Various artists, “Black Panther the Album” (Top Dawg)

All the symbolic weight attached to “Black Panther” — as a 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 Top Dawg — the leeway to build a coherent album that juggles various missions.

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 Lamar’s solo albums. He’s superbly abetted by his frequent collaborator Sounwave, the producer who shifts the atmosphere constantly, 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,” Lamar raps about conflict between hopeful choruses from SZA. Ending the album is the more grimly determined “Pray for Me,” with the Weeknd mournfully vowing to “spill this blood for you” and Lamar rapping about how “I fight the world.” Ballads, another soundtrack-album requirement, are equally burdened. English songwriter Jorja Smith sings “I Am” over a sluggish drumbeat and a lonely guitar line.

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.

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,” Lamar is also quite insistently “King Kendrick”: “King of the answer, king of the problem, king of the forsaken.”

Lamar announces “All hail King Killmonger” in “King’s Dead,” after a litany of repudiation and denial that may sum up Killmonger’s negativity. But it also parallels Lamar’s refusal on his albums to accept oversimplified roles like spokesman or generational conscience.

The album’s many guests, including Anderson .Paak, don’t try as hard to connect with the movie. Most of them appear as California figures, flaunting fancy cars and thinking about street-level battles.. . The album welcomes some South African rappers and singers, and there are brief glimpses of South African rhythms; its most cheerfully upbeat song, “Redemption,” features South African singer Babes Wodumo. Sjava sings fervently in Zulu in “Seasons,” a slow soul vamp that makes way for raps from two Californians, Mozzy and Reason, about being trapped in a cycle of institutional racism, poverty and violence. Those aren’t problems that a song or a superhero can solve. But if “Black Panther” had wanted simple comic book escapism, it wouldn’t have hired Lamar.

JON PARELES, New York Times

 

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