Batman, the 1989 soundtrack to Tim Burton’s Batman, is the only Prince album I physically own. It was a gift I received before his passing and the first album I played once hearing the news of his death. It wasn't until years later I learned the story behind its creation: How director Tim Burton was a fan of Prince, Warner Bros. wanted Prince to contribute music to the soundtrack, and after seeing a half-hour of the film, the musical genius absorbed enough inspiration to complete a 10-track album. What led to the album is weird and wondrous, much like the music Prince provided.
Prince first came to mind while reading Ryan Coogler―the revered film director of Black Panther―reveal how Kendrick Lamar and TDE came to be curators of Black Panther The Album (or rather, Black Panther The Album Music From And Inspired By). Like Prince and Tim Burton, the admiration of art brought the two together. But it wasn’t until after the release of Kendrick's third studio album, DAMN., that the opportunity to collaborate aligned. Kendrick only saw a portion of the film, with the intention of finding inspiration for a few songs, but instead, it sparked enough ideas to build an entire album. Prince would be proud.
To follow up a commercial conqueror like DAMN. by cultivating the soundtrack of a promising commercial and cultural juggernaut like Black Panther feels fictional. It's simply too perfect an opportunity; the polar opposite of JAY-Z doing The Great Gatsby. This could be HUGE for TDE, especially if it's done well. The collaborators Kendrick enlisted are impressive, a nice mix of blockbuster stars, heavy hitters, and newcomers, but that’s a given when you’re crafting the sonic world for what could be the biggest movie of 2018. Maybe of all time, if you trust the trolls.
I didn’t expect Kendrick and TDE to have the world by the eardrums again so soon. No amount of foresight could’ve predicted that their first release of the new year would be alongside T'Challa and Walt Disney. 2018 is strange, unpredictable, and fascinating all at once. After revisiting Prince’s Batman, my only expectations for Black Panther The Album is some contrast of weird and wondrous, two sides of art that Kendrick knows better than most. My only wish is that he gives the world the Black Panther equivalent of "Batdance." One can only hope.
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish. Hip-hop meets Marvel on the big screen—this is what it looks like to dominate pop culture.
1. Kendrick Lamar — "Black Panther"
Lighter flicker. It's not like Wayne’s lighter, though. Sounds more like Pookie about to take another hit. Chanting. Low like a whisper from an elf. Building drums. It’s identifying. Kendrick said to wait. There are keys playing, worthy of Cinderella's ball or a Kardashian wedding. Kendrick rapping about being a king. A king over keys. If he says 'King of New York' Diddy will rebuke this soundtrack in the name of Christopher Wallace. Whoa. This just went TPAB weird. These drums are unorthodoxly matching the off-kilter flow. Kendrick can repeat the same word 100 times and still cause you to rewind—but I can't. I like when Kendrick does the whisper flow as if he’s possessed. I believe 90% of his music is ghostwritten by whatever spirit possesses him during recordings but I'll save that theory for a future article. This is very Dot. Sounds a cool intersection between TPAB and DAMN. Whoa whoa whoa. The fast flow switches up. Kendrick knows moods, how to bring things to a halting calm and how to escalate until you feel as if you’re watching two planes on the cusp of a collision.
2. Kendrick Lamar, SZA — "All The Stars"
Fluid transition. Something about this production makes my skin itch. How there are certain keys and chords that will make your heart race. There’s a certain cheesiness to songs that will make you feel as if you're covered in hives. I might as well have the chicken pox. SZA sounds good. On first listen, I was good on Kendrick’s verse, an unnecessary addition to a song that should’ve been solely Solana. I prefer Kendrick’s haunting contribution to the hook. It’s a solid SZA hook. She gives the song so much life. That’s what it is, the production is just so flat and monotone. It sorta has this melancholy drag, like a person after drinking three Red Bulls and their body wants to shut down but the wings are still flapping.
3. ScHoolboy Q, 2 Chainz, Saudi — "X"
Kendrick! Energetic. He just said, "Black Panther." OH! This is a banger. Trampoline bounce. Flutes. Assuming that’s Saudi. Hi-hats are rattling. He has a nice delivery. Good presence. I’m on the fence about the beat. I can grow to tolerate it like the Winslows grew to tolerate Urkle, but I’ll secretly wish it would disappear like Carl did Steve. Kendrick has a trap hook formula that I’m not tired of yet. ScHoolboy! This is the Q delivery that makes you hit a bouncer with a bottle. You just have to jump up and wave your arms like a madman. He is one of the best when it comes to making his verses sound so effortless. “Not even Kendrick can humble me.” HA! I miss Q. I’m ready for his new album. 2 Chainz has a lot to live up to. I hope he knocks this one out. I can’t imagine what kind of scene this song will soundtrack during in the movie. Beat switch-up. Man. Chainz is up under Kendrick’s hook! Don’t do him like this. I missed the beginning of his verse but he’s silver surfing. 2 Chainz is the uncle you love to see because he has the best ‘back in my day’ stories. He’s much too cool for them to let his voice come on with the hook still floating around like Brainy breathing in Helga’s ear. And these melancholy keys can go away. Don’t do him like this.
