Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith and Mickey Mouse is not a collaboration that made much sense in the year 2012. When Top Dawg and his label Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) began to find success in Kendrick Lamar after his 2012 album, good kid, m.A.A.D. city, the last thing anyone would’ve expected was that the pair would produce an album for a Disney movie. In the six years since, Disney acquired Marvel, the film industry had been called out for its lack of diversity, and Kendrick Lamar became the most important rapper of the modern era. The events leading up to the creation of the film Black Panther are numerous and an entire novel could be filled up with how every piece had to fall in line. But when the movie comes out this Friday, it will become the largest black blockbuster movie to date. When approaching this film, Disney didn’t whitewash it. It has a black writer and director, a composer known for working with black musicians, and an African and African-American cast. Disney trusted that writer and director Ryan Coogler would find the artists to ensure that the soundtrack was done right. Considering Kendrick Lamar’s usage of the mainstream stage to point out the injustices done to black people in America, especially at the Grammys in 2016 and 2018, it makes perfect sense Coogler asked that him and his friends to produce a companion to his film.
Black Panther: The Album is largely produced by Lamar and TDE’s in-house producer, Sounwave. The project is less of a Various Artists album, but a Kendrick Lamar and Friends album. Lamar is present on every track in some form or another, despite the fact that he’s only credited on five. The two producers also went out and recruited fantastic talent to assist them in creating unique production. BADBADNOTGOOD assist in the pop-heavy “The Ways.” Robin Hannibal helps create lush Caribbean rhythms in “Bloody Waters.” The duo recruit the legendary Mike WiLL Made-It for the banger, “King’s Dead.” Frank Dukes, a prolific pop and hip-hop producer in mainstream music, assists Weeknd’s producer Doc McKinney on “Pray for Me.” There’s so much collaboration between unique producers and TDE on this album, that it’s nearly impossible to mention all of them. But the benefits are clear, as the album moves through genres, touching on pop, hip-hop, R&B, trap, and African and Caribbean music. It’s 50 minutes of exploration, each track touching on the sounds built by black artists.
Keeping up with the production, Lamar is joined by a diverse group of artists from all walks of the music industry. Some of hip-hop’s most mainstream acts are present; 2 Chainz, Future, and Travis Scott appear on three tracks that are bound to find themselves on hip-hop radio. However, it’s the artists that are lesser known that make the album shine. SZA is headed for international stardom thanks to her last album and feature on the pop anthem, “All the Stars.” Jorja Smith shines brightly on the dark R&B tones of “I Am.” Anderson .Paak continues his move into the mainstream with his soulful chorus on “Bloody Waters.” The true standout features are by the artists that even those with their ear to the underground might not have heard of. The San Francisco balsed group SOB x RBE, comes in with the Bay Area banger, “Paramedic!,” tinged with influence by E-40 and Mac Dre. Rappers Mozzy and Reason are joined by South African artist, Sjava, for the Zulu-heavy R&B track “Seasons.” The album also features South African musicians, Babes Wodumo and Saudi, but it’s Yugen Blakrok who makes the most waves. The female MC appears with Vince Staples, where the two of them spit some of the hardest verses on the album amongst the thick bass and complex rhythm of “Opps.”
Despite all the successful genre switching that goes on within the track list, there are clear highs and lows on the album. The album is much stronger when it embraces darker, more “banger” types of hip-hop like on “X” or “King’s Dead.” When the album uses African rhythms and sounds on “Redemption” or “Seasons,” it is taking inspiration from the film and points directly to it. However, when the album mellows itself out on pop tracks like Khalid and Swae Lee’s “The Ways” or The Weeknd’s “Pray for Me,” it begins to feel stale. These tracks, though necessary to represent the popular sound in modern music, aren’t executed at the high level they could’ve been, instead sounding like throwaway tracks. Though Lamar does have a specific hip-hop sound, he is no amateur when it comes to producing pop hits, considering the success of “Loyalty feat. Rihanna” from his previous album, Damn (2016). Whether it was due to the short time required to produce this album or just subpar writing, tracks like “Pray for Me” sound disappointing when compared to the greater discographies of Lamar and The Weeknd.
Kendrick Lamar’s ability to create a rich and complex album is bar none, but Black Panther The Album has many moments where it is easy to forget that the album is about Black Panther, the superhero movie. Aside moments like on “Big Shot” or “Paramedic!,” where Lamar yells some random statements about King T’Challa, Kilmonger, or Wakanda, the references are subtle. Songs like “The Ways” and “I Am” could be off of either of their respective artists solo works due to zero references to the movie. Despite the minor number of references to the franchise that inspires the album, it isn’t fully known yet whether the album has more laced throughout, because the film hasn’t been released. Lamar and his partners at TDE are experts at creating songs that still strike a near perfect balance between referencing the film, speaking on themes that are culturally relevant now, and being the types of catchy tracks that deserve radio play.
Not only is Black Panther: The Album the most interesting album release so far in 2018, it is also the best hip-hop release. Kendrick Lamar created a project that is diverse, exciting, and features something for listeners of all types. In 2018, what America needs most is a movie that is by and for Black America, accompanied by music that is by and for Black America. The most important aspect of the film and soundtrack is its ability to link up people from all walks of life, so they can celebrate the wonderful, unique, and beautiful cultures of both Africa and Black America that are so heavily woven into the tapestry of Pop Culture. Black Panther: The Album celebrates the culture and serves as perfect indication that Coogler’s film will seek to promote and define the importance of Black America in the current age.