By Niy BirdenKendrick Lamar is Killmonger. If he hasn’t made it clear before, the album he’s curated definitely puts it into a higher perspective now.
We’ve seen him state that he wanted to be a villain in Black Panther-and for quite obvious reasons. The film version of the Marvel comic book series has created a wave in the film industry with its Afro-futurist, Black diaspora atmosphere that has re-surged discussion of African Americans in cinema.
Released one month after Black Panther’s film debut at the Dolby Theatre, Kendrick Lamar’s curated album is an exploration into the world of Wakanda-or, at least, Killmonger’s world.
With song highlights such as “Paramedic” taking such a strong homage to the narrative of African Americans in urban settings, “Black Panther The Album: Music From and Inspired By” is a very dark, flow-heavy, gritty environment. The artistic, lyrical and even musical content does not do the whole film justice, for many reasons. While the film was heavy on female-empowerment and showing both sides of a common race to liberation for Wakandans, this album only featured 4 females and played on a very rebellious theme catering to the unapologetic Black Panther lover. The kind of fan who would probably agree with the main antagonist, Killmonger’s style of conflict. A bit of backstory:
In the film, Killmonger is a fellow Wakandan whose father is killed by the King T’Chaka because he tried to sell off their most valuable resource-a metal that has kept Wakanda an independent nation with advanced technology unlike any other. Killmonger’s father is betrayed by his aid who works for the King, and Killmonger is left in 1990’s California fatherless, and to experience a Black experience that is now well-documented in American history. He feels abandoned, but seemingly for the cause, and sets out to take over Wakanda, in order to use its resources to liberate fellow Africans all over the world, but mainly for sake of knowing that he was able to take the King’s son- T’Challa, who has now ascended the throne- and replace him.
It’s a story of anarchy, mutiny, and collaborative uprising. It shows of a young Black male using his influence to give back to his community, despite his misunderstanding and egotistic foundation.
Which is why Kendrick’s curated album for the series works much better as a concept album rather than an inspired score.
Kendrick’s production type and even his own personal narrative match up individually with Killmonger’s ,rather than the whole album.
When you consider that Killmonger from the film is from California and is trying to reach and liberate his African roots, it does coincide with the album ,which, despite its good intentions, honestly fails to reach the Afro-futurist vibe that it could have attained through even smaller things- like a larger addition of native African musicians/styles- but incorporates it nicely with the California-vibe rapping. But the impression it makes on foreign ears is a large one:
For starters, there are multiple double takes in this album thanks to the eclectic production and creative lyrics.
“Black Panther” the track starts off fittingly in style of both African percussion and the iconic sample stop and start notion that Kendrick often does in his albums. It rightfully sounds like an outtake from him recent solo album, D.A.M.N; Kendrick was introduced to doing the album while recording his own. The scratchy piano in the song that loops is a nice homage to the mello jazz sound that helped catapult Kendrick, and it also gives way to a nice poppish effect. It’s sporadic nature helps place the listener directly where Kendrick seems to want the attention: T’Challa.
With “All of The Stars”, we get a simplistic and very pop sound from Kendrick and SZA. It sounds like a combination of pop crooners Alessia Cara and Sia, but with a small amount of R&B crooner Miguel for its synth production and melodies. Kendrick keeps up with the African percussion very well, allowing it to be the main effect in the song, but not overpowering it. It could be easy to say that the auto-tuned vocal effects take away from the sound, but Black Panther is currently the definition of Afro-futurist aesthetic in mainstream media, and this sound captures it completely.
It returns to a very Kendrick sound with “X”, featuring Schoolboy Q, 2Chainz, and Saudi. It would honestly go very well in any other action flick that is urban-based, however it does not really give the Marvel/superhero feeling that is usually equipped with orchestration. Black Panther has a lot of modern influences, but trap is a bit too modern for its appeal.
“The Ways” by Khalid and Swae Lee honestly does nothing for the relationship of the music and representing Black Panther as a whole. The song is marvelous in performance and delivery, but it fails to really incorporate either traditional or even modern African sounds (aside from the heavy auto-tune) that should have been the main event. But hope is not lost.
“Oops” storms in as an impressive track. It immediately grab’s the listener’s attention with the heavy bass and repetitive beats. The extra sound and vocal edits help imitate the sound heard so often in action sci-fi flicks. With the repetitive “You’re dead to me” lyric during the chorus, it creates a nice balance between rap and Afro-house music, and helps re-iterate the personal narrative of Killmonger, who feels betrayed by his fellow people of Wakanda.
“I Am” by Jorja Smith has a nice punk sound with its gritty guitar and mid-tempo beats. Her voice is quite the contrast, dark but smooth, filled with staccato accents, but still very soulful. The chorus, emotive and filled with rousing harmonies, is a real show-stopper for the singer, but once again, the inclusion of the song seems very out of place. All is forgiven with the lyric “Sometimes we ain’t meant to be free”,which reminds us of the heartbreaking and thought-provoking monologue given by the antagonist of the film, before his iconic death.
Speaking of the devil, in “Paramedic”, we hear Kendrick opening with the words “I am Killmonger”, bringing further speculation of the narrative that Kendrick was creating and curating to for the film. In Black Panther, we see Killmonger and T’Challa both go through conflicting dilemmas involving their self-integrity and the community that they both wish to serve and protect. Kendrick, who is no stranger to this concept, balances this very well throughout the album with its provocative lyrics and self-criticizing lines. Paramedic in a way, describes Killmonger the most effectively. It’s brutally honest description of life and attitudes surrounding Black men in California challenges the listener to reconsider Killmonger’s stance.