4. Khalid, Swae Lee — "The Ways"
Oh, this is warm. Very warm. Khalid and Swae Lee are a very promising combo if we're talking potential hits. Khalid’s voice has this ability to just infect you with calmness. He is the sea. I hate these drums. Hate. I wish they would’ve gone ambient. This should’ve been more Afrobeat than Afrotrap. Decent melody. Man, these rolling hi-hats are physically attacking me. Why? Kendrick’s voice just came up under Swae Lee’s and I swear I just saw the light of God. Oddly, it worked. But THESE DRUMS ARE GOING TO CAUSE ME TO THROW MY HEAD THROUGH A WINDOW. Man. I hope this isn’t Mike WiLL’s work. Ruined by the drums. If this was a production by Drake and 40 it would’ve been very effective. Meh. So much promise. Swae’s closing solo is fuego. I hope his third of Sremmlife 3 is this generation's The Love Below.
5. Vince Staples, Yugen Blakrok — "Opps"
I’m excited for this track more than any cut off the album. RAD BUILDUP. JESUS THE DRUMS. THIS IS LIKE IF THE RAPTURE HAPPENED DURING A DISCO. THIS SOUNDS LIKE NUCLEAR WARFARE AND FREAKNIK. GOING TO WAR WITH NORTH KOREA BUT INSTEAD OF GUNS AND BOMBS, WE BATTLE IT OUT ON DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION. I WANT TO DANCE IN THE BURNING STREETS. Kendrick just appeared to motivate us. This beat sounds like being born to a cursed existence. Yep. Feels like a Big Fish Theory bonus cut. Vince just slides in and hit a lyrical ollie out the gate. Kendrick and Vince are two for two if you enjoy music for the end of the world. Yugen! I’m amped. Wow. She is putting the beat in a full nelson. MURDER. I’m hearing a murder committed. Flow switch beat buildup. The bounce. The bass. The verses. MURDER.
6. Jorja Smith — "I Am"
Thank God for Jorja Smith. I need to stop and calm down. I might have just broken my chair rocking out. Whoa whoa. A male’s voice. Well, it sounds male. Very altered. I can’t tell if it's studio effects or substance abuse. The production sounds as if it wanted to mimic Future’s impossible 56 nights of Xans and lean. The guitar is moody. Jorja sounds gorgeous. Loving the rock elements. It's heavy. You can feel the music’s gravity without bearing too heavy on Jorja’s soulful gentleness. So much passion. Truly a voice you want to crawl underneath and allow to blanket your soul. I can envision this being played during an intense moment in the film. Deep introspection. I really hope it scores a scene. Kendrick floating on the back-end? This guy is everywhere. I love the subtle touches he’s adding to the music. Okay, a chopped up repetitive bridge. Man! What a track.
7. SOB X RBE — "Paramedic!"
Killmonger shoutout. Haven’t heard SOB X RBE before. I don’t know who this is singing on the song’s intro. Okay. NOW, THIS IS A TRAP BANGER. I need Tyler, The Creator, Tyler Perry, and Lil Bow Wow doing the Harlem Shake in a video in front of a Nate Dogg mural somewhere on Slauson. A bop. The first verse was cool. The second verse is cool. I’m digging it. Very fun. Kendrick on the hook saying he wish a nigga or a bitch would. Why isn't YG on this? I need every LA rapper to do a Game-size remix. Sudden switch. Whoever just jumped on the track came with a purpose. He’s Johnny Storm. All attitude, charisma, and fire. This might be the most West Coast record Kendrick has done since “King Kunta.” I want a low rider. This is the kind of song that makes you join a gang just to crip walk to the beat. Whoever has the third verse killed the melodic flow. My favorite. Was that a gunshot?
8. Ab-Soul, Anderson .Paak, James Blake — "Bloody Waters"
James Blake has arrived with the icy cold vibes. You could play his voice for Polar Bears vacationing in Hawaii and they will feel the familiar chill of the Arctic. It’s funny, Anderson .Paak is the opposite. His voice has the warmth of a California summer. When he sings women’s clothes become bikinis and men are suddenly in swimming trunks. I can’t wait for the Andy album. “Bloody Waters” reminds me of Dre’s Compton album. Ab-Soul! Ab is snapping. A chess bar. Dare I say this is giving me Control System vibes. An Aftermath/Interscope line. I need to rewind... later. Drums are just rampant. I want this Ab-Soul verse tattooed on my son so I can memorize the lyrics while I raise him. It was that good. He tagged back in! Go off Ab! I'm loving the minimal production approach. Stripped down. Conga drums are groovy. This might be the best Ab-Soul rapping I’ve heard since…. Damn I don’t know. He was rapping like his tenure at TDE was on the line. James Blake closing it out. I will say this is my current favorite. Wow. Very impressed by this trifecta.
9. Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, Future, James Blake — "King's Dead"
I love how the drop hits. Kendrick sounds so groovy, you can hear when a rapper is wearing a good coat. Shoulders shimming and head rocking. I love this record. I love this Jay Rock verse. Possibly one of his most impressive. I mean technically he’s like LeBron James. He can drive like a war horse or he can surprise with an elegant step back; you see it with all that happens in the verse. Future arrives on a song like an uninvited guest who turns the party up. He’s an underrated rap feature. This verse is just infectious. Kendrick doing the ad-libs is what collaborations are all about. When Future’s voice goes falsetto high I go to Heaven. Every single time. Future would’ve been a fire voice actor for Alvin the Chipmunk. Beat switch IS UNLAWFUL. If I trusted the police I would call 911. I wouldn’t leave my doors unlocked while playing this song. It just sounds like home invasions. Kendrick Lamar doesn’t take a DAY OFF. God. He brutally abused the beat. Someone call the coroner. Another favorite.
10. Zacari — "Redemption Interlude"
Soft build up. Zacari harmonies. It’s moody yet sexy. Like if Lana Del Rey and The Weeknd had a threesome with Dracula. I don’t know what's happening. The song just suddenly switched. Vocals sounds heavily edited. I can’t make out what’s been said. It just ended.
11. Zacari, Babes Wodumo — "Redemption"
WOOOO!!! THESE DRUMS. Sonically, this sounds like the most African-inspired record thus far. Somewhere Drake is heated he didn’t get the call for this session. The swing on these drums is good whiskey. If I could pour a song into a cup and happily get drunk, it would be "Redemption." You have to get up and dance. The groove is infectious. Vocals sound a bit dirty. Like they didn’t go for the cleanest mix. Same with the drums. They still feel a bit raw, but intentionally. It’s more so selling a vibe than the record. They could’ve given Wale the opportunity to do something on this. It sorta fits what he did on Shine. A little less commercially but drawn from a similar well of inspiration.
12. Mozzy, Sjava, Reason — "Seasons"
A sweet high note. Someone has the voice of a mermaid. I'm loving the intro. A nice, easy transition. Not sure who this is. The accent is thick but the track is engrossing. A calm yet powerful record. The passion is piercing. This has the energy of a falling action scene. Whoever is on this track is ripping it to pieces like Wolverine’s claws through a notebook. Is this Mozzy? Whoever's on the third verse has an excellent rap voice. It just sits on your soul. You follow every lyric like reading through a book with your index finger under every word. Yeah. I need to know who this is. I’ll be doing a deep dive into his music. Great song. Okay, Kendrick. He said he’s T'Challa and Killmonger. I think the album might be broken up between their perspectives.
13. Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott — "Big Shot"
Already sounds like a Travis record with the wind instruments and keys. I'm just waiting on the drums. They weren’t what I expected. WOW. Kendrick just came on with the beginning of his “New Freezer” verse but he has the high-pitched voice and it sounds damn tight. I’m grooving. Kendrick is such a fun rapper. He has more styles than Spongebob has funny memes. This might be my favorite Kendrick contribution thus far. I can see this being big. It’s melodic, bouncy, and sticks to you how Waffle House food grabs ahold of the stomach. Great track for Travis to come on. He’s not out of his element. I like when rappers find a common ground instead of someone making the other brings a surfboard to a skatepark. Very wavy record. I like this a lot.
14. Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd — "Pray For Me"
On first listen, I wasn’t impressed by "Pray For Me." But on second thought, I’m liking the Daft Punk-esque digital vibes. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a Starboy throwaway. I wish Kendrick would’ve fought to get Abel on something more tropical, a song with some warmth. Dot is rocking. He’s been on every kind of beat on this album and it hasn't once felt like a stranger invading personal space. He’s getting good at entering songs with camouflage than being the swollen thumb sticking out. Eh. I don't hate this record. There’s very little to really feel impacted by. One of the few records that don't grab you.
What’s impressive about Black Panther The Album is how all these collaborators find a synergy that syncs their talents with one another. There are moments where the artists and production clash, but I rarely felt as if the line up was ill-fitted to be in conjunction with one another. It felt good hearing Ab-Soul and Anderson, Future and Jay Rock, Travis and Kendrick. At its best, Black Panther The Album is an enjoyable compilation of great talent making really good songs. There's a few I'm willing to call great.
Kendrick has his fingers on almost every record, but he doesn’t attempt to exhaust our listening pleasures with his presence. He’s always lurking, but more like a guardian angel than the obnoxious ghost. I think it’s fair to say for an album inspired by a movie based on a fictional African nation, I was hoping to hear an abundance of influence from the Motherland. Kendrick and company don’t travel too far from where music is today—it doesn’t sound based in Africa or futuristic as Wakanda—but it does place the movie in our present. Similar to Prince’s Batman it doesn’t simply score the movie but reflects the world through the artist's vantage point.
Black Panther The Album doesn’t leave you feeling as if you just heard a bunch of DAMN. throwaways. I was a bit worried. There’s a freshness to the record. Each song seems to be curated with a bigger theme in mind. I’ll have to revisit and listen, knowing how Kendrick makes an album there’s always a deeper concept below the surface. It’s hard to judge how the soundtrack works within the context of the film, but it’s exciting, fun, and worth playing like any other Kendrick album. After our first glimpse of Wakanda, there are plenty of reasons for a return visit.
By Yoh, aka Yoh'Challa, aka @Yoh31