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Black Panther and the Art of the Soundtrack Album

The album sets a new precedent – here's how

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kind, expectations were high. Most hoped that, if both financially and critically successful, the movie would serve as a major step in the direction of increased inclusivity in a pronouncedly white entertainment industry.

 

Considering that it’s co-written and directed by filmmaking wunderkind Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed), and that it’s headed by an impressive assemblage of acting talents, the success of Black Panther isn’t altogether a surprise. But what was rather unexpected was the way it hit so hard in comparison to its progressively futile genre Marvel counterparts. When so many of our favorite superhero movies are simplistically fun, never subverting the norm too drastically, Black Panther felt significant: Rarely has black excellence been as wondrously and unabashedly depicted. Watching it, you feel as though you’re watching history be made, and such makes it all the more exciting to behold.

 

Among the most electrifying things about Black Panther is its Kendrick Lamar-curated soundtrack, which came to be simply because Coogler had been a longtime fan of the rapper and couldn’t resist expressing interest in collaboration. Initially, Lamar, who was still in the midst of promoting last year’s DAMN. was just going to produce a handful of tracks for the completed movie. But after watching the majority of the film, he decided to turn his contributions into a full-fledged collaborative project. Enlisting the help of myriad hip-hop and R&B artists like SZA, The Weeknd, Vince Staples, 2 Chainz, and Jorja Smith, the soundtrack was completed in just a few months.

 

Though some of the album’s tracks are featured in Black Panther, it is mostly a standalone work, a thematically supplementary aural cousin. And, so visceral and exuberantly produced, it is a testament to the power of a particularly great soundtrack album. From Prince’s Batman to the more recent Guardians of the Galaxy “mixtapes,” it does exactly what a soundtrack album should: complement the ideas put forward by the movie from which it mined inspiration and still be able to stand individualistically as an inexhaustible work of art. And, of course, remind us why we liked the movie in question so much in the first place.

 

But part of the reason Black Panther: The Album works so well has to do with the fact that it’s so musically and thematically innovative for a work that was primarily supposed to be something of a side dish. Whereas most glorified film soundtracks can only deliver one or two tracks worthy of praise, this unofficial LP, like the movie, is consistently enjoyable and whip smart.

 

Although not without its misses, like the unexpectedly flat SZA collab “All the Stars,” the bland “Redemption,” or the dull trap ditty “The Ways,” the album soars, aligning with the storyline and themes with ease. I particularly took to the minimalistic “Bloody Waters,” a fierce portrayal of gang warfare; the swaggering street ode “Paramedic!”; “King’s Dead,” in which Lamar embodies the film’s villain; and especially Jorja Smith’s gorgeous solo “I Am,” a melancholic ballad about sacrifice. Like the movie, there’s something for everyone to like here; it begs to be played over and over again, just like Black Panther itself.

 

Soundtracks as undeniable and distinct as the one accompanying Black Panther are uncommon, mostly because they’re so difficult to successfully coordinate and execute. (The uneven, but still admirable, Lorde-curated Mockingjay soundtrack is an example that failed to make a lasting cultural mark.) But Lamar and co. make it seem easy, setting a new precedent for the modern movie soundtrack in the process. Akin to the feature, you get the sense that Black Panther: The Album is here to stay — and music and cinema are both all the better for it.

 

 

- FEBRUARY 23, 2018

 

This piece also appeared in The Daily.

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he Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest project, Black Panther, is both a terrific popcorn movie and a historical milestone. In addition to delivering thrills and chills as efficiently as any good multimillion-dollar action movie, it is the first blockbusting superhero movie to be headlined, written, directed, and designed by black artists.

 

In the months leading up to its release, anticipation has been understandably intense. Because it was essentially the first of its