“Bloody Waters” comes in with an interesting mix of eclectic piano keyboards and singing. This makes perfect sense if you listen to James Blake, who is featured and also appears later on in the album. Anderson .Paak makes an equally just as impressive appearance, and the accompanying track is the perfect setting for the mood. The chorus is also very interesting. At first listen, it sounds like the vocalist is speaking without worry of the beat or key of song, but when you keep in mind the underlying percussion, muted synths and history of rap and its various lyrical styles, it is a genius addition. This song in particular is a remarkable blend of production, singing and rapping. The interrupting African chants that end the song off are indeed a nice addition, but considering that the rest of the album isn’t nearly as filled with it, it seems like a cheap shot at including African music for sake of being related.
The main event, “King’s Dead”, made a nice addition in the film as a whole, but it’s definitely a good thing that the whole song was not in the feature film. This is because the content of the song does not necessarily match up to what the listener would assume from the title. But, there seems to be a trend with this album with either one element of the music making sense for Black Panther, but not both. This is no different for King’s Dead. Kendrick quickly makes up for it with the ending verse:
“Red light, green light, red light, green light
Egotistic, goin’ ballistic, why God?
Born warrior, lookin’ for euphoria
, I don’t feel it, I’m paraplegic
Tapped in when I’m maxed in Comp-Town with the MAC 10s
And the pumps in the background I was absent
Never OG, standout, I was lackin’
Everything else, but doubt in the Magnum
Holdin’ Magnums with a Magnum
Nigga, ad-lib and I sing out loud
Never had friends, never had ends, never had hope
They was like, “Nope,” I was like, “Boo yaow, boo yaow”
Tee off the day, know we off the, be off the, eat off your plate
Throw me off, I be, “Off ya head”
Well ate, on C4, I’m way off the edge
Fuck integrity, fuck your pedigree, fuck your feelin’s, fuck your culture
Red light, green light, red light, green light”
It’s safe to say that Kendrick has definitely assumed the role of Killmonger in this album, and in a way, helped the listener grow with the storyline. Unapologetic, filled with rage, but in a way that is terrifyingly convincing and forces the listener to re-consider their stance on how they view him.
If Kendrick is indeed playing on Killmonger’s perspective, “Redemption Interlude” is a harmonic and calming break from the chaotic sounds of Killmonger’s mind through trying to liberate but simultaneously overrun his own community.
And with “Redemption” re-opening the album, we hear the nostalgic but stereotypical African congo beats, with a vocalist opening with the lines “Two wrongs don’t make a right”. Zacari, who has worked with Kendrick very recently for the rapper’s new album, makes a genuine contribution, in addition to Babes Wodumo, the fourth and last female appearance on the 14-track album. This track, in a sense, is what black Panther could have accentuated more of an album. It is heartwarming and does well to acknowledge the sounds that surround the world they are creating from.
“Seasons” makes a moody but strong addition to the journey of the antagonist’s mind. While many of the other songs are inclusive of African styles for what seems to be decoration, this song sounds like something coming out of Africa now, without the disturbance of American standards. The vocals are harsh and honest, keeping lyrics such as “Poverty, jealousy, negativity” in the listener’s head like a subconscious warning from both Killmonger and T’Challa themselves. The mid tempo beat and soft piano and psychedelic guitar silently in the background create a Nina Simone memory, especially with the following lyrics:
‘Whole lotta crime, lil’ niggas beefin’
We gotta keep it or end up a victim
Trapped in the system, traffickin’ drugs
We go to war for this African blood’
Such lyrics create a new atmosphere into this villain’s world and help him seem even more human than before. At the end of the track, we hear Kendrick saying “I am T’Challa. I am Killmonger. One world, one God, one family”.
After the honestly unnecessary addition “Big Shot”, the album ends off with “Pray For Me”. Featuring The Weeknd and Kendrick (marking their first collaboration since Kendrick’s appearance on Star Boy) it is a very nice addition but its content and sound could have been more effective during the album at an earlier time. It works very well with the futuristic sounds resembling Daft Punk (who The Weekend has worked with for his last album.) It’s also noteworthy to point out that The Weeknd speaks Amharic, so his impressive use of chants with the addition of wind instruments in the song help drive home the album safely.
In general, Kendrick Lamar seems to have a solid grasp of the world of the outsider in Wakanda, but not as the neutralizer. This is a definite parallel with his own work. Just remember his tittle names such as Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, and To Pimp A Butterfly. Kendrick knows perhaps more than any other mainstream rapper the realities of being an angry Black man full of resent for both his community and his oppressor, and being the neutralizer using art to create good.
What is truly disappointing and cannot be ignored is the obvious lack of female voices in the album. When considering how much of a critical role the women played in the Black Panther film, it would seem to be a no-brainer to further the opportunity. But, only 4 females were featured, one of which had her own solo track- on the 14-song album. It is very indicative that times really haven’t changed, even in the music world from one of rap’s most prolific voices.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing when considering the possible nature of the album. If this were a concept album from Killmonger’s perspective, it works exceptionally well. Kill monger was self-obsessed, did not seem to care about women, and acted quickly without real thought for the rest of his community. To name an artist who could have entered the antagonist’s mind so well and represent it musically is a difficult thing to ponder. This is because Kendrick really does well as a self-inflicted, at-a-cross victim.
He stated his desire to portray a villain in the next film. Both Kendrick and Killmonger have a weird way of inclusion and representation with their music (Kendrick with comparing Black women to America’s capitalism, Killmonger with killing off one of the female Wakanda army members during the final battle), they both have a very deep and complex self vs. self AND self vs. society dilemma, and they both make quite unique impressions on the communities they are trying to revive. Unfortunately, it only works for so long, as portrayed in both the album and the film. Surely enough, just like in the film, the main highlights of this album will be from its political statements and how they relate to the environments they emerge from. Long live Killmonger.