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Black Panther soundtrack review - Kendrick Lamar's Superfly moment

Kendrick Lamar performs at Coachella 2017.
Short-circuiting the listener … Kendrick Lamar. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella

Film soundtracks are often critically acclaimed, they’re occasionally big sellers, they sometimes even insinuate themselves into popular culture in the same way that a zeitgeisty studio album might. But they rarely attract the kind of advanced publicity afforded the soundtrack to Black Panther. For some time now, the web has been awash with news stories anticipating its release. The most recent of these revealed that Kendrick Lamar had got the job of curator. On reading said scoop, it became apparent that the revelation was: he had a meeting about it.

That kind of thing tells you something about the hysterical pitch at which the internet conducts itself, but also tells you something about Kendrick Lamar, an artist in the midst of a creative streak so hot that being seen as his equal is the kind of thing other rappers brag about. “Not even Kendrick can humble me,” boasts Schoolboy Q at one point on the Black Panther soundtrack. Lamar is so revered that even his more ephemeral releases are greeted with elation: if the guy’s so good that he can put out a collection of untitled demos and outtakes that’s better than many artists’ main albums, why shouldn’t people get excited about a film soundtrack created under his aegis?

And particularly when it assembles such an intriguing musical cast: big names – the Weeknd, Vince Staples, Anderson.Paak – alongside relative unknown artists Mozzy, Babes Wodumo, SOB x RBE and South African vocalist Sjava singing in Zulu. Moreover, if you believe that Lamar is at the forefront of an impressive renaissance in hip-hop and R&B, a confluence of high-altitude artistry and righteous sociopolitical anger that harks back to the revered era that was bookended by the arrival of psychedelic soul and the rise of disco – an era in which soundtracks to films that expanded black representation in commercial cinema had an important part to play – then perhaps Black Panther is his Superfly, his Shaft.

All the Stars by Kendrick Lamar and SZA - video

Evidently, Lamar doesn’t see his employment on behalf of the vastly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise as any reason to reign in his more experimental musical tendencies. The Black Panther soundtrack was trailed by its two most commercial and anthemic tracks, the SZA collaboration All the Stars and the Weeknd’s feature Pray for Me, but the album itself sets out a noticeably different musical stall. Lamar’s opening title track offers up music as knotty and challenging as anything on To Pimp a Butterfly: off-key piano and samples clanging against each other; abstract, jazzy horns hovering in the distance, a startling moment where his rapping – in the character of the film’s hero T’Challa – unexpectedly speeds up, racing dramatically away from the beat.

At its best, this soundtrack deals in similarly heady ideas. On I Am, a beautiful tune delivered by Jorja Smith is marooned over a groggy beat, twisted, sickly samples and a guitar riff so agonisingly slow it might have escaped from a stoner metal album. King’s Dead, meanwhile is the latest in a series of Lamar tracks that short-circuit the listener with sudden musical shifts. It’s effectively two completely different tracks spliced together with a brief interlude from a third that features James Blake and a wash of Beach Boys-y vocal harmonies. It boasts a particularly spectacular lyrical firework display in which Lamar’s exploration of the character of Black Panther’s nemesis Killmonger dovetails with the kind of bleak nihilism found in To Pimp a Butterfly’s most despairing moments. Blake also features on another highlight, the sparse Bloody Waters, the desolate chill of his voice chafing against Anderson.Paak’s impassioned delivery.

How this all will works in the context of the film is an intriguing question, but it certainly hangs together as an standalone album, albeit a less consistent one than Lamar’s solo releases. There are tracks that seem pleasant but minor – Zacari and Babes Wudumo’s Redemption, a take on the current vogue for Latin-influenced pop; the fluffily inconsequential The Ways by Khalid and Swae Lee – and a couple of straightforward hip-hop cuts that are solid rather than spectacular, Schoolboy Q and 2 Chainz’s X being one of them. It often feels like an enjoyable interstitial release rather than an essential one. Still, that may simply say something about the standards its curator has set in recent years.

This article titled "Black Panther soundtrack review - Kendrick Lamar's Superfly moment" was written by Alexis Petridis, for theguardian.com on Friday 9 February 2018 03.28pm

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