Anticipation was already high for new Marvel movie Black Panther. Then Kendrick Lamar announced he was readying a tie-in album, featuring Vince Staples, James Blake, SZA and more, and excitement tipped into hysteria. The film’s director Ryan Coogler tells Al Horner how the soundtrack came to be and why it’s an important appendage to a culturally crucial movie.
Black Panther begins in Oakland, California because that’s where it began for Ryan Coogler. The director grew up in the city where his history-making new blockbuster purrs into action. Coogler’s love for Black Panther started early, at the comic book store next to his elementary school that he walked into as a child and requested a superhero who looked like him. He was pointed toward the saga of T’Challa, the newly crowned king of a hidden Afrofuturist metropolis named Wakanda. The day he got the call offering him the job of bringing it to the big screen, in the biggest-ever film written, directed, designed by and starring black talent, he travelled back to that store and contemplated the task ahead.
Coogler’s Bay Area roots are repped not just in Black Panther‘s opening scene, but also on the film’s Kendrick Lamar-curated soundtrack album, which features Vallejo crew SOB x RBE among a star-studded list of artists from across British, South African, Ethiopian and American black music. “Gotta represent the Bay Area,” he grins today, in a London hotel room before the movie’s European premiere. He and Kendrick had “talked back and forth about artists I wanted to represent” on the tie-in album: “A lot of these were artists he was already familiar with and had relationships with.” But the overall track list was a surprise, as was the sheer level of Lamar’s involvement, appearing on and co-writing all 14 tracks. “Haha!” he laughs incredulously when asked if he was expecting such a broad list of stars, from Vince Staples and The Weeknd to SZA and James Blake. “When I saw the final roster, it was mind-blowing, man. I’m really excited for people to hear it.”
Hailed by the New York Times as “a defining moment for black America,” the film’s place in the popular Marvel Cinematic Universe and embrace of blackness and black talent has represented, for some, a small victory in a struggle for representation that’s still got a long way to go. Coogler, directing a majority-black cast that includes Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o, has described the story as an “exploration of what it means to be African.” Naturally, he thought of Kendrick, whose grapples with ancestry, identity and calm in the face of aggression chime with those at the heart of Black Panther, and with whom he’d met previously to discuss a collaboration.
“We met a couple years ago,” explains Coogler, who had just finished work on his acclaimed Rocky sequel/reboot, Creed. “We talked about things he was doing over at TDE and we kinda said, ‘Look man, if the opportunity comes up, if our schedules line up, we should find a way to work together.’” When Kendrick finished DAMN., Coogler was able to “sit down, show him some footage from the film, talk about how it was working” and convince him to come on board for a soundtrack inspired by 1990s tie-in albums, on which “artists would take themes and make music inspired by the themes.”
The result is a compilation of songs that, truth be told, only occasionally dovetail with the dilemmas facing the film’s characters. It’s powerful when they do, though: on its eponymous opening track, African tribe drums give way to a sober Kendrick verse about how crowns can weigh heavy on the heads of those who wear them (“king of the past, present, future, my ancestors watchin”). Elsewhere, the subject of identity hangs over Jorja Smith’s ‘I Am’ like a cloud, while ‘Seasons’ features verses sung entirely in Zulu alongside signature insight from Mozzy on systemic oppression. “Trapped in the system, traffickin’ drugs, modern-day slavery, African thugs,” the Sacramento MC raps.
Kendrick’s albums boast huge production values but ultimately impress with their underlying message. Similarly, it’s the human stories beneath the superhero spectacle of Black Panther that Coogler thinks will stick with people. “I don’t think the project would have been right for me if there wasn’t potential for that human element,” he says. “When you’re younger, those [action moments] stick. But as I’ve got older, I remember the emotional bits — the situational dynamics that characters end up in. For T’Challa, his character arc is all in his reverence for his father, his reverence for the past. And that’s what makes him special, but also his flaw. It’s what he has to overcome.” Black Panther and its soundtrack album both feel like steps away from the past, into a future that’s overdue.
Al Horner is Editor-In-Chief of FACT. Find him on Twitter.