Why Black Panther: The Album is ‘a stroke of genius’

Kendrick Lamar in the music video for “All the Stars” (Credit: Aftermath Records)

In its first two weeks, Black Panther has broken box office records and become an international and cultural phenomenon. While the film has enjoyed tremendous success in theaters worldwide, it’s also made waves in the music industry.

The soundtrack, curated by rapper Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg Entertainment founder Anthony Tiffith, stands alone as a complement to the film. Lamar recruited artists from different countries in Africa, similar in the way the film’s director, Ryan Coogler, casted actors across various African nations. The album, much like the movie, was created more as a storytelling device to explore themes of duality of identity and the African diaspora.

Mark Lomanno, visiting assistant professor in the Department of Music, has already incorporated the soundtrack into the curriculum for two of his courses—“Music in Everyday Life” and “Hip Hop in the Music Industry”—and he says it’s facilitated dynamic discussion. Though he doesn’t have a favorite track, he’s been listening to Vince Staples’ “Opps” quite a bit lately. We asked him about the significance of Black Panther: The Album, which has topped the Billboard 200 charts for two straight weeks.

What are some of your initial thoughts on the album?

While Kendrick Lamar’s process is not uncommon, I think the album is uncommon in how exceptional it is and how much attention it’s receiving by being attached to a blockbuster film. In many films, especially in the 90s and early 2000s, there was a correlation between the soundtrack and the movie either because the film’s subject matter was related to hip-hop, or, to a lesser extent, there was a curated album like what Kendrick Lamar did for this film. I think that, in terms of the moment we’re in right now as a society, the attention that Kendrick is getting, the unbelievable artistry and talent that he has, this album presents a unique confluence of a hugely popular film enterprise in Marvel Studios and hip-hop culture.

What struck you most about the content of the album, as it relates to the movie?

Some people have wondered why the film doesn’t include more music from the album. I think there are two reasons. One is that hip-hop plays a very particular role in Black Panther; it’s associated most closely with California and with Killmonger, but not necessarily with Wakanda or the character of Black Panther. So you’re more apt to hear music from the album when scenes are set in California and when there are scenes centered around conflict associated with the coming-together of Wakanda and the outside world. That’s the way hip-hop was incorporated in the film itself. But the other thing—and what I really think is the stroke of genius with this album—is that having an album with a lot of music that wasn’t included in the film was very intentional and actually amplifies the impact of both the album and the film. They resonate with each other and each augments the power of the other.

The film draws on a long history of Afrofuturism, which dates from the mid-20th century in terms of music. Oftentimes, because of the fact that Afrofuturism has dealt with addressing contemporary social inequalities and expressed a politics of hope for a better present and near-future, the messages can get a little bit lost because they’re dealing with spaceships or aliens or that sort of thing. The album is magnificent in its intentionality—there’s no mistaking that, both in the choice to work with Kendrick and the actual content of the album, the politics of hope that are expressed throughout the film are meant to address our present-day world. To invoke Afrofuturism in this way is to say, “let’s really look at our present and the ways in which these problems of the near future are actually happening in our lives right now.”

It seems like there are two parts to the album, when Kendrick Lamar addresses himself as either T’Challa or Killmonger. And those hip-hop tracks on the album seemed to play into the duality of Kendrick as Killmonger, in particular.

That’s a really interesting point, because, after you see the film, the associations that Kendrick is making with Killmonger make a lot more sense. The times at which you hear the album in the movie are most closely tied to Killmonger. At the end of the movie, though, T’Challa and Shuri are in California and they’re talking about bridging the two worlds. So in a sense, I think that Kendrick identifies with both T’Challa and Killmonger. And that’s kind of the point of Afrofuturism anyway; there is, what W.E.B. Du Bois called double consciousness—at least two ways of thinking about what it means to be a black person or a person who identifies with the African diaspora in the world; and we see that split up in the film in part through the characters of T’Challa and Killmonger. I think this is another genius stroke of the album: in these two characters, we have two different kinds of black consciousness and this dynamic plays out in the album as well in part through Lamar’s mobility as artist, curator, and Afro-diasporic subject.

Typically, film soundtracks don’t tend to do as well commercially. How has Black Panther: The Album taken the concept of a soundtrack to a different sonic experience?

I think there’s a sense that this album is about more than just music that goes along with the film. There’s an intentionality to it. The power of Kendrick’s music as a form of social protest and the artistry of his music are coming together in a very unique way. The confluence of artistry and social commentary communicates an intentionality within the album that resonates very strongly with people. Almost every week there’s an important, urgent issue that is being worked through in mainstream media and public discourse, whether it’s the Parkland shooting, the #MeToo movement, or Black Lives Matter. These are incidents that resonate strongly with people and, at the same time, create a need for addressing the inequalities that these incidents bring to light. Redressing these situations is something that’s on a lot of people’s minds, no matter which particular inequalities or social injustices someone may be considering. Working with Kendrick and invoking the history of Afrofuturism and black popular culture in the United States at a moment when, as a society, we’re dealing with the resurgence of a lot of injustices that have been around for a long time—coupled with the album’s and the film’s releases occurring during Black History Month—are all factors in the album’s success, and the film more generally. From an industry point of view, it is an intelligent and well-thought-out, cross-media marketing campaign. But at the same time, thanks to the content of Lamar’s album, the messages of Black Panther’s platform are not being lost.