Black Panther Soundtrack: Diverse, Audacious and Flawed

For many, Black Panther feels like that first breath of oxygen after a long time underwater. Black Panther welcomes a new vision of blackness and presents a new way to comprehend black identity. The soundtrack, titled Black Panther: The Album, Music and Inspired By, undertakes an equally ambitious effort. With African-American rapper, producer, and curator Kendrick Lamar seated at the helm, the soundtrack works to supplement the cultural phenomenon that is the film with its own symbolic significance.

Like the film, the soundtrack presents a dazzling array of black artists, performing in styles that are equally diverse and authentic. Rap and trap, Afro-beat, R&B, soul, and gqom genres come together as a team. Synthesized African percussion, trap music pulsations, complex rhythms, performed by South African artists, underscore the beauty that is the African diaspora.

The album is at its best when it’s an artistic endeavor – experimental, open-minded, and involving artists who bring a global perspective to the table. Sadly, the album doesn’t only operate with this agenda in mind, and a few tracks bring down the album as a whole. While many moments from the star-studded album undoubtedly shine, these same moments can be lost in a track that isn’t edited well enough to showcase their beauty and originality.

In short, Lamar seized an opportunity, but only in part. Every track on this album could have featured performances from Pan-African artists, every track could have had Zulu language spoken at points, incorporating African culture into the production. Instead, part of the soundtrack carries this artistic image, while some tracks come off as typical, mainstream hip-hop, designed more to sell than to provoke thought or debate.

There are songs that soar and songs that fall flat. The California rap collective SOB x RBE delivers the song “Paramedic!” with self-assured swagger, providing the sort of “banger” that fans expect from Lamar. Khalid, one of R&B’s latest rising stars, croons over a relaxed groove peppered with electronic Kalimba beats (an African thumb piano) on the “The Ways.” I won’t stretch the truth – this track is not particularly profound. However, this song works as an endearing laid-back paean dedicated to the singer’s “power girl.”

An auto-tuned Swae Lee from the rap duo Rae Sremmurd tells his girl that her “mind is her contribution.” Like I said, it’s not spectacularly deep, but the song still aligns with the film’s theme of female empowerment and deviates from the way women are traditionally talked about in hip-hop. Halfway through the track, Lamar reveals that he has been lurking in the song’s shadows the entire time. Here, we are tipped off that he acts as an omnipresent conductor throughout the album as he unexpectedly throws in his own utterances during Swae’s verse.

The film’s riotous car-chase scene is accompanied by the complex and intensely lyrical sojourn that is the song “Opps.” This unlikely hit will blind any unprepared listener. It’s not surprising that Vince Staples shines through the track’s heavy pulses, but who is Yugen Blakrok? Well, she surely earns her place as the first South African artist heard thus far on the soundtrack. The self-proclaimed sorceress spellbinds as she delivers complex bars with a rapid rhythm and sonorous voice.

Speaking of unlikely hits, “I Am,” a lyrically gifted underdog, may just be the best track on the album. British R&B singer Jorja Smith delivers this stirring ballad with a stunning package of lyrics brimming with emotion. The track’s instrumentation works to bolster the performance with distorted electric guitar riffs, strings, and layered harmonies. The introduction also features a warped sample of “Drugs You Should Try It” by Travis Scott, an artist who later appears on the soundtrack.

Nobody’s perfect­, and not even King Kunta can curate a flawless record. For an album so much about identity, the soundtrack contains songs and characteristics that noticeably don’t align. One of the most noteworthy and salient aspects of Black Panther was the pervasive female representation throughout the film. The soundtrack features 23 artists from various labels, backgrounds, and identities. Out of the 23 artists Lamar recruited to create this project, only 4 are women. That’s roughly 17 percent. While I want to give Lamar and TDE the benefit of the doubt, the exclusion of female artists is a glaring oversight which leaves me confused and frustrated.

Songs like “X,” “Pray for Me,” and “Big Shot” are almost unabashedly commercialized and shallow. Some of these songs not only come off as uninspired, but also contain lyrical content that deviates from the supposed goal of the film and soundtrack. Lamar, 2 Chainz, Schoolboy Q, and South African artist Saudi come together in “X” to produce a relatively disappointing track. Saudi seamlessly alternates between Zulu and English in the same flow, bringing together the ethnic divide between African Americans and Africans.

However, Saudi’s lyrics invalidate the few redeeming qualities that the track possesses. He raps “Ngiphethe ucherry we ngamla, black card on her.” I don’t speak Zulu, but the latter half of the aforementioned verse made me suspicious. A quick Genius search confirmed my hunch. The verse translates to “I got a white chick, black card on her.” Granted, most listeners would not immediately understand the meaning of the verse. Nevertheless, the lyric, especially in the context of this film, is both careless and disrespectful.  Black womanhood and colorism reside at the center of Black Panther. The film is one of the few to feature darker-skinned women in a powerful setting. One lyric does not weaken the goal of the film or soundtrack, but rather unintentionally emphasizes the issue.

By and large, Lamar curated a remarkable soundtrack to partner a remarkable film. Given Lamar’s star power and position in the music industry, he should have used this opportunity to do more of what he had done extraordinarily well on certain tracks, instead of folding under the pressure to make traditional hit singles on an album carrying such cultural significance. In a project that was meant to reclaim black identity, it appears that Lamar still felt pressure to make music that would appeal to the masses. Now the question is: does that further demonstrate how deep rooted the problem is?

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About Simi Odugbesan

Simi Odugbesan is a junior at Vanderbilt University from Duluth, Georgia. In order to achieve a comprehensive understanding of music and the related economies, she successfully designed, constructed and advocated for her own interdisciplinary major in Music, Culture, and Society. She is also minoring in Corporate Strategy and will combine her studies to pursue a lifelong dream of working in the music industry. Her passions include writing, piano, peer mentorship, social and environmental justice.