HIP TO THE GAME
Black Panther: The Album could mark the return of “Black” Cinema
KEVIN KAPENDA // COLUMNIST
When Black cinema and television was at its height between the mid 1980s and early 2000s, many of its titles had soundtracks. These soundtracks helped promote Black hip-hop and post-Motown R&B, which was also taking off during that time. Unlike the afterthought they’ve become this decade, soundtracks in 90s Black titles were more than just a pointless header on a film’s Wikipedia page. Some of the best music of that decade and the early 2000s was made for movies, rather than an artist’s own album.
With shows like Empire on Fox, Atlanta, Insecure and Power on premium-pay networks, Netflix’s Black Lightning, and now Black Panther, it’s safe to say Black cinema and television is back. However, with those music-heavy shows, and Black Panther: The Album, I believe collaboration in Black pop culture is not only returning for a slice of the pie, but the entire bakery.
Black Panther: The Album was arranged by Top Dawg Entertainment CEO Anthony Tiffith and Kendrick Lamar, who both served as executive producers, and has 14 tracks. The project mainly features current TDE artists with appearances from Future, Travis Scott and The Weeknd, as well as African acts Babes Wodumo and Sjava, among others.
Soundtrack music of yesteryear was great because it helped both artists and filmmakers to promote the other’s craft through their respective mediums. At times, singles from soundtracks drop a few weeks in advance of a film’s premiere, to build anticipation and hype. Wiz Khalifa’s and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” for Fast 7, and Lamar and SZA’s “All the Stars” were each released about three weeks before their respective films. “See You Again” went on to become the top-selling song of 2015, moving over 20.9 million units in digital downloads and track-equivalent streams.
Other times, soundtracks will be released simultaneously with films, with singles being released a few weeks after a premiere to prolong the movie’s box office run. Once films are released, they often make singles from its soundtrack immortal, even though those songs may have only been used towards the end of a film, or during the credits. Many people only know Seal’s “Fly Like an Eagle”, and R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” because of Space Jam.
If films weren’t exposing me to great hip-hop and R&B, sometimes it was great music that introduced me to movies. In the 1990s, no song was probably more iconic than Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”— though I can’t bring myself to watch The Bodyguard. One song that introduced me to a great movie that I would have otherwise never known about was Warren G’s and the late Nate Dogg’s “Regulate”. The song, one of Death Row Records’ greatest hits, was made for the 1994 flick Above the Rim, which starred Tupac Shakur, a young Marlon Wayans and introduced the hood to Duane Martin.
Another great song that introduced me to a solid 90s Black movie was En Vogue’s 1996 single “Don’t Let Go (Love)”. The song was made for the film Set it Off, which catapulted the acting careers of Jada Pinkett Smith and Kimberly Elise, while also starring Queen Latifah and Vivica A. Fox. “Don’t Let Go (Love)” remains En Vogue’s most successful single in terms of chart performance, reaching number two on Billboard’s Hot 100, and 83 on their decade chart released in 1999.
With music much more accessible than movies from decades past, partly due to the lack of films (especially Black ones) on Canadian streaming services, soundtrack diamonds allow movies to live forever, like Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” does for the Titanic to this day. While Black Panther: The Album’s “All the Stars” is not one of Kendrick’s most introspective or politically-charged songs, it is one of his best bangers, in the mold of a “Hol’ Up”, “Money Trees” or “Swimming Pools”. Other great songs from the album include “Bloody Waters”, “Redemption” and “Seasons”. The latter two songs feature South African artists, the country whose indigenous languages was used in the film.
Because Black Panther is another installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe film franchise and overall, one of the greatest movies ever made, it is unlikely the soundtrack will be needed to attract viewers. Still, it’s clear that when Black Panther Director Ryan Coogler approached Lamar to make the soundtrack in the summer of 2017, it was to tell the film’s story through music. Something Black movies of decades past used soundtracks to do. Fingers crossed it becomes a trend rather than an exception.