During “Fuck Your Ethnicity,” the very first song on Kendrick Lamar’s very first album, a robotic voice beamed in with this: “Reporting live from Planet Terminator X, I am Martin Luther King with an AK-47.”
That moment feels prescient after the release of Black Panther, the Marvel superhero story soundtracked by Lamar. There’s the line’s sci-fi, futuristic concept. There’s the nod to black nationalism and hip-hop history with the mention of Public Enemy’s Terminator X. And there’s the twinning of symbols of violence with nonviolence, suggesting that even a champion of compassion might still sometimes have to pick up a weapon.
Ryan Coogler’s absorbing Black Panther uses the hidden high-tech African utopia of Wakanda as the setting to explore a question well familiar in the arc of history. What should people routinely exploited by racist systems do? Individually pursue their own success? Band together and fight back? Or find a third way? As my colleague Vann Newkirk writes, Black Panther fits into a long lineage as “a fantasy about black power”—and about how best to use that power.
Midway through the production process, Coogler screened some of his footage for Lamar, the Compton rapper whose blend of brainy, socially engaged introspection and forward-thinking sonic vision has made him one of the decade’s most important musical figures. What he saw so thrilled Lamar that he went beyond his initial assignment of one or two original songs and ended up co-producing a full soundtrack with his label boss Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith. You can understand why he pounced. Coogler’s movie, which has earned the fifth biggest box-office opening of all time, not only rewrites Hollywood’s norms around racial representation. It’s also a day-glo, big-budget, action-packed depiction of the same conflicts that animate Lamar’s career.
Lamar and Top Dawg Entertainment’s final product, the No. 1–selling Black Panther: The Album, doesn’t constrain itself with too many literal shout-outs to the movie. But with its polyglot swirl of sounds and voices—soft and hard, fast and slow, American and African—it mimics the film’s aesthetics. More deeply, it plays with the film’s ideas, and subtly points to how hip-hop as a whole has always played with those ideas.