As someone who doesn’t watch many movies, I couldn’t give the most informed answer as to how diverse and meaningful soundtracks are to films. What I do know is that the anticipation for “Black Panther” is intense. Another thing I know is that, arguably, the most successful rapper today, Kendrick Lamar, and his label directly curated the soundtrack for it.
I love listening to and dissecting rap for not only its sound, but its purpose. Lamar is the best at combining dense lyrics with energy-infusing flows and deliveries. This is due in large part to his label, Top Dawg Entertainment. TDE is an atypical record label, in the way that they encourage their artists to capitalize on their unique sound instead of homogenizing them.
Lamar and TDE created a great album. It’s just under the guise of a soundtrack.
The last soundtrack I remember being primarily rap was for “Fast and Furious 8.” For me, that track list is forgettable. I understand that “Fast and Furious” is meant to be a lot of mindless action, and the energetic music brought by artists like Young Thug, Migos and Lil Uzi Vert fit the purpose perfectly. The songs simply accompany the eye-candy visuals.
After listening to this “Black Panther” soundtrack, I’m really interested in seeing where the songs are placed throughout the movie. Every song feels like it has a distinct purpose, whereas the songs for “Fast and Furious 8” sound interchangeable.
My standouts are “X,” “The Ways,” “I Am,” “Paramedic!,” “Redemption” and “Seasons.” These six songs also demonstrate the sonic variety on display, which is an extension of TDE’s ideology.
While every song is good-to-great, I believe British songstress Jorja Smith stole the whole damn show with “I Am.”
The deliberate, powerful instrumental has a knocking kick and snare pattern, accompanied by a distorted electric guitar that sounds like it was pulled from a “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” session. Smith’s chorus pierces through me every time I listen to it — “When you know what you’ve got, sacrifice ain’t that hard/Feel like dependin’ on me, sometimes we ain’t meant to be free.” The blend of the squealing guitar and Smith’s heart-wrenching delivery when she begins the hook gives me chills.
Toward the end of the song Lamar forms a duet with Smith as the percussion pattern continues in muted form and the wailing guitar gets replaced by a violin. The two sing, “If who I am offends you, don’t feel sorry,” and Lamar punctuates the breakdown with “My losses, worth more than your wins/I’m satisfied if it starts over again.”
I think “I Am” will support the heaviest, most emotional moment in “Black Panther,” based on the combination of the sound and lyrics.
The most surprising feature on the soundtrack is SOB X RBE, the rap collective out of Vallejo, California. They’re one of a few acts to come out of the Bay Area recently that have the “Bay Sound.” Having these young kids on this body of work with Lamar, SZA, ScHoolboy Q, Anderson .Paak and others is a huge co-sign for them and the Bay Area’s rap community.
Slimmy B’s aggressive, almost off-beat flow are on full display after a quick two-bar intro from Lamar. Lamar sprinkles in lines and ad-libs, and does a chantable hook, but the four members take full control of the song.
The simple, spaced out drum pattern with what, I think, is a xylophone synth makes me want to gig really hard. Yhung T.O. raps a line in the last portion of his verse that I feel not only epitomizes the attitude of the African American community in our country, but the triumphant energy of what the “Black Panther” movie symbolizes — “They ain’t wanna see me win ‘cause I’m black/So I pulled up in that all-black Benz in the back.” He’ll embrace who he is and turn that into success.
Neither Marvel nor DC has made a movie composed of a majority-black cast before. How fitting it is that the rapper who starkly displayed wrongful deaths of people of color on the Grammy stage helped curate a powerful soundscape for a momentous point in American film history.