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February 12, 2018 4 min read
Though Black Panther is almost within our grasp, with one week out before its US release date, fans of the titular character, lit music, or both can now peruse the soundtrack album on popular streaming sites.
Curated by Kendrick Lamar and his label head Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, and co-developed by Top Dawg Entertainment producer Sounwave, the album boasts an all-star turnout of music talent and collaborative efforts, among which is the aptly titled “All The Stars” single featuring SZA that’s slated to be part of the film’s theatrical soundtrack. Appearances on the album also include The Weeknd, Khalid, Travis Scott, 2 Chainz, James Blake, and more.
The story behind Lamar’s involvement with the project is a succinct but sweet one. Ryan Coogler, director of Black Panther and a fan of Lamar’s work, contacted the rapper about working together on a project. The opportunity to do so presented itself after the success of Lamar’s latest album, "DAMN.". With Marvel’s approval, Coogler prepared a pièce de résistance of footage to sweeten the offer.
“At first, he was just going to do a few songs for the film… Then he came in and watched quite a bit of the movie, and the next thing I know, they were booking a studio and they were going at it.”
Talk about timing!
This is a marvel (no pun intended) to behold, a very “black on black on black” helm and approach to an otherwise mainstream comic book property and film franchise. I do have a few personal caveats, however, which in no way take away from the creative brilliance of Lamar’s cultivating, the artists involved, and the perfect aligning of stars that has resulted in the visually and audibly stunning merger of hip-hop culture, mainstream media, and African homage.
I’m reminded of "The Hamilton Mixtape", which features outside artists performing an assortment of songs from the overstatedly popular Hamilton musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who starred as its namesake character during its original Off-Broadway and Broadway run. Hear me out because, though the origins of these two works are different, it's easy to find parallels regarding both the method of cultural appeal and the preferred music genre, which is rap/hip-hop, with modicums of pop and post-modern r&b sprinkled throughout. Hamilton, at its core, is still a musical, and though it relies heavily on rap/hip-hop to deliver its narrative it is equally untethered by it, allowed to assume the conventional trappings of the “American musical” that kind of makes it the best of both worlds.
By comparison, Lamar’s Black Panther album feels a bit…boxed in.
Where for Hamilton it’s both a gimmick and a heartfelt passion project showcasing Miranda’s unique voice and reverence for spoken word, rap, and hip-hop, Black Panther's heavy reliance on rap and hip-hop as a signifier of “blackness”, how “black” it is, or as a way to appeal to “black” audiences, is kind of disappointing. It uses the same coding method as the dog-whistle terminology historically used to delineate and target black Americans for a white population. Except, instead of being fueled by racism or a sense of “otherness”, coding Black Panther as “blackety black” by aligning it with an album that’s mostly rap and hip-hop, I believe, has the unfortunate implication of assuming that’s all black Americans, and black people in general, listen to. This is doubly confusing given the history of how many music genres came to be in North America, with jazz, r&b, rockabilly and rock originating from black musicians. Triply confusing, there are too few artists of African origin featured on an album about a movie based on a comic book superhero who originates from a fictional land in Africa!
I might be nitpicking at this point (I am) but it would have been nice to see a considerably “black” thing that’s both popular by traditional standards, anticipated by both mainstream audiences and the black audience it caters so heavily to, that didn’t feel the need to do what so many black people often do and that’s subscribe to rap/hip-hop when they’re equally (and secretly) fond of, say, progressive rock or death metal. It’ll be interesting to see how the music that was inspired by Lamar’s viewing of some of the film will reflect the powerful images on view come February 16th.
As it stands, the “All The Stars” music video is a visual masterpiece, with cues of black excellence taken from all over the African continent. I’ve read a few reactions of director Dave Meyers & the little homies’ stunning cinematography, interpreting the music video as a return to the motherland, featuring the Moors through children wearing traditional fez caps, the sapeur style of Congolese men who dress in rich fashion, and Lamar standing before Yoruba gods near the end, and I’m inclined to agree with these assessments. The “All The Stars” music video is rich in African emulation and Afrofuturistic aesthetic, and I can’t help but think its very existence elevates an otherwise fairly standard rap/hip-hop affair.
Black Panther hits theaters February 16th.
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