Review: the Black Panther Soundtrack

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I’m not really much of a moviegoer, and I honestly will likely not see Black Panther. Despite the rave reviews and inescapable hype, I’m just not going to do it. Don’t get me wrong, I really want to. But going to the movies costs money and it requires that I get up and leave my house, so I don’t think it’s totally worth it.

But streaming music is free, and doesn’t require me to go outside. So I instead decided to do the next best thing and check out the Black Panther soundtrack. My interest was piqued prior to its release due to it being curated by Kendrick Lamar and featuring some of the best artists hip-hop currently offers, as well as some South African artists whose work I was previously unfamiliar with.

I didn’t expect to enjoy this album nearly as much as I did. I went in expecting to like it, but I wound up loving it. Even more surprising is why I loved it so much.

Given the artists featured on this album, many of them being renowned wordsmiths such as Vince Staples and Ab-Soul, I expected to enjoy this album primarily for its lyrical qualities. And while a lot of the raps are crafted well and engaging enough, I found myself far more enamored by the instrumentals, handled largely by Sounwave along with other producers.

Much of the production on this album is highly textured and dreamily atmospheric. “All the Stars,” featuring Kendrick and SZA, for instance, is heavily layered and complete with syrupy strings and cavernous reverb. It’s the sort of music you get lost in, which is complemented well by SZA’s vocal performance.

“Pray For Me,” featuring Kendrick and The Weeknd also accomplishes this (albeit to a lesser degree) with The Weeknd’s airy vocal delivery weaving through lavish synths and a punchy drum beat. I’m normally not very keen on heavily polished, commercial music like this, but the sleek soundscapes are hard to resist.

My personal favorite track on the project is “The Ways,” featuring Khalid and Swae Lee. Khalid’s breezy, seductive vocals float on the beat beautifully, and Swae Lee’s icy verse is perfect for a track like this. It’s wavy. It’s relaxing. Altogether, it’s a vibe, and, miraculously, it avoids becoming boring.

Wary of the monotony this sort of vibey music can lead to, Kendrick has also included some tracks that serve as hard-hitting bangers. The best of these is “Paramedic!” featuring SOB x RBE. The beat is sparse and punchy, and the vocals are totally bloodthirsty. These kids have been gaining clout in the rap world recently, and this song is a testament to their star power.

“King’s Dead,” featuring Kendrick, Jay Rock, Future, and James Blake, is repetitive and occasionally gratingly juvenile (largely thanks to Future’s unbearable bridge), but it’s still a pretty effective posse cut and is nevertheless entertaining. I especially love the slinking, trunk-rattling beat, which briefly melts into a wavy interlude by Kendrick and Blake. The atmospheric touches like that are what makes this album noteworthy to me.

I was also very impressed with the contributions from the South African artists, particularly Sjava’s verse on “Seasons,” which also features Mozzy and Reason. His verse, which is sung in Zulu, melds with the instrumental’s spacy electric guitars to create another moody listening experience.

Altogether, this album probably isn’t “significant,” per se, especially when compared to the movie it accompanies. But it’s still good. Very good, in fact. Kendrick and his team of rappers and producers are definitely playing it safe and taking a bit of a focus-grouped route. But the sheer variety of the project’s collaborators coupled with the vivid instrumental flourishes keeps it engaging and consistently fresh-sounding.