Kendrick Lamar Gives ‘Black Panther’ a Weighty Soundtrack

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Kendrick Lamar packed “Black Panther the Album” with nearly as many ideas, allusions and ambitions as one of his solo records.

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Kevin Winter/Getty Images

All the symbolic weight attached to “Black Panther” — as a major Hollywood blockbuster with an African superhero, an African-American director, a majority-black cast and a vision of a highly advanced, self-sufficient, colonialism-free African kingdom — extends to “Black Panther the Album,” a collection of songs “from and inspired by” the film. That’s a loose enough rubric to give the album’s executive producers, Kendrick Lamar and the CEO of his label, Anthony Tiffith, known as Top Dawg, the leeway to build a coherent album that juggles multiple missions.

After four studio albums and many other releases, Mr. Lamar is this moment’s pre-eminent rapper: furiously inventive, thoughtful, virtuosic, self-conscious, musically adventurous and driven. “Black Panther the Album” is very nearly as densely packed — with ideas, allusions and ambitions — as one of Mr. Lamar’s official solo albums. He’s superbly abetted by his frequent collaborator Sounwave (Mark Spears), the producer or co-producer on almost every track, who shifts the atmosphere constantly — often within a single song — deploying ratchety trap percussion, menacing electronics, blurry pitch-shifted samples, and even a rock guitar.

“Black Panther” does include the mandatory action-film pop anthems. In “All the Stars,” Mr. Lamar raps about conflict between hopeful choruses from SZA. But the song’s release as a single has been marred by complaints that its video clip imitates, without credit, the imagery of a Liberian-British artist, Lina Iris Viktor.

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Mr. Lamar and Anthony Tiffith executive produced the “Black Panther” soundtrack.

Ending the album is the more grimly determined “Pray for Me,” with the Weeknd mournfully vowing to “spill this blood for you” and Mr. Lamar rapping about how “I fight the world, I fight you, I fight myself” over a track that vaguely suggests African drumming and traditional ululations. Ballads, another soundtrack-album requirement, are equally burdened. The English songwriter Jorja Smith sings “I Am” over an adamantly sluggish drumbeat and a lonely guitar line, affirming a sense of duty: “When you know what you got, sacrifice ain’t that hard,” she declares.

The Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar – “Pray for Me” Video by KendrickLamarVEVO

The album’s broader strategy is to hint at the movie’s story while concentrating on tales of struggle and swagger much closer to home. From the songs, it would be easy to believe the movie was set in California, although there are bits of African input tucked in.

Mr. Lamar dips into the roles of both T’Challa, the African king of the fictitious Wakanda who is also the Black Panther, and Erik Killmonger, his tenacious adversary. Yet in the track “Black Panther,” which ends with the words, “I am T’Challa,” Mr. Lamar is also quite insistently “King Kendrick”: “King of the answer, king of the problem, king of the forsaken,” he raps over a nagging, dissonant loop. Later in the track, with an almost conspiratorial voice, he asks, “What do you stand for? Are you an activist?”

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