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Kendrick Lamar Finds Success in the ‘Black Panther’ Soundtrack

4 Stars

By Courtesy of Kendrick Lamar / Top Dawg Entertainment / Aftermath Entertainment / Interscope Records
By Uzochi P. Nwoko, Contributing Writer

On Kendrick Lamar’s curated album, “Black Panther: The Album,” Lamar and other featured artists paint a picture of struggle, despair, and ultimate triumph. Lamar and his fellow artists rap and sing over a set of instrumentals—Afrobreat-esque sounds, jam-packed with drums, flutes, and a plethora of other instruments—that are refreshingly unique from typical western rap. This combination of sounds set the stage for the movie “Black Panther,” for which this soundtrack was made, as the movie takes place in the African, albeit fictional, country of Wakanda. The album’s production, in conjunction with the powerful lyrics woven throughout many of the tracks, make for a solid artistic endeavor by Kendrick Lamar.

The very first song on this album, entitled, “Black Panther,” largely falls flat, but the trajectory goes up from there. On “Black Panther,” Lamar opens the album with a smooth piano melody, but soon introduces new instruments that clash chaotically. The cacophony felt like the producers were trying a bit too hard in their noteworthy endeavor to add an African spin on the track. Despite the musical shortcomings of this song, the lyrics still pack a punch, like when he says, “What do you stand for? Are you a activist? What are your city plans for? / Are you a accident? Are you just in the way?” Lamar challenges his listeners to stand up for what they believe not just with their words, but with their actions. Standing up for one’s people becomes a motif prominent not just on this track, but throughout the album.

In other songs, however, the risk of incorporating unique instrumentation into the production pays off. At several moments, the production greatly bolstered the lyrics. From using African instruments in the majority of the songs, to singing and rapping on several tracks in Zulu, a South African language, “X,” “Redemption,” and “Seasons,” the producers’ contribution to the listener’s experience shined as much as the lyricists’.

However, this is not to shortchange the lyricists’ efforts. The lyrics are consistently both powerful and cohesive despite the album featuring a plethora of different rappers and singers who address social issues prominent in the black community: Their words strengthen the quality of the album. In “Seasons,” Lamar’s colleagues share their grievances against the American justice system, which holds unfair obstacles for people of color. In “Seasons,” Mozzy raps about issues in low-income black communities, saying, “They wasn’t teachin’ nothin’, it’s no secret / whole lotta crime, lil n***** beefing’ / we gotta keep it or end up a victim / trapped in a system, traffickin’ drugs / modern-day slavery, African thugs / we go to war for this African blood.” Mozzy argues that black oppression is systemic, as the government’s failure to ensure education in low-income black communities pushes young men to turn to other, illegal, ways of gaining monetary success. He implies that due to a lack of options, many black individuals are pushed to crime, which often culminates in their being “locked-up,” or shackled like slaves. Similarly, Reason subsequently raps that “we locked in the system / catch a case and they not gon’ forgive ya / white skin, you be out before Christmas.” He voices his discontent with the fact that black people have historically been punished with harsher sentences when they commit the same type of crimes as their white counterparts. In the final track of the album, “Pray For Me,” The Weeknd says, “Who gon’ pray for me? / Take my pain for me? / Save my soul for me? / ‘Cause I’m alone, you see,” indicating that people of color often feel abandoned by the government due to the aforementioned shortcomings.

However, lyrics that emphasize black power and perseverance balance out these grief-laden stanzas. On the very same track, in which The Weeknd laments his loneliness, in “Pray For Me” Lamar says, “who need a hero? / You need a hero, look in the mirror, there go your hero,” illustrating black people’s need and ability to provide for themselves. On “Paramedic!” rapper Slimmy B says, “Yeah I had to man up, one fist in the air / I ain’t finna put my hands up,” juxtaposing the well-known image of black people being forced by police to put their hands in the air with the uplifting symbol of black power. In the following verse, rapper Yhung T.O. frankly says, “They ain’t wanna see me win ‘cause I’m black / so I pulled up in that all black Benz in the back,” illustrating his refusal to let any racial inequities in the justice system stop him from profiting. Interestingly, during this one phrase, the music in the background cuts out, allowing the listeners to hear his message without distraction. In many ways, that line embodies the whole album, as it signifies black struggle and the ultimate power of black people to overcome great obstacles.

Throughout the 14 songs on this album, Kendrick and his fellow artists maintained these motifs of struggle and perseverance. One of the major strengths of this piece was its ability to uphold the overall tone of the album from beginning to end. The theme of Black Power in this album made it an appropriate backdrop for the film for which it was made. Though this album was created for a fictional movie, the messages woven throughout, accentuated by the production, were very real, making it yet another successful accolade for Kendrick Lamar.

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