The Story Behind "Black Panther: The Album"

By Matt Callahan

“Black Panther” is currently #1 at the box office, and its companion album— straightforwardly titled “Black Panther: the Album”— has snagged #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. While this is not unexpected with the full power of Disney’s marketing machine behind these two projects, this is still a major victory for Kendrick Lamar.

Not only is this Lamar’s fourth album in a row to top the Billboard chart, but he brought his team along to do it. The album is curated by Kendrick and produced by Top Dawg Entertainment, Lamar’s record label. Lamar's ability to make this album with Disney's backing while still maintaining a level of creative control is a feat not many artists could accomplish.

The story of how this album came together was part serendipity, part ingenuity. Ryan Coogler, “Black Panther’s” director, had been a fan of Kendrick Lamar since before they worked together (obviously, how could you not be a fan of Kendrick Lamar?). In an interview with NPR, Coogler commented on meeting the rapper, “He talked about my movies that he had seen, and we said if the opportunity comes, we'd love to work with each other on something.” That opportunity came with “Black Panther.”

During the making of “Black Panther,” after Kendrick had finished work on his most recent personal album, “DAMN,” the two sat down again. Coogler showed Lamar what had been made of the movie so far, intending on securing a Kendrick Lamar song or two for the film’s soundtrack. Kendrick was apparently so inspired by what he saw that he decided to go all out and make a full album for the project.

Most artists would gladly accept the opportunity to make a couple songs for such a major release. But that’s what sets King Kendrick apart from the rest, the drive and tenacity to turn the possibility of a couple songs into an entire album. He has secured a prepackaged cultural movement through the film’s massive marketing push, a wave that he has ridden to commercial and critical success. And with this money and power granted to him by Disney, Kendrick is choosing to share his enormous platform with the artists he sees fit. British singer Jorja Smith gets a whole track to herself, despite the fact that she's never even released an album. There are big name features like Future, Travis Scott and The Weeknd, but what’s more intriguing are the artists you haven’t heard of, like South African club duo Zacari and Babes Wodumo. The ability to incorporate these disparate influences into one cohesive piece makes this more than just a soundtrack — it makes this a concept album, where the concept just happens to be a movie.

But it is still a soundtrack, and it functions as such. Kendrick collaborated with the film’s composer, Ludwig Göransson, to make sure the sound fit thematically. In turn, Göransson found ways to weave Kendrick’s sound into the film.

As other major studios observe the commercial success of this album, it is likely we will see more big name collabs on soundtracks in the future. But the trend is not exclusive to big-budget releases: Sufjan Stevens made original songs for “Call Me by Your Name.” The union of music and film is not new, but as both artforms progress, I look forward to seeing music influencing film and film influencing music more and more.

Photo Credit: Bryan Ward