Kendrick Lamar is no stranger to soundtracks. Die-hard fans (and probably no one else) remember his features in “Divergent” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” They both sounded mind-blowing on paper: The former incorporates the classic Tame Impala track “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” and the latter features Alicia Keys R&B diva-ing over a Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer production.
It’s good that they’re forgotten: They both were terrible collaborations that, besides featuring eyeball-drawing names, have very little going for them. They exist as a promotional vehicle for the film first and as music second. So when Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s collaboration arrived, with the “epic,” cookie-cutter title “All The Stars” and even more “epic,” cookie-cutter lyrics, the hype was muzzled a bit. All the provocations promised by Black Panther were sanded down to a faint evocation of hope barely tinged by the rough edges of protest (Or is it protest? It could be a love song if you squint!).
Luckily, the “Black Panther” soundtrack makes “All The Stars” look like a chart-friendly bone tossed to the Marvel bigwigs. The soundtrack — with its generous helping of Top Dawg Entertainment stalwarts and fresh faces such as South African rapper Yugen Blakrok and Bay Area crew SOB x RBE — is a showcase of up-and-coming Black talent on three continents: Europe, North America and Africa. Almost every performer on the album is Black, except for James Blake, who’s here as the proverbial white guy invited to the cookout.
The risks don’t stop with the tracklist. This might be the first (and last) album Disney approves with Future falsetto-ing “La di da di da, slob on me knob” and “Motherfuck the law.” Ignoring the lead single, no one here sounds tangled in record exec red tape.
Kendrick, the ringleader, appears on almost every track, but he only anchors by himself the title track, which is also the first on the album. The two-minute-long song functions as the firmest tie-in to the movie, as Kendrick steps inside the eponymous superhero’s shoes (paws?) and sensitively records his concerns: His ancestry, responsibility and most importantly, his anxiety over his claim to the throne, slyly represented by Kendrick’s crescendoing staccato repetition of the word “king” more than 40 times through the song.
The soundtrack gets less sober from there. “X” (read “ten,” not the letter) pumps the crowd up with a thrilling, repetitive chorus and an excellent verse from ScHoolboy Q, who has one of the best brags on the album: “Not even Kendrick can humble me.” The next track, “The Ways,” is some more soft-boy balladry, as expected from Khalid. Swae Lee, in his sweet auto-cute croon, saves the track from being a total wash.
The house-inflected “Opps” features Vince Staples channeling his Big Fish Theory flow, while Yugen Blakrok’s witty verse — “Roar like a lioness, punch like a cyborg” — is perhaps the most succinct example of Afrofuturism in the album.
Jorja Smith holds the mid-album ballad “I Am” all by her lonesome, stealing the show with her precocious, soulful voice, much like she did on Drake’s More Life. The other downtempo track on the album, “Seasons,” can’t measure up, though bars in isiZulu by Sjava enlivens proceedings.
Vallejo boys SOB x RBE take a star turn on “Paramedic!,” easily spinning the unfussy, jangling beat into dance floor gold. Zacari, whose sweet, airy voice paradoxically gave Kendrick’s hit single “LOVE.” it’s heft, appears here on the frothy love song “Redemption.” The bilingual call-and-response bridge from South African rapper Babes Wodumo pulls Zacari’s helium-balloon voice to the Earth.
The album finisher, “Pray For Me,” could be a Starboy outtake, with its thick ‘80s synths and dramatic pseudo-religious self-mythologizing. Just like that album, it’s mediocre, barely saved by the Weeknd’s sensitive vocals.
Considering how many cooks are in this particular kitchen, it’s a miracle that the album sounds as cohesive as it does. Kendrick’s curation deserves credit, yes, but it also says something about the omnivorous nature of hip-hop these days — trap, house, syncopated African drum beats, stargazing dance pop and moody alt-R&B can all coexist in the same album without causing sonic whiplash. It’s what makes Black Panther feel less like a star-studded playlist and more like a collaborative album.