The latest installation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe yielded approximately $400 million in worldwide ticket sales in its opening weekend, yet another blow to the notion that black narratives don’t resonate with global audiences. Meanwhile, “Black Panther: The Album” debuted atop the Billboard 200 — the fifth album from Lamar’s Top Dawg Entertainment consortium to do so.
The soundtrack had the biggest week in terms of album-equivalent units earned since “Suicide Squad: The Album,” a compilation as ill-conceived as the film it supported, did so in August 2016. Thankfully, “Black Panther: The Album” rests on a plane high above the conceptual pitfalls that plagued the former. The album is integral to “Black Panther’s” rollout; the film’s narrative is integral to the album’s design.
“Black Panther: The Album,” as advertised, delivers music from and inspired by the film. In addition to assembling a (somewhat) Pan-African ensemble cast of artists, Lamar keeps the album aligned with “Black Panther’s” concept: He often speaks from the opposing perspectives of its namesake, the superpowered monarch T’Challa of the fictional East African kingdom Wakanda, and his antagonist, vengeful revolutionary merc Erik Killmonger. These viewpoints guide the album, with several motifs and developments seeded throughout its 49-minute duration — teasers delivered a week before the theatrical release via a project conceived to help generate excitement for it.
“Black Panther: The Album” succeeds as a promotional tool because the traces of Disney’s aggressive marketing apparatus are faint. You don’t feel you’re being targeted while listening, a testament to how the film and album interact. “Black Panther: The Album” also succeeds as a body of music because of the execution and who oversaw it.
Lamar is the album’s adhesive. Even when uncredited, his voice appears in the background and serves as the floating consciousness of both T’Challa and Killmonger. “I am T’Challa,” he announces at the end of album-opener “Black Panther.” “I am Killmonger . . . this is my home . . . Northern California,” he declares between English singer Jorja Smith’s “I Am” and Vallejo, Calif., rappers SOB x RBE’s “Paramedic!” Killmonger’s story begins in Oakland, Calif., like “Black Panther” (and the Black Panther Party, uncoincidentally), and the latter song reverberates his defiant spirit with off-kilter Bay Area-energy. “You ain’t standin’ for the cause / Meet the man in the mask,” speaks to a Killmonger disguise and his adversarial stance.
“Miss me with the bulls---,” Lamar’s warning from the chorus of “King’s Dead,” radiates with Killmonger’s dismissal of Wakandan tradition during his brief rule. The song’s second half, marked by menacing, bass-heavy production, is an aural representation of his governing style. Lamar, again assuming Killmonger’s role, vehemently rejects all T’Challa stands for before proclaiming “All hail King Killmonger.”
Lamar embodies both characters just before the subtly beautiful “Seasons” wraps: “I am T’Challa, I am Killmonger. One world, one God, one family. Celebration.” This convergence mirrors a pivotal scene between the rivals, and the evolution of T’Challa’s worldview beyond old-guard Wakandan isolationism — a marked change from the uncertainty he exhibits early in the film and, as a result, the album.
Lamar scours T’Challa’s innermost thoughts on “Black Panther,” revealing the self-doubt of a new king balancing enormous responsibility with the anxieties accompanying it. “Are you an accident? / Are you just in the way?” he asks.
Lamar is no stranger to impostor syndrome. Struggles with a similar balancing act and an outright lack of confidence are prevalent themes in his music; “Mortal Man,” from his 2015 opus “To Pimp a Butterfly,” and “FEAR.,” from last year’s “DAMN.,” are but two examples. And that’s one reason Lamar was the perfect choice to pilot “Black Panther: The Album.” The other is more tactical.
There’s a radicalism to Lamar that offends Fox News talking heads, but he’s a very safe choice. Lamar is a critical and commercial darling, one who uses his gifts so ambitiously that he’s rightfully earned rap’s superlative honor. And, simultaneously, a rapper popular enough to sell Beats headphones, Reeboks and Nikes, and to soundtrack promos for the NBA Finals. If he can be the main attraction for an NBA All-Star Weekend event exclusive to American Express cardholders, he’s absolutely marketable enough to corral for a film built on a $200 million budget with hip-hop already in its DNA.
Lamar’s name is bankable, of course, and he recruited big names (the Weeknd, Future, 2 Chainz, and TDE cohorts SZA and ScHoolboy Q), rising ones (the aforementioned Smith and SOB x RBE; Sacramento rapper Mozzy), and nearly a handful of South African artists (singers Sjava and Babes Wodumo; rappers Yugen Blakrok and Saudi) for the album. Despite the inclusion of that last group, it’s more than fair to argue that more African artists could be featured — especially in a film that addresses Pan-African unity.
The reality is that “Black Panther: The Album,” like “Black Panther,” is American at its core. Both were engineered for commercial viability, so the demand for return on investment still eclipses that of perfect representation of all parts of the diaspora — an unfortunate truth that leaves unsatisfied some groups still yearning for non-gestural representation.
But alas, the burden of black art prompts scarcity to fuel scrutiny. As writer Roxane Gay, who co-wrote the comic series “Black Panther: World of Wakanda,” noted in 2016: “A great deal of responsibility is laid on the shoulders of black art or art about black lives.”
Despite what positioning and hyperbole will have you believe, neither “Black Panther” nor “Black Panther: The Album” was created to be the antidote to the media’s representation problems — nor should they be. “Black Panther: The Album” serves as a companion piece to the film, reinforcing its message through the diligent creativity of Kendrick Lamar and his team of featured artists. It’s also pretty good, as a result. Not at all career-defining in the way “Purple Rain” was for Prince, but also not immediately disposable in the way many albums tied to movies typically are.
“Black Panther: The Album” is good enough to exist outside of an intense marketing campaign, similar to Jay-Z’s “American Gangster” (which was unofficial, but still served the film quite well), because of who’s responsible.