The second time I saw Black Panther celebrate Black heroes and Black wins, I was in Harlem. I remember kids leaving the Magic Johnson theater kicking the air. They’d seen a movie where the winners looked like us. We watched a movie full of popping cheekbones without fearing that the only one of us in the story might die. We dressed up like a cross between Halloween and Black Thanksgiving. Ankara patterns and head dresses lit up dark theaters.
I remember the first time I started rooting for us on screen. We laced up Grant Hill Filas and hit the block for the 1 o’clock show. It was me, the tall homey Anwar, the stout homey Shapel and a few boxes of beef and broccoli with extra soy sauce that we could sneak in. We heard this was the one where Queen Latifah got gangster. Her character's name was Cleo, and she sprayed off hella rounds at the end. Jada was in it with the micro-braid bob cut looking bad, so we couldn't miss that either.
We crunched popcorn and cackled at sex scenes because we weren’t old enough to experience the horndog, nudity-filled comedies of the mid-to-late '80s. We were virgins to sex scenes on the big screen. In Set It Off, we watched Black women fighting a futile battle for money and power. They had one chance out the hood and couldn't win, but they tried. We were there for the bank robbery and the fatal results. We didn't care how bloody it got if we could get the win.
We also went to hear that song from the soundtrack. We’d been requesting it on the video channel The Box all month. Whenever En Vogue's “Don't Let Go” played, we hoped for the extended video because it showed a strong, brown back. We understood that back wasn't for us, but admired the solid, silky strength. So when the scene played, though brief, we drowned in Dawn's voice. She cried out, “doooon't let go,” and soon, the song wasn't about sex anymore.
Black movie soundtracks shuttle us into a scene’s feelings when we most need that. En Vogue turned the Set It Off visuals into a lumpy mound of suspense in our chests. “Know the Ledge” intensified the post-murder party scene in Juice. Toni Braxton crooned heartbreak when love should’ve brought Marcus home in Boomerang. Our memories, family events and life lessons nestle in notes, ready to be relived on replay.
The Black Panther album curates the experience of family love through conflict. Killmonger loves his nation for its promise. T'Challa loves his nation for its people. They're at odds like we often are: forced to choose between chaotic freedom and orderly misery. Kendrick Lamar knew how to transport us into the world of the movie's embattled sound. With verbal swords slicing, and the TDE crew at his side, Lamar's album stands up to the film's grandeur. He blends homegrown Compton rebelliousness with Afro-Futurist dreams of a return to roots. Beyond that thematic consistency, the soundtrack outdoes its precursors, too.
For a Black movie soundtrack to stand out, it has to hit on three cylinders. The soundtrack and the movie each need to reach equal heights on their own. Check.
The movie Black Panther grossed $631 million in the U.S. and over $1 billion at the international box office in a month. The soundtrack had three Billboard Hot 100-charting hits in "Pray for Me," "All the Stars" and "King's Dead."
The soundtrack has to feature songs that match the mood and plot of the film. Check. "King's Dead" delights in the power transfer from stately T'Challa to militant Killmonger. Future, Jay Rock and Kendrick trade trampling verses over dark bells tolling. Miss them with the bullshit of noble leaders and honor among thieves. The trio only wants to destroy ideals and live on top. "All the Stars" imagines a sovereign Black future with SZA’s call to launch into an unknown cosmos fit for us.
Lastly, the perfect soundtrack blends the gumbo of R&B and hip-hop from that year. “The Ways” tunes into Khalid's rustic voice and sets the story's fiction in our real, contemporary era. "Pray for Me," like much of Kendrick's catalog, includes and declares his self-determination politics with lines like "Who need a hero? You need a hero? Look in the mirror. There go your hero," which both nods at the film and hammers home its message. That cohesion of current Black music voices and trends can make or break the cultural relevance of a soundtrack, and producer Kendrick enrolled a superhero squad of hit makers from the here-and-now.
And there we get the triumph of the Black Panther album. Wakanda is a fictional nation, never occupied by plundering outsiders. In movies past, we couldn't witness a fantasy that free, where, despite conflict, we still won. We had to root for us despite unfriendly demises and cruel villainy. This time, we lived the experience of not having to choose between nation and family. Finally, we got a soundtrack that thrives on us living, us fighting and us victorious.