Your enjoyment of ‘Black Panther: The Album – Music From And Inspired By’ will probably depend on whether or not you’ve seen the latest Marvel movie. Curated by the critically and commercially adored rapper Kendrick Lamar and his label boss, Top Dawg Entertainment’s Anthony Tiffith, its 14 tracks intermittently throw up comic-book jargon (“T’Challa”, “Wakanda”) that’ll have the uninitiated scratching their heads. But the weight of this release should be clear even without prior knowledge: Kendrick has pulled together a set of collaborators too long to list in full, including major names (The Weeknd, 2 Chainz, Future), rising stars (Jorja Smith, Khalid, Yugen Blakrok) and tried-and-tested cosigns (James Blake, Zacari, SZA) for a star-studded hip-hop album that complements Black Panther’s messaging and reinforces its status as a hugely significant moment in film.
While the album’s cast varies from song to song, album curator Kendrick pops up all over the shop, fluidly switching roles from the film’s hero (T’Challa, on the righteous one-hit verse ‘Black Panther’) to its villain (Erik Killmonger, on the raging ‘Paramedic!’). Like the film itself, Kendrick shows an empathetic understanding of both characters’ perspectives, judging neither: as Wakandan King T’Challa on ‘Black Panther’, he decrees, “We don’t glue with the opposition / We glue with peace”. On ‘King’s Dead’, as Killmonger – a man raging against a powerful country that abandoned him and countless others to America’s institutionalised racism – he rages, “Fuck integrity, fuck your pedigree, fuck your feelings, fuck your culture,” echoing the flow and fire of ‘To Pimp A Butterfly”s ‘For Free?’ This emotional balancing act is one Kendrick’s been dealing with himself for years, most recently on 2017’s ‘DNA’ – “Got war and peace inside my DNA / I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA” – so, unlike the similarly commissioned soundtrack for ‘Suicide Squad‘, the emotional weight behind this album really rings true.
With the quality of talent on board here it’s genuinely hard to pick a standout moment. Vince Staples and Kendrick team back up on ‘Opps’ for a thudding ‘Yeah Right’ sequel that’s soon wrenched from them by South African rapper Yugen Blakrok. Jorja Smith slows the pace with her assured, Travis Scott-sampling guitar jam ‘I Am’. Kendrick’s silky-voiced ‘LOVE.’ collaborator Zacari brings up the rhythm for an unexpected dancehall cut, ‘Redemption’, alongside South African artist Babes Wodumo. And on Travis Scott’s flute-filled ‘Big Shot’ – a convincing answer to Future’s ‘Mask Off’ and Drake’s ‘Portland’ – Kendrick lags deliriously behind the trap beat, sounding as comfortable as he ever has. And that’s not to mention the album version of the gorgeously atmospheric lead single ‘All The Stars’, on which Top Dawg’s breakout star of 2017, SZA, flaunts her talents by breezing through a new, equally mellifluous vocal run. Marvel soundtracks have a new gold standard, and it’s this.