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Kendrick Lamar Channels A Superhero's Conflicts And Strength On 'Black Panther'


This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "Black Panther" has a new soundtrack album on which rapper Kendrick Lamar plays a prominent role. His album "DAMN." was our rock critic Ken Tucker's No. 1 album of 2017. Here's Ken's review of the "Black Panther" soundtrack.


THE WEEKND: (Singing) I'm always ready for a war again, go down that road again. It's all the same. I'm always ready to take a life again. You know I'll ride again. It's all the same. Tell me who's going to save me from myself when this life is all I know. Tell me who's going to save me from this hell. Without you, I'm all alone. Who going to pray for me?

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That song, "Pray For Me," is a collaboration between Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd. That's The Weeknd supplying the vocal you just heard. It's the most conventional movie music on this soundtrack album - a big, dramatic ballad to set the mood. Compare that to the opening cut on the album, which Lamar delivers from the point of view of the Black Panther himself.


KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) All hail the king. I dropped a million tears. I know several responsibilities put me here. I don't pedal backwards, but I live old-fashioned. The lens that I'm looking through won't prescribe me the right glasses. The masses are now free - ashes I'm dumping out 'bout to spread all across seas. Sisters and brothers in unison not because of me - because we don't glue with the opposition. We glue with peace but still (expletive) up your organization if any beef.

(Rapping) What do you stand for? Are you an activist? What are city plans for? Are you an accident? Are you just in the way, your native tongue contradicting what your body language say? Are you a king, or you joking? Are you a king, or you posing? Are you a king, or your smoking (expletive) to keep you open because the king don't cry. King don't die. King don't lie. King give heart. King get by. King don't fall. Kingdom come when I come - you know why. I am T'Challa.

TUCKER: That lonely-sounding, repeated piano figure suggests the isolation of a besieged hero. The build intention as Lamar's voice echoes off the sides of the melody introduces more drama. It's Lamar's original take on how to illustrate a comic book movie through music. Like so many soundtrack albums, this one aims to include some hit singles that will help promote the movie. Lamar has already scored a big one with this duet with the singer SZA called "All The Stars."


SZA: (Singing) This may be the night that my dreams might let me know all the stars are closer. All the stars are closer. All the stars are closer. This may be the night that my dreams might let me know all the stars are closer. All the stars are closer. All the stars are closer.

LAMAR: (Rapping) Tell me what you going to do to me. Confrontation ain't nothing new to me. You could bring a bullet, bring a sword, bring a morgue, but you can't bring the truth to me. You and all your expectations - I don't even want your congratulations. I recognize your false confidence and calculated promises all in your conversation. I hate people that feel entitled.

TUCKER: The "Black Panther" comic books I've read as a kid featured T'Challa, who was king of the African nation of Wakanda as well as being the masked hero Black Panther. He's both a dignified leader of people and a cool, costumed superhero torn between these two responsibilities. Kendrick Lamar has clearly thought about the internal strife of T'Challa as he helped to compose the moody ruminations in "Bloody Waters," a track featuring the vocals of Anderson .Paak.


YHUNG TO: (Rapping) Meet the man in the mask. Meet the man in the mask.

JAMES BLAKE: (Singing) All those days and all that stays, and I don't keep it. I won't be here for it. All those days and all that stays. And I don't keep it, though I won't be here for it.

ANDERSON .PAAK: (Singing) Yes, Lord, Hail Mary's in the sky. False prophets get buried alive - head on the throne 'cause that's where I reside. Ways of the world - the weak won't survive. Something's in the water. Hey, my (expletive), we lawless. Please move with caution. Who set the fairway? Damn, right, I need all this. Yeah, Jack, I need all this.

AB-SOUL: (Rapping) Hitters acquitted with fingerprints on the (expletive), screaming, we going to make it like two-thirds of The Lox.

LAMAR: (Rapping) Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

AB-SOUL: (Rapping) Blah, blah becomes blah, blah.

TUCKER: There's a wide range of music on this album. Lamar invites other musicians from his record label Top Dawg Entertainment to contribute music to which he adds vocals, hooks and rhymes. In addition, there's Vince Staples, who continues the sonic experiments he started on last year's album "Big Fish Theory" with a new song called "Opps." And the up-and-coming British vocalist Jorja Smith sounds great singing against the strange, draggingly slow beat of the song "I Am."


JORJA SMITH: (Singing) I'm trying. I'm just - yeah, I'm just - yeah. I been out here trying to see homecoming. And of course somebody's always going to say something. Try and shoot to me for voicing my own opinion, triggering a part of me that's always been indifferent. And I know that we have asked for change. Don't be scared to put the fears to shame. When you know what you got...

TUCKER: The level on which Kendrick Lamar connects to a superhero like Black Panther is in identifying with the struggle of a protagonist who faces not only enemies trying to oppress him but also internal struggles, conflicting emotions and temptations. And with almost super-heroic strength - musical strength, that is - he turns all of this into sounds that are shrewd, passionate and almost ridiculously entertaining.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed the soundtrack album for the new movie "Black Panther," which opens on Friday.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The bloodthirsty cartel known as MS-13 has infiltrated our schools.

GROSS: We'll look at President Trump's anti-immigration policies and how he's used the gang MS-13 to justify them. And we'll discuss what MS-13 is and how it was originally formed. My guest will be Jonathan Blitzer, a New Yorker staff writer who covers immigration. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineers Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


LAMAR: I am Killmonger.

ZACARI: (Singing) No one's perfect. But no one's worthless. We ain't deserving of everything heaven and Earth is. But word is good.

LAMAR: This is my home.

ZACARI: (Singing) No one's perfect, but no one's worthless. We ain't deserving of everything heaven and Earth is. But word is good.

LAMAR: Northern California. (Rapping) Aye, they better call a paramedic is the street. I got leverage in the street. I'm a California (expletive), and I'm heavy in the streets.

SLIMMY B: (Rapping) Twenty-two or .23 - I'm heavy with the heat - hit you with this chop. Paramedics can't save you. Really in the field - come on, bro. I know that ain't you. 2018 - hell, no, I ain't going to (expletive) you. TDE and SOB - can't lose. Man, that's just something I can't relate to. Turn on the gang - that's just something that I can't do. That's just something that I can't do. Rip every beat I get on - I was made to, get to growling something like a Black Panther - trying to touch a mil - (expletive) get your bands up. (Expletive) with the gang, yeah I had to man up - one fist in the air. I ain't finna put my hands up. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.