Kendrick Lamar kicks off the Black Panther soundtrack by rapping the word king 29 times in 50 seconds, in yet another of those dexterous verbal explosions that made him famous, made him beloved, made him royalty. “King of the shooters, looters, boosters, and ghettos poppin’,” he thunders. “King of the past, present, future, my ancestors watchin’.” There is imperial majesty here—as befits the rough-consensus Best Rapper Alive—but unease and anxiety, too. Halfway through, the beat switches from a gentle piano-recital lullaby to something darker and harder, the bass hits reverberating as though somebody’s pounding on his front door. Lamar, in response, grows more confrontational:
What do you stand for?
Are you an activist? What are your city plans for?
Are you an accident? Are you just in the way?
Your native tongue contradicting what your body language say?
Are you a king or are you jokin’?
Are you a king or you posin’?
This might be Lamar interrogating his fellow contenders to the throne; it might be those contenders interrogating him. He might be rapping from the perspective of T’Challa, also known as the Black Panther, as the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe superstar assails his own enemies and would-be usurpers; Lamar might be impersonating one of those usurpers himself. Regardless, in a mere two minutes, he sets a tone of total command and severe anxiety. How bright the crown gleams, and how heavy it hangs.
Black Panther: The Album is a curatorial project, similar to when Lorde snuck Grace Jones onto the soundtrack to the third Hunger Games movie back in 2014. Overseen by Lamar and label head Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, it brings together old friends and new, crowing superstars and bloodthirsty up-and-comers, stretching from Lamar’s Southern California stronghold to Atlanta to South Africa.
It’s a victory lap for Kendrick following the triumph of last year’s chart- and year-end-list-topping Damn., a label showcase for Lamar and Tiffith’s Top Dawg Entertainment, and a curious travelogue meant to evoke T’Challa’s fictional African nation of Wakanda. Most of all, though, it’s a killer mixtape, a 14-track whirlwind that cycles through various genres, moods, personalities, and intensity levels without ever losing its command or cohesion. Lamar’s voice is all over it, whether he’s top-billed on any given track or not. But there are plenty of other notable and commanding voices, too.
There’s a striking depth to it all, as Lamar audibly and viscerally wrestles with both the joys and the pitfalls of his status as the reigning Best Rapper Alive. Black Panther, as a multiplex-throttling cinematic event, is saddled with ludicrously high expectations and bound to trigger both widespread euphoria and a fierce backlash when it finally opens on Friday. The good people of the internet are already violently arguing about the movie’s sky-high Rotten Tomatoes score. Maybe just stay off IMDb altogether.
This discourse is all very exciting and not a little tiresome. It’s also yet another reason Kendrick Lamar was the perfect artist to handle the soundtrack: Who knows more about contending with ludicrously high expectations, to the point where he’s seemingly carrying an entire culture on his back?
It’s the brightest and smoothest and shiniest track Lamar has graced since (yikes) “Bad Blood”; the mood is exultant, except that his first verse is a lengthy treatise on how many of his loudest admirers only weigh him down. “Fuck you and all your expectations,” he raps. “I don’t even want your congratulations.” Furthermore:
I hate people that feel entitled
Look at me crazy ’cause I ain’t invite you
Oh, you important? You the moral to the story? You endorsin’?
Motherfucker, I don’t even like you
This is an odd lyrical approach to take on easily this project’s cheeriest song. This album is very, very good in those moments when Lamar is bombastically surveying his kingdom or coaching up the next generation of world conquerors. But it’s truly great in those moments when you get a sense of how lonely it is at the top, and how all the hangers-on trying to bask in your glory only make you feel lonelier.
Black Panther: The Album contains multitudes, but blesses those multitudes with a singular focus. “The Ways,” a breezy tropical-poolside valentine cooed by Khalid and Swae Lee, morphs seamlessly into “Opps,” a summit between Lamar and Vince Staples that adopts the EDM-rap bravado of Staples’s excellent 2017 album Big Fish Theory. Both rappers are in their element, electrified and aggrieved: “Fuck y’all want from me?” Kendrick’s verse begins, those pounding-on-the-door bass blurts now sped up and transformed into a thumping house beat.
But the crowning touch is that both guys are brazenly upstaged by Yugen Blakrok, a Johannesburg rapper whose 2013 album was called Return of the Astro-Goth. Her verse is an unexpected album highlight: “Stack bodies, not figurines / Move beneath the surface, submarine / I’m half-machine, obscene with a light sword / Look inside the brain, it’s a ride in the psych ward.”
The album’s slower, dreamier moments keep things from getting too dense or claustrophobic. Anderson .Paak and James Blake respectively preach and warble their way through “Bloody Waters”; hard-boiled English singer Jorja Smith moans with hurricane force on “I Am,” making even vulnerability sound indomitable. But likely you’ve come to Black Panther for BARS, and BARS you shall have. Lamar is always happy to dominate, as he does on the moody “X,” which features longtime Top Dawg cohort Schoolboy Q, 2 Chainz in a particularly rambunctious mood, and the young South African rapper Saudi. But he has deferential moments, too. On the whimsically menacing “Paramedic!,” Lamar lets the raucous and underaged Vallejo rap quartet SOB X RBE—think of them as Northern California’s rougher answer to Brockhampton—dominate. There’s very little polish to it, but that, of course, is a huge part of the appeal.
“King’s Dead” might be, bar for bar, Black Panther’s best rappity-rap moment. Future shows up, sounding nearly as cracked and ethereal as James Blake does. And fellow Top Dawg luminary Jay Rock comes on like best-case-scenario Big Sean, a little goofy and a lot ambitious: “I’ve been ready / My whip been ready / My bitch been ready / My clique been ready,” he raps, working himself into a Kendrickesque lather that resolves into a chant of “I gotta go get it / I gotta go get it / I gotta go get it / I gotta go get it.”
The record ends with two of Lamar’s highest-profile collaborations: Travis Scott on the flute-riff-driven “Big Shot” and the Weeknd on the fatalistic and self-aggrandizing “Pray for Me.” (“It’s all prophecy,” Lamar raps, “And If I gotta be sacrificed for the greater good / Then that’s what it gotta be.”) But “Seasons,” a slow crawl with funereal piano and a piercing falsetto hook—”Seasons change / There’s still time for us to run away”—is better than both of them.
Lamar is a spectral presence, mournfully doubling a few lines during a downcast verse from Sacramento street rapper Mozzy, but otherwise letting the track unsteadily breathe. The South African singer Sjava turns the words “Poverty / Jealousy / Negativity” into an arresting hook, and the Southern California rapper Reason caps it with a dominant verse of his own: “I carry my city like guilt that ain’t got no forgiveness / No way out, shit we locked in the system.”
Everyone on Black Panther: The Album is carrying an overwhelming weight: their cities, their boundless potential, or, in the case of the biggest stars, their spectacular reputations, terrible burdens that double as ungodly-powerful weapons. It’s great fun trying to map this record to the allegedly paradigm-shattering movie that inspired it, pinpointing the action scenes, the mournful scenes, the GIFs and memes yet to be born. But it’s likewise hard not to project all these boasts and gripes and declarations onto Lamar himself, a critical darling secure in his dominance but eager to prove that he’s got plenty left to prove. He is hell-bent on clarifying who he is and who he is not, who he represents and who he does not. The boldest-face names on this record don’t necessarily sound the boldest. But in this and so many other ways, Kendrick is the riveting exception.