By Eóin Donnelly
DAMN. How in the Hell did this happen? What is going on? One look at the Longitude 2018 line-up is confirmation enough of hip-hop and RnB’s monopoly of the pop culture zeitgeist, but if you told me just one year ago that Kendrick Lamar would be in charge of putting together the soundtrack for what will likely be the biggest movie of 2018- it is breaking new advance ticket sales records with every passing day- I’d have assumed one of three things:
1. You’re a sandwich short of a picnic*;
2. Quentin Tarantino has decided to turn good kid, m.A.A.d city into a Pulp Fiction-esque big-budget film; or worst of all
3. Kendrick sold out.
None of these things happened. Somehow, some way, by some strange act of God, in a world where instant gratification rules supreme and digital positive feedback loops are insidiously corroding our collective spirit, Kendrick Lamar’s obsessive commitment to crafting enduring artistry is slowly but surely capturing the hearts and minds of the entire planet. He broke the locks on mine and jumped right in long ago, but it was with some trepidation that I pressed play on Black Panther: The Album at 2am last night. The worry always eclipses the excitement. I’m terrified of Kendrick letting me down, of the fame subsuming his creative soul in the shell of an ugly imposter that has nothing to say. So far, the hot air balloon hasn’t burst. Kendrick just soars and soars, reaching heights and levels of influence not even his biggest inspirations ever thought possible. 2Pac would sooner have been kicked out of the cinema screaming “THUG LIFE” while tossing popcorn at the bouncer before his name was allowed under the same credits sequence as Walt Disney. Behind all the bullshit and ridiculously-captioned selfies that flood your timelines there is a world of defining cultural movements that are shifting the foundations of the very earth you walk on. After a 2017 dominated both in critical acclaim and commercial success by Kendrick’s fourth studio album DAMN., I was wary of Kendrick’s creative exhaustion. How many great ideas can one man execute? Thankfully Black Panther: The Album is no different, another applause-worthy bullet point on Kendrick’s increasingly venerable resumé as current King of Pop Culture.
I’m glad I booked off work today. I did the same when Kendrick ended ‘The Heart Part 4′ with the warning to his competitors: “Y’all got ’til April 7th to get your shit together.” Get my shit together I did. I promptly booked the day off, blew up some balloons and got a crowd of cronies together to get high on old Mary Jane and higher on new Kendrick flames. Instead all I got was a pre-order link for DAMN. I was as embarrassed as Warden Norton putting his fist through Andy Dufresne’s poster. No such bad luck this time round.
The title track of Black Panther: The Album is one I’ve needed multiple listens to appreciate. It wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted angry Kendrick, ferocious Kendrick, the “I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA” Kendrick. Adopting the persona of central protagonist T’Challa (“I am T’Challa!”), Kendrick uses the word ‘king’ no less than forty-two times to highlight the hero’s regal grandeur. Ahh, there’s that “royalty inside my DNA” Kendrick. Perspective is key. In fact, as he revealed on ‘I Am (Interlude)’ Kendrick is named after King. One black king’s ode to another, the parallels between Kendrick and T’Challa are too obvious to require emphasis. The outstanding achievement of the title track is that the lyrics are specific enough to relate to both the film and Kendrick’s career. Only Kendrick can claim to be the king of empathy, remorse, bloodshed, wisdom and skyscrapers on one verse and have me nodding “Yep, he’s right there” to every line. His ink is blended with the blood of ancient prophets. Even HUMBLE kings have to flex their greatness every now and then.
Credited on just five tracks, hearing Kendrick nevertheless contribute his voice to almost all 14 tracks was like when you found some forgotten present stashed in a closet on Christmas Day and you thought Santa was just being extra cute with the surprises. His omnipresence befits a guiding father à la Nick Fury rather than an insufferably overbearing tyrant AKA DJ Khaled, allowing the lead artists to impose their own aesthetic which Kendrick seamlessly slots into like a chameleon in a shape-shifting competition. One such track is Schoolboy Q’s ‘X’, by far my favourite song on the album, a 2 Chainz and Saudi-featuring barbaric assault with one of Kendrick’s most riot-inducing hooks to date. “Are you on ten yet?” Please, Kendrick. I had to come down from eleven to write this. I’ll need the weekend to be sure of it, but Schoolboy Q’s verse could be the best of the album. In a similar vein, Vince Staples’ Afrofuturist ‘Opps’ sounds like a Big Fish Theory lead single that got lost in a badly formatted hardddive. Conjuring images of clattering bars and dumbbells in the midst of apocalypse, if ‘Opps’ was around in Gandhi’s day he’d have condemned pacifism as a naive fool’s doctrine and bought himself some war paint. “Y’all wanna die in the chase of things/We all gonna die, embrace the thing” may be tattooed on my forehead one day. It’s either that or “hurry up with my damn croissants!”
