Review: Kendrick Lamar & Co. Uncover Wakanda’s Jewels On “Black Panther: The Album”

As always, HipHopDX takes our review process seriously, no matter the visibility of the project.

For Kendrick Lamar’s highly touted Black Panther: The Album soundtrack,
we decided to let you guys inside the “healthy” debate that lead to its rating.

Trent Clark (HipHopDX Editor-In-Chief): I love, love, love (*Zacari voice*) the concept of the soundtrack album. It’s always a more cohesive package than a typical soundtrack, which usually feels like an attempt made by the hosting record label to put their artists on, or sometimes, like they just scrounge up whatever loose tracks they can get. Batman and Jungle Fever were cool but I think Purple Rain, The Bodyguard and Waiting To Exhale set a still-unmatched standard.

As for Hip Hop, I still think Murder Was the Case takes the crown, although there wasn’t much “movie” to build off of. But yeah, this is the biggest look rap has gotten thus far.

Dana Scott (Five-Year HipHopDX Contributor): Well, if you’re going to throw Purple Rain in there — which was excellent — but it was Prince’s movie about his own comeup, so naturally he’d have his own original songs for it (laughs). Then you may as well throw 8 Mile in the pack because Em got an Oscar for “Lose Yourself,” which helped push the movie. That doesn’t take the crown based on your criteria for rap’s biggest look? Also, the 8 Mile OST has 50’s “Wanksta,” which made him a household name before Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ came out.

I give this a 4.4 tops!

Trent: It’s different. Kendrick may not have won the big Grammys and may not get that Oscar but he’s building up his stock tremendously. I may be the only one here who has seen the film but “All the Stars” rolling through the end credits just made the record sound that much more majestic.

His longtime fanbase may knock the departure from the “good kid” with the high top when he was first getting a buzz but this type of elevation in artistry is what makes artists immortal.

Tacuma Roeback (First-Year HipHopDX Contributor): Well I say the Black Panther soundtrack is an absolute triumph! It encompasses so many moods and textures, from the indigenous to the futuristic. There are songs that sound opulent, like the silken “All the Stars” with SZA. There’s “Opps,” with Vince Staples and Yugen Blakrok, which is hard, apocalyptic industrial noise – that “end of the world” type shit. “Pray for Me,” with the Weeknd, encompasses both sentiments.

Aaron McKrell (Three-Year HipHopDX Contributor): I do love Dana’s parallel with the 8 Mile soundtrack. Kendrick, like Eminem in 2002, has been a superstar for years but he’s reached icon status at this point, and this soundtrack cements it. Both rappers executive produced their soundtracks, and even though they were missing from several songs, their DNA — complete with royalty and loyalty — is all over the finished products.

The difference here is that Kendrick didn’t go for the biggest/most legendary names in rap (Rakim, Gang Starr, Nas, JAY-Z), but stayed close to home with TDE to carry out his vision. At this point, I’ll just say it; if Kendrick is not in everyone’s Top 10 of all-time that list is not credible.

Like Trent said, his old fans will miss the Kendrick with a basketball in the street and some Now & Laters to eat, but he’s made his case to become talked about for decades.

Kyle Eustice (HipHopDX Editor): I think there are several vibrant moments but I can’t help feeling like I’m listening to a Kendrick Lamar solo album — albeit less consistent. I didn’t quite get that EPIC feeling I wanted that parallels what this film is predicted to be (incredible).

And if I’m being totally honest, I am way more into Kendrick’s feature on Q-Tip’s “Want U 2 Want.” I think it’s an incredibly strong effort from TDE’s camp and really puts an exclamation point on Kendrick’s triumphant run over the past year. I think it could have benefited from a little more variety outside of TDE’s roster.

Aaron: I can’t see this album being anything less than a 4.5, and it might even be a 4.6. The only true weak link is “Opps,” with its obnoxious hook and cluttered production. This soundtrack is fresh and innovative while staying true to TDE’s signature sounds. It also will have the widespread impact necessary for such a high rating.

Scott Glaysher (Two-Year HipHopDX Contributor): Let’s look at other 4.5s from 2017, though: Flower Boy, Laila’s Wisdom, No Dope On Sundays and DAMN.

It’s not that this album doesn’t have great songs (IT DOES!), but I feel like since it’s a soundtrack with various artists, it doesn’t hit as hard. Flower Boy is now the classic in Tyler’s catalog. Laila’s Wisdom was the same for Rapsody. No Dope On Sundays was CyHi’s breakthrough debut and DAMN. was Kendrick’s three-peat.

Trent: Scott, we should be looking at 4.5s in a historical context, not just recent ratings. If you keep it recent, then you’ll be prone to overrate stuff. An album may drop in May that’s better than an album that dropped in April, but that doesn’t mean the better album is worthy of a 4.5 or better rating.

I know we’re probably nitpicking from a 4.5 here but this feels mighty 4.3-ish to me. Every song is well-produced and none of the artists give an over-the-top performance (à la Dr. Dre’s Compton) in attempts to stand out. I’m not sensing the extra layer of transcendence heard on recent Kendrick records like “FEEL.” and “ELEMENT.” and that’s mainly because he spent a healthy amount of time staring at T’Challa and personified that character into the music.

It’s still a great package, however, and I’m thoroughly impressed with Zacari, Jay Rock and Ab-Soul’s performances. Nothing is forced; it’s all accent marks across the board.

Scott: I just can’t really find this album’s “Lose Yourself.” What song on this soundtrack will stand the test of time like the “mom’s spaghetti” line did?

This album is kind of Kendrick’s, kind of TDE’s, kind of a compilation album, kind of a like yeah, an “accent.” To be a 4.5 (for me) it has to secure a moment in Hip Hop history for someone. This has too many hands and too many hats to be rated so high.

Aaron: Scotty makes a fair point. There is no “Lose Yourself” — not even close. However, it might not be fair to draw comparisons to one of the best rap songs of all time. At the same time, I get what Scott is saying. Without a jam like that, will the soundtrack be remembered 10 years from now? I say yes, though maybe not on the level of the 8 Mile soundtrack. If Kendrick is going to be as memorable as I think he is, this will serve as not only a fan favorite but as a milestone to be remembered in his career.

As for “Opps,” I’ll save my dragging of the atrocity that was Yeezus for another day, and double down on my feelings about that song.

But I still think it’s a 4.5. After what Trent said about how most of the music isn’t in the movie, I think this is an album to accompany the film, not score it. With that in mind, I don’t think that it matters as much that there’s no “mom’s spaghetti” moment.

Dana: There aren’t too many films that have stood the test of time and the attention spans of fans are a lot shorter than they were in 2002 when “Lose Yourself” came out. There are exceptions like “Redbone” for Get Out but will Black Panther be of that caliber? Nothing has that gavel bang about this soundtrack, but “All the Stars” may be the pick for it if I was a betting man for something that lasts for a match.

Tacuma: I think you do this project a disservice by doing straight-up comparisons to other noteworthy Hip Hop soundtracks like Eminem’s 8 Mile. No, I don’t think Black Panther has a “Lose Yourself” on here, something so anthemic that it transcends the actual film.

But its strength is that it works as a cohesive and compelling artistic statement. The inclusion of South African artists such as Babes Wodumo, Saudi, Yugen Blakrok and Sjava make this a truly diasporic work, which is significant.

Given the critical reception of the film, this soundtrack could become quite influential. Will it endure like Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly or, if you’re an African-American thirty or forty-something, The Love Jones and/or Juice soundtrack? It has a shot.

Kyle: Standouts to me so far are: “X,” “All the Stars” and “King’s Dead.” It kind of starts to blend together for me to be honest. I love the reggae elements but the more pop-heavy influences (excluding “All the Stars” — that hook is undeniably catchy) like “Paramedic” sound forced. I don’t like The Weeknd, so “Pray For Me” doesn’t appeal to me.

Does anyone really like The Weeknd?

Trent: Yes, Kyle, The Weeknd is a helluva artist.

Kyle: Not my cup of tea. I agree with the 4.3 rating, though. I absolutely agree that this album is custom tailored for the times we’re living in right now. It brilliantly captures the struggle of our socio-political climate that has America in such a divisive state. After repeated listens, “Seasons” has also really grown on me.

Aaron: Yes, back to this fuckin’ rating. I just don’t see what’s not to love about this album. Almost every single track hits. TDE’s versatility is on full display here; with songs for the charts (“All the Stars” by Kendrick and SZA), the streets (“X” by Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, 2 Chainz and Saudi) and the mind (Sorja and Kung Fu Kenny’s “I Am”). But, for me at least, one of the most remarkable songs is “Seasons” by Mozzy, Sjava and Reason. That cut draws from African-styled music and clearly fits in with Black Panther’s sentiments, and elevates this from a something-for-everyone free-for-all and anchors it with uncommon depth.

As for songs I love, yes there’s “X” and “All the Stars,” but there’s also “The Ways,” “I Am,” and “Seasons:” deep cuts that turn this into more than just a cheerleading forum for Marvel.

If that’s not a 4.5 I don’t know what is, but I can live with a 4.4.

Tacuma: I think it’s still in 4.5 territory too. I agree with the fact that there are no true breakout singles per se. This project has contrived elements. “All the Stars” is slick but very deliberate. The soundtrack’s charm lies in the fact that it works as an album in a time when the long player has been eschewed for singles and playlists. What also makes it stand alone, in my humble opinion, is the diversity of sounds. To me, it seems to document the “black” experience across continents and cultures. The potential cultural impact of the film only heightens the soundtrack’s stature. The prestige of this project could grow in time because of that impact.

