Kendrick Lamar’s sonic Wakanda
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More than anyone apart from Lil Wayne who’s been called The Best Rapper In The World, Kendrick Lamar has rhymes to spare. When Ryan Coogler screened footage from his Marvel movie, Black Panther, for Lamar, the rapper was supposed to contribute a couple of tracks. But Lamar liked what he saw and took on curation and co-production duties. The result is Black Panther: The Album, less a companion piece to the film than a mercurial riff on its themes and concerns (both this and Ludwig Goransson’s score for the film are available on iTunes).
Though the film’s setting is Africa, the album doesn’t go the Graceland route. The sound is grounded in hip hop, dancehall and R&B, with African rhythms and melodies weaving in and out (instead of overwhelming and raising tricky questions of cultural appropriation). Lamar takes on the personalities of T’Challa, the Black Panther, and his opposite number, Killmonger: The title track has a gravity befitting the serious new king of Wakanda, while King’s Dead, with a rapid-fire flow, has the unstable anger of his challenger (Fuck integrity, fuck your pedigree, fuck your feelin’s, fuck your culture). The two are united in the last lines of Seasons: I am T’Challa / I am Killmonger / One world, one God, one family / Celebration.
The polyglot nature of the Black Panther soundtrack comes through in its voices as much as in its music. Gqom artist Babes Wodumo sings on the bouncy Redemption; rapper Saudi does a verse (partly in Zulu) on X; Sjava also sings in Zulu and then in English on Seasons. And 20-year-old British singer Jorja Smith summons the ghost of Amy Winehouse.
Vince Staples, whose BagBak was used so effectively in the film’s trailer, performs (with South African rapper Yugen Blakrok) the similarly propulsive Opps. Two newer artists make striking contributions: Smith with the neo-soul I Am and rap outfit SOB x RBE with Paramedic! The most intriguing track, though, might be Bloody Waters, by Ab-Soul, Anderson .Paak and James Blake, which overlays light Caribbean vibes with a hip hop backbeat and takes a few dizzying turns—rap giving way to Blake’s falsetto vocalizing and liquid drums—in its closing minute. It’s the best reflection on this album of a rare Hollywood tentpole film that’s genuinely interested in cultures other than its own.