Elsewhere, Khalid & Swae Lee’s ‘The Ways’ is a beautiful dose of tropical serenity that will steer you into the driving seat of controlling your own thoughts. Every time Khalid sings “power girl” I’m plunged into a version of Happy Gilmore’s happy place where Julia Bowen is Emma Stone and instead of sinking a game-winning putt I’m applying the finishing touches to a book I’m proud of. A man can dream. Moreover, The Weeknd’s ‘Pray For Me’- check out my review– is a fitting closer to a fantastic listening experience that I hope the film can match in ambition and excitement. However, the true main event, let’s get ready to rumbleeeee moment of Black Panther: The Album is Kendrick & man of the moment Travis Scott- who inexplicably is more known in some culturally ignorant circles for being Kylie Jenner’s baby daddy than his music- teaming up for their second collaboration on ‘Big Shot’, an almost hysterically joyful beat that sounds like a jungle party where everyone gets a gigantic helium balloon on entry. I might patent that idea. ‘Big Shot’s’ hook is interpolated from Kendrick’s verse on Rich the Kid’s ‘New Freezer’, backdropped by an exuberant pan flute that Kygo will no doubt be borrowing on a heard-this-a-million-times-before remix near you. After Future’s mega-hit ‘Mask Off’, Drake’s ‘Portland and Kodak Black’s ‘Tunnel Vision’, ‘Big Shot’ is the latest in a long line of recent hip-hop singles that have me wondering if flute rap is its own genre. Never forget Timbaland and Jay-Z done it first.
You need only listen to the horrific Suicide Squad soundtrack to realise that harmonious amalgamations of music and film can be botched operations that spoil the enjoyment of both. For a movie that’s so dedicated to celebrating African heritage and black excellence- to the consternation of some racist idiots– it is refreshing to hear so many influences from the diaspora of African music find their way into this big-budget Marvel soundtrack. Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma ku sa. I’ve never been to Africa, but everyone that comes back from it seems to experience the same eye-opening epiphany that there are people there so much talented than ourselves living in obscurity. It’s tragic to think of the many potential cultural leaders who will never ascend to such a position because Africa is their home. I’d never heard of Babes Wodumo, Yugen Blakrok, Saudi or Sjava before this album shone that glorious light, but owing to my curious nature I wouldn’t be surprised if I was now sent on a wormhole of African music. It will probably end in me getting annoyed at someone’s cultural ignorance and being embroiled in a heated debate on the impact of 90’s Afropop on contemporary hip-hop… or something. Apologies in advance.
In summation, that Kendrick’s DAMN. didn’t win the Grammy for Album of the Year takes the cake and this soundtrack is the pretty cherry on top. In a time where refreshing Instagram feeds is commonplace and the idea of replaying an album you didn’t love or understand every single second of on first listen is blasphemous, the word ‘anomaly’ feels inadequate for Kendrick Lamar. He’d have been an anomaly in any era, in 2018 he’s practically an alien. With each piece of the jigsaw coming together like a grand mural only the colours themselves can do justice to, I can only thank the infinite unknowable cosmic laws that my tiny blip on the universe happens to be synchronised with a form of pop culture domination we haven’t yet seen. Everything Kendrick Lamar does is a cultural milestone that becomes more and more valuable with each passing week. After listening to Black Panther: The Album seven times through, I listened to 2009’s Kendrick Lamar EP in full for the first time in months. It was his first release under his birth name. Before that he went by K-Dot, pretending to be something he wasn’t so he could fit in to what he thought people wanted from him. Trends are transient, truth is forever. Why have an alias when the best story you can tell is your own? It was no coincidence that he began making his best music from that point forward, a constant upward trend that has now reached its peak with Black Panther. It was all downhill for Eminem after 8 Mile and ‘Lose Yourself’, but Kendrick’s single-minded obsession with his creative output and aversion to all vices should mean this is just the beginning. Amidst all the claims to king status on ‘Black Panther’ there is one couplet that lazy ears will miss. “All hail the king, I dropped a million tears/I know several responsibilities put me here”. The weight of cultural responsibility weighs heavy on Kendrick. Curing hearts and minds of hatred is how he measures success. We all appreciate it and that’s why we made that mural in Dublin. Almost a decade on from simply wanting to be heard (‘Wanna Be Heard’), finding God in moments of adversity (‘Faith’) and becoming consumed by feelings of wanderlust as a solution to continuous failure in pursuing his passion (‘Far From Here’), Kendrick Lamar’s voice has went from being the lonely but determined fighting spirit on a modest 2009 mixtape to conquering Hollywood with nouns and verbs. I can never imagine how he feels. Just watching it happen and seeing him rip up the corrupt blueprint of success page-by-page is euphoric to me. Reflecting on how far this generational giant has come, on how different it could’ve been without that unshakeable determination, even without millions of culture nerds like me championing his art is awe-inspiring. All those small positive thoughts leading to action add up to one colossal vibration that cannot be stopped. Whether Compton or Wakanda is where you wield your sword of wisdom, the preservation of will is the most vital ingredient in a hero’s journey. Steel sharpens steel, and great art is eternal in the hands of a grateful audience. All hail Black Panther.
Black Panther is released in U.K. cinemas on February 13th. I’ll be there with my nachos.
* layman’s terms for you’re out of your mind