Finally, I think this is an album that speaks to the times. It’s something you would include in a time capsule for people 100 years from now who are curious about how we lived in the late 2010s.

Scott: Are we settling on 4.5 “just because it’s Kendrick???” I don’t think it should get a 4.5+ rating just because this movie is going to be PHENOMENAL! Especially if the album is just an “accent.”

Tacuma: The only WTF moment for me belonged to Future in “King’s Dead.” “La di da di da, slob on me knob.” [Insert random Dafuq? gif here.] I laughed, but I’m really wondering why he did that.

Dana: What? “King’s Dead” is pretty fire. This is a Future that most of the public hasn’t seen yet because usually he makes his collaborators piggyback off his style, and on this track, he piggybacks off Kendrick’s style a bit.” It’s unpredictable hitting you from a different angle as the beat switches. It has the energy of a fighting scene in a movie. That’s just my imagination because I haven’t seen the film yet.

Aaron: Regardless, this project is going to have an impact; I wouldn’t be surprised to see other movie production companies scramble to get big names for soundtrack albums in the near future.

Trent: The “big names” on the Bright and Furious 8 soundtracks weren’t big enough for ya, Aaron?

Aaron: Neither of those soundtracks compare to this level of quality, TC. Not even close. A great example of the depth is the opening “Black Panther,” which finds Kendrick referencing T’Challa but also posing thoughtful questions relevant to everyday life. This is an event album. Black Panther is going to rake in Scrooge McDuck money and this album’s job was to accompany that blockbuster.

I loved the downbeat yet airy feel of the overall production. The same thing that is commendable about the album’s themes — diverse yet cohesive — can be said about the beats. The opener features elegant, almost gloomy piano keys that underscore Kendrick’s philosophical musings. Then you’ve got “All The Stars,” a soaring affair made for the pop charts without sounding bubble gum. And “Big Shot,” which sports possibly the most infectious beat on the project.

Dana: I think Kendrick and Travis Scott’s “Big Shot” lives up to the title probably for most of their fans, but to me, it sounds like “Goosebumps” flipped with a pan flute to give it that African jungle feel for the Black Panther theme.

Scott: In five years, will any of these songs be remembered as THE Black Panther ANTHEM? Or will this be remembered as a TDE + friends compilation album? The more I listen, the more I’m worried that TDE made this about them and not about the movie. I know I’ll consistently be bumping “X”, “Pray For Me” and “King’s Dead” but what other songs do people LOVE?

Feel me?

Tacuma: Kendrick is Kendrick throughout, but there are standout moments from some of the other Top Dawg contributing artists.

Ab-Soul completely blacks out on “Bloody Waters.” His wordplay and flow remain the flu. Of his two verses, the first is superior: “A prince-turned-pauper tryin’ to do like kings do/ Sweatin’ in chess games, tryna move like kings move/ You should slow your roll before you drown in the moat/ He tried to channel balance but never found the remote…”

The rest of the TDE camp — ScHoolboy Q and Jay Rock — turn in solid verses, but the other signature verse belongs to Mozzy. On “Seasons,” his contribution is vivid and has depth.

Furthermore, this soundtrack helps to advance the mainstream’s understanding of Afrofuturism, an aesthetic and critical theory defined by writer Ytasha Womack as the combination of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afro-centricity and magic realism with non-Western beliefs.

Like George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, Octavia Butler, Janelle Monáe, Nnedi Okorafor and Outkast, Black Panther – the film and soundtrack – adds dimension to what we know as Afrofuturism.

Chris Mitchell (HipHopDX Managing Editor): Hey guys, let me jump in here with a last word now that I’ve had a chance to fully digest the album and read the whole conversation.

The project is definitely strong and important and interesting and timely and everything that’s already been said above.

Couple things I’d like to add though.

When K. Dot kicks off the album with the words “King of my city, King of my country, King of my homeland” with his “ancestors watchin’,” he channels T’Challa with a verse that applies to both himself and the film’s protagonist. The intro references the challenges and responsibilities of being king and the intense scrutiny that comes with the mantle.

The album strikes me in some ways as Kendrick’s More Life moment, with “soundtrack” standing in for Drake’s “playlist” format. The framing allows both Kendrick and Drake (who really only have each other as competition for #1 in the game right now) the opportunity to experiment with new sounds and themes in a lower stakes outing.

Still, if we were looking at this as a canonical Kendrick album, we’d wonder how he let so many of his guests overshadow him and probably penalize him for it.

So to keep with the Marvel metaphor, the album plays out more like an Avengers movie, with a massive cast all fighting for screen time, rather than another leading role for Kendrick, despite his top billing and consistent presence.

I don’t think there’s much on the album that will light the charts on fire or that will ascend to timeless status, but overall it’s high-quality music that deserves praise and will hopefully help launch a spinoff career or two.

My final rating is a 4.2.

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