Part of the problem is Kendrick himself.
Anyone who felt Black Panther the film, a big budget superhero movie financed by Disney, was the wrong delivery system for a radical message about blackness will have a hard time reconciling Black Panther: The Album, an LP-length commercial for the movie masquerading as a Kendrick Lamar project.
The much beloved rapper is the central creative force behind this album, yes, but viewed through the prism of his work, this is little more than a collection of throwaways glued together to promote the film it draws inspiration from. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, as soundtracks exist for that very reason, but there’s a disconnect between Black Panther: The Album and the platonic ideal of its existence so many listeners seem to be beguiled by. It’s a fine listening experience with some certified bops along the way, but even the slightest shred of scrutiny proves it doesn’t stand up to any other project Kendrick has masterminded. Not by a longshot.
Part of the problem is Kendrick himself. His best work hews closely to the ambition of the concept record paradigm and that particular predilection leads to some of this album’s cringiest moments. On the intro, “Black Panther,” with Kendrick rapping from an imitation of King T’Challa’s perspective, it’s clear that “lauded conscious rapper spitting from the POV of a superhero” is an unspeakably goofy prospect. It’s not as funny as R. Kelly singing about “Gotham City” for Batman & Robin, but it’s not far off. His megawatt presence is welcome on big singles like “All the Stars,” the SZA duet that doubles as the film’s aspirational closing credits track, or the mixed blessing posse cut “King’s Dead,” but Kendrick works much better as a curator here than a leading man.
Even the songs he’s not a featured artist on still contain Kendrick’s fingerprints, whether it be backing vocals, idle ad-libs or the presence of Top Dawg Entertainment cohorts Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q. Perhaps the biggest element is the pervasive production from Digi+Phonics stablemate Sounwave, long Kendrick’s most prolific collaborator. The TDE house style aesthetic lends itself well to Black Panther director Ryan Coogler’s vision of Wakanda, but outside of some clips from the big tracks like the Weeknd-guesting “Pray For Me” or the Vince Staples banger “Opps,” the film itself isn’t that informed by the soundtrack’s music.
Much of the sonic identity most closely associated with the way the film feels comes from Childish Gambino collaborator Ludwig Goransson’s original score, released separately from these songs. Obviously, Disney wasn’t about to let Future’s Three Six Mafia-quoting bridge on “King’s Dead” anywhere inside the MCU, but it’s a reminder to all the people rejoicing over hip hop music playing a big part of a Marvel movie that the studio was more interested in the cultural cache rap’s place in the pop cultural soundscape provides than anything else. The verses here are on the lower end of the TDE quality scale, largely either lyricism for the sake of lyricism or try hard wokeness that evokes the worst of late period Lupe Fiasco.
Interestingly enough, the album’s brightest moments are the mid-tempo slow jams like Jorja Smith’s buttery smooth “I Am” or the silky BadBadNotGood co-produced “The Ways” with Khalid and Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee trading dulcet coos. Perhaps the best of these tracks operating outside the expected club banger sphere, “Redemption,” features gorgeous vocals from DAMN. collaborator Zacari and South African artists Babes Wodumo and Mampintsha, who both provide verses in Zulu. On a do-over, it’s clear the soundtrack would have benefited more from the fascination fusion of African sounds and more unknown artists being showcased than, say, a lazy 2 Chainz verse or repeated refrains of Kendrick shouting “I AM KILLMONGER” like a college musical adaptation of a “Panther’s Rage.”
There’s some undeniable bops on this album and it’s impressive that Kendrick is able to throw his star power behind the film, creating some marketing synergy between his label and the movie studio, but it’s a real shame that that same synergy didn’t extend to the content of the album itself. As it stands, this is a nice little assemblage of tunes, but little more than that.