Status Ain't Hood

Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther And The Art Of The Corporate Crossover

There’s a moment on “Opps,” a track from the Kendrick Lamar-curated compilation Black Panther: The Album, where the South African rapper Yugen Blakrok says, “Stand behind my own bars like a seasoned criminal / Gotham City streets, I’ll play the Riddler.” Except we don’t hear the word “Riddler”; all we hear is a prolonged beep. See: Black Panther is a Marvel property, and the Black Panther album is a tie-in with the new Marvel blockbuster of the same name. Gotham City and the Riddler, on the other hand, are DC Comics things. Now: Yugen Blakrok does not hold back on her verse, and the people at Marvel don’t have a problem with her rapping about “brown bodies that blues wanna shoot through” or comparing herself to former Black Panther Party communications secretary Kathleen Cleaver. She just can’t be out here rapping about Batman stuff. It’s like when MTV would play Lil Bow Wow videos but censor the parts where he’d call himself “Mr. 106 & Park.”

That bleep is a small moment, but it’s a fascinating one. Black Panther: The Album is, in a lot of ways, the new Kendrick Lamar album, but it doesn’t come weighted down with the cultural importance of being the new Kendrick Lamar album. It’s a soundtrack album of sorts, but by most accounts, most of its songs don’t actually show up in the Black Panther movie. Instead, it’s an extremely smart convergence of events. Black Panther isn’t the first movie about a black superhero, but Marvel has cannily positioned its release as a cultural event in ways that few event movies are, hiring the great young director Ryan Coogler to helm it and bringing in an almost entirely black cast of exciting young actors. And by bringing Kendrick Lamar in, the people at Marvel have connected the movie to the most vital artist of his generation. For his part, Kendrick has used Marvel’s reach and money to put together an album of global, catholic black pop music — a sort of mixtape of all the stuff that he loves and wants to expose. As narrative, Black Panther: The Album is impeccable. As music, it’s pretty great, too.

The best way to think of Black Panther: The Album might be as Kendrick’s version of Drake’s More Life, the playlist-not-album where Drake brought in bits and pieces of grime and Afrobeats and house and Atlanta trap and R&B. But Kendrick isn’t as concerned with riding waves as Drake is, and he’s not really as concerned with pop music, either. Drake’s voice is a slippery and mutable one, whereas Kendrick always sounds like Kendrick, even when he’s on a Taylor Swift remix. So even though a lot of those same genres find their way onto Black Panther, the context is vastly different. And even though Black Panther is a movie soundtrack, Kendrick has done what he can to make it a holistic experience. The in-house TDE producer Sounwave worked on much of the album, often teaming up with actual Black Panther score composer Ludwig Göransson. And Kendrick’s voice shows up on every track, including the ones where he’s not credited, even if it’s just for an ad-lib or two.

The album presents a moody tapestry, full of downbeat bass tones and tracks that switch up beats halfway through. That aesthetic isn’t always the most exciting thing, and tracks like the turgid Kendrick/SZA single “All The Stars” definitely suffer for it. But when you immerse yourself in the album’s sound, it works. One clear influence seems to be Vince Staples’ retro-futuristic dance-rap odyssey Big Fish Theory; a lot of the tracks are fed by that same strain of mutant house music. A number of South African artists show up, many of them rapping or singing in their native languages. And hooks aren’t exactly a priority; Khalid and Swae Lee, hitmakers both, get a full song to airily, melodically drift along. James Blake swoons in the margins of a few tracks. Rising star Jorja Smith sounds perfectly gothed-out on “I Am.” Even the marquee team-up of Kendrick Lamar and the Weeknd stay heavy-hearted and downbeat on “Pray For Me.”

It’s a pan-genre album, but its strongest moments are also its most defiantly rap. Schoolboy Q barks, “Not even Kendrick can humble me,” calling back to the playful competitiveness that drove the early days of TDE. Wizened Sacramento cult favorite Mozzy brings beaten-down, hard-earned authority to “Seasons”: “I cried when lil bruh died / Got high and watched the sunrise.” And the young Vallejo crew SOB x RBE bring a hectic and urgent energy to “Paramedic!,” their showcase track, that the rest of the album sorely lacks. Still, this is a Kendrick Lamar project, so even the straight-up rap shit is philosophical. In his verses, Kendrick, probably the best rapper in the world, ruminates on the idea of kingship, on the weight of responsibility when you find yourself in a leadership position. That’s nothing new for Kendrick, who’s been meditating on his place in the rap cosmos ever since he showed up. But it also makes sense for movie tie-in reasons. Black Panther, after all, is a movie about the superhero king of a technologically advanced African nation. So even when he’s getting expansive, Kendrick is doing his movie-pitchman duty.

Supposedly, Ryan Coogler asked Kendrick for a few songs for the Black Panther soundtrack, and Kendrick, after watching part of the movie, responded by giving him a whole damn album. There’s something a bit disquieting about that story; we’d like to imagine that our art isn’t dependent on corporate largesse. But Black Panther: The Album is nothing new. In the ’70s, many of the best soul albums came from black-pop geniuses — Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Marvin Gaye — who made whole albums around the release of cheap, grimy blaxploitation movies. Maybe Black Panther: The Album is a grander, bigger-budget version of that. Or maybe it’s just an example of Kendrick figuring out ways to exist, and to make art, in this strange new era that we’re all negotiating. Point is: Black Panther: The Album, whatever its origins or its motives, never sounds like advertising. It never comes across like a corporate product. And even if that’s all it is, it’s a whole hell of a lot more elegant than that Reebok ad that Kendrick made a few years ago.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. BlocBoy JB – “Look Alive” (Feat. Drake)
Riding waves is the thing Drake does best, and I haven’t had this much fun listening to the guy in ages. BlocBoy, meanwhile, is a jolt of welcome energy, and I’m embarrassed that it took me this long to get on his wave myself.

2. Young Scooter – “Trippple Cross” (Feat. Future & Young Thug)
A study in contrasting trap-music approaches: Young Scooter’s grizzled growl, Young Thug’s gibbering anarchy, Future’s weaving gurgle. That they all sound so great together is a testament to how good they all are at what they do.

3. Nipsey Hussle – “Dedication” (Feat. Kendrick Lamar)
Even during his big week, Kendrick still has time to show up on a peer’s song and just effortlessly house him. (See also: Cozz’s “Hustla’s Story.”) What a guy!

4. 2 Chainz – “Proud” (Feat. YG & Offset)
2 Chainz’ whole new EP The Play Don’t Care Who Makes It is excellent, but this song, a lithe and chest-puffed dedication to mothers, is the winner among them. 2 Chainz always did say that he was called Tity Boi because he was breastfed for so long.

5. Junglepussy – “State Of The Union”
“You think you’re poppin’ cuz your new chick low-maintenance / Yeah, you can’t handle it, and I don’t have the patience / Your stroke was weak, nigga / Pacing in the pussy, don’t be playing with the pussy.” That’s the hook.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO