Album review: Kendrick Lamar shines on ‘Black Panther’ soundtrack

Posted on Feb 19 2018 - 7:56am by Jordan Maury

After Kendrick Lamar released his most commercially successful album in “DAMN.” last year, many assumed he would slink back to the shadows. However, Lamar has, surprisingly, done just the opposite.

The Grammy-winning emcee was given the keys by Marvel Studios to produce the entire soundtrack to the “Black Panther” movie. For a rapper to be granted full creative control over a soundtrack of this magnitude is a huge deal for not just Kendrick Lamar but also the entire hip-hop genre. “Black Panther: The Album” employs a slew of hip-hop and R&B to bring life to Kendrick’s cinematic canvas.

The opening track, “Black Panther,” is the only song in which Kendrick is alone. The track is everything you’d normally expect from K.Dot as he changes his flow, energy and cadence multiple times while accompanied by a rather fluid instrumental.

The production starts with a simple tune from a piano before erupting with a flurry of drums in unison with Kendrick’s spazzing and returning back to the mundane piano melody. The song reflects the flexibility that has defined Kendrick Lamar’s career and the versatility he showcases during the course of the album.

Kendrick is the unifying force that keeps the album intact. He inserts himself in nearly every song, whether it’s a verse on “Big Shot” or some impromptu harmonizing with Swae Lee on “The Ways.” However, no matter how he decides to contribute, Kendrick never robs the other featured artists of their spotlight. His contributions are mostly well-placed and much-needed.

The one exception would have to be his hook on “X.” I am not sure whether it is how his voice meshes with the beat or that his hook is just plain annoying, but it nearly ruins the entire song.

Upon further review, tracks 2 through 5 are just cool. “X” has some great verses from School Boy Q and 2Chainz, who are becoming the poster boys for consistency, but Kendrick’s hook sort of spoils the song.

“The Ways” features some sweet vocals from Khalid and Swae Lee as they give off secluded island resort vibes. “Opps” is a fun song in which the sound of a sonar and the distortion of the artists’ voices make it sound as though the song was recorded hundreds of feet under sea.

The soundtrack really comes alive on “I Am” featuring Jorja Smith. First, the low strings on the instrumental create an alluring sound that draws in listeners, and then Jorja pulls her guests out of a trance with her warm voice. Her vocals sound so enticing in contrast to the instrumental that it does not really matter what she is saying. I might have had an out-of-body experience while listening for the first time. The song concludes on a great note as Kendrick’s voice rises from nothing and the instrumental transitions into something with a little more consonance.

After the splendid song from Jorja, the soundtrack mashes the accelerator and never looks back. The next track, “Paramedic,” is bursting with energy. A group by the name of SOB X RBE unites with Kendrick on the song and raps with an almost violent abandon. If the song had lasted more than another minute, I might have contemplated joining a gang.

The best bars on the entire soundtrack belong to none other than Ab-Soul on “Bloody Waters.” Soul is so unreal on this song that I nearly forget the fire contributions from Anderson .Paak and James Blake. I struggled to wrap my mind around all of Ab-Soul’s slick wordplay such as in the opening lines, “Blood on my hands, I’ma need hot agua / You gon’ meet Jamaica, I won’t say it in Patois.” Ab-Soul’s verses are arguably the peak of the album.

Although “Bloody Waters” is the pinnacle of the album, there are plenty of bright spots on the latter half of the soundtrack. Jay Rock’s verse on “King’s Dead” is very welcome, even though that atrocious verse from Future should have been burned with fire. Zacari takes over two songs and inspires thoughts of the jungle with the help of Babes Wodumo and some drums. Mozzy cooly raps about the struggles of his childhood and his people on “Seasons.”

“Black Panther: The Album” has moments that will give you chills and make you eager to return for a listen without the movie. However, these moments are flashes in the pan, thus leaving the rest of the album to be just a nice listen. In all honesty, that is fine, seeing how soundtracks usually are not collections of songs you indulge in outside of a movie. The soundtrack leaves a lot to be desired, but it definitely serves its purpose.