I just saw Black Panther, the Marvel Cinematic Universe epic motion picture starring Chadwick Boseman as King T’Challa of the fictional African nation Wakanda and his super-powered alter ego Black Panther.
Needless to say at this point, the anticipation for this film has been unprecedented in the black community. And why wouldn’t it be? Who among us wouldn’t relish a film – fictional as it may be – in which Africans own their own land, their currency, their superior technology, their past, their future, their fate – their nation…a nation that is the envy of all nations?
Who among us wouldn’t want to see Boseman as T’Challa, warrior king of Wakanda and champion of the oppressed, emerge as heroic agent for change? (I’m not giving any spoilers here, but anyone expecting a different outcome doesn’t watch superhero flicks.)
Even if you don’t know or follow the Marvel Comics series and the incredible story of Black Panther, the comics’ first black superhero created by Stan Lee (who makes his usual cameo appearance) and Jack Kirby, and later curated by a host of other scribes, pencillers and writers, you will enjoy Black Panther the movie…if not for its action-packed, technology-infused, good-vs-evil story lines, then for its cultural significance.
After all, it was only weeks ago that the leader of the free world, Donald Trump, reportedly referred to the 54 nations on the African continent as “sh*thole countries” in a White House meeting.
To the contrary, Wakanda may be fictional, but it is splendid in its unmitigated excellence – a total contrast from the impressions that Eurocentric thinking would have Americans harbor about the continent where human life actually began.
The movie doesn’t disappoint in the cultural awareness department. It makes no bones about where Wakanda exists and the age-old African tribal traditions that – even in a nation as rich and tech-advanced as Wakanda – still abound. This connection to real Africa was intentional and it translated to the throngs of moviegoers who donned African garb to show their pride at movie theaters (wouldn’t it be nice if that pride extended beyond the donning of an African-print dashiki for one night, though?).
The movie is satisfying for several other reasons, too, including the many thinly veiled jabs at Western European thinking, particularly the superiority complex that pervades it and the greed that led to Europeans’ colonization of so many other nations.
And although the storyline plays out to a dubious ending that itself has been cause for debate (how many among us were more aligned with the black liberationist philosophy of Killmonger than his first cousin T’Challa?), the cultural significance of the movie and its many messages cannot be denied.
Which brings me to another aspect of this epic film: its soundtrack.
To be clear, I’m talking about the hip-hop/trap album “curated” by another King – that of present-day hip-hop – Kendrick Lamar, and not the movie’s official score by Ludwig Göransson.
The former was released on February 6 and will make its début at No. 1 on the next Billboard 200 later today. It includes 14 tracks, five of which feature Lamar himself, and only a handful that were actually included in the film, while the rest were “inspired by” the movie.
For starters, the soundtrack connects well with the present-day vibe of the film. Some of the songs are crafted from the perspectives of the main characters, particularly protagonist T’Challa and his lost American cousin Killmonger, and nearly all of them contain (lyrically) the angst of both would-be Wakandan kings.
And just as the movie’s characters – particularly Killmonger – speak in modern-day lingo, the soundtrack demands a contemporary, but respectful element that Kendrick and the album’s many contributors (including Future, Swae Lee of Rae Sremmurd, SZA, Khalid and Vince Staples among others) bring successfully.
Kendrick as curator was the perfect choice to represent this film musically, given his current status as royalty in the hip-hop community. Indeed, the parallels between Lamar, who is seen these days as carrying a whole hip-hop community on his back, and T’Challa, who is faced with the similar challenge for his Wakanda nation, are obvious.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the soundtrack is its inclusion of trap music to begin with. With its normal themes of depression, drug-slinging and womanizing, trap seemingly runs counter to the theme of African Pride running throughout Black Panther the film.
As a key example, in sharp contrast to the trap genre’s depiction of females, the women of Wakanda are powerful, beautiful and fearless warriors who derive their power from supporting their king and their country – and not from being relegated to booty-popping “bitches” whose only value is seen in the length and straightness of their weaves or the phatness of their asses. In one telling scene, Okoye, one of the fiercely loyal all-female royal guards, is seen viscerally doffing a straightened-hair wig after calling the absurd-looking thing “ridiculous.”
If only trap music sent similar messages to our women.
But, despite this apparent conflict between soundtrack and film, the trap factor surprisingly doesn’t diminish from the album or the movie in this case.
First, one must remember that only a handful of the songs are actually in the film. In that way, the movie actually comes across as a vehicle for Kendrick’s latest project, one being touted as a “mixtape” collection of songs instead of a full-on soundtrack.
Secondly, where it is included, the album’s trap quotient is muted somewhat – comparatively speaking – from that of today’s other hip-hop fare, which makes it much more listenable and accessible than one might have initially expected.
What’s more, the album has a cohesive element that helps it make sense in the context of Black Panther the movie. The songs, which are a mix of jubilantly dark pop (Kendrick and SZA’s “All The Stars” – which also accompanies the first set of closing credits) and angst-ridden power struggles (best tracks “X” and “King’s Dead,” the latter of which is rapped from the perspective of Killmonger), all flow together well.
Upon the album’s release two weeks ago, many gave it a thumbs-up, with some calling it Kendrick’s “victory lap” after his crowning achievement in last year’s DAMN.
I’ve been playing Black Panther: The Album album since its release and must say I agree – especially after seeing the film and having the fuller context within which to judge it.
Bottom line: Kendrick’s work on Black Panther: The Album is the perfect marriage of art and culture and works well with the vision of the film’s director, Ryan Coogler.
The question that remains is whether the album or the film itself will be properly recognized by mainstream awards shows by this time next year.
But then again, in keeping with old Wakandan doctrine, perhaps that kind of recognition is no longer needed.
Or maybe it is we who shouldn’t place so much stock in it anymore.
By the way, as of this typing, both the album (154,000 album-equivalent units) and the movie ($219 million projected 4-day opening) are set to top their respective charts this week.
You can give the album a listen by clicking this Spotify link.