who share my privilege accountable for the ways in which we (even unknowingly) contribute to the perpetuation of racism and white supremacy, striving always to improve. We should not take the black excellence of Black Panther as some sort of proof that black people are finally worthy of the privileges white people receive. Black people have always been worthy to be treated with equality, dignity, and respect. Black Panther should be celebrated as a milestone for black representation in pop culture with the recognition that there is still a long way to go before our society truly achieves equality. We can appreciate it simply as a damn good movie with a damn good musical companion, but if we don’t take personal responsibility to listen to what the art has to say about our culture, we continue to be part of the problem.

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