A soundtrack with its eye on the score

Coming of age in the 1990s, an age when Hollywood and hip-hop were newly locked in holy matrimony, a fair share of our music listening was made up of motion picture soundtracks.

Sometimes these soundtracks were tenuously connected to whatever film they were supposedly appended to. Often times, it boiled down to one or two songs that in some way reminded you, by way of a video, to seek out the film.

Who remembers anything of the Boyz n the Hood soundtrack? By the same token, who ever watched Soul in the Hole? And yet the soundtrack to the latter film was filled with the best that Nineties hip-hop had to offer. What exactly was Murder Was the Case other than an opportunity to capitalise on Snoop’s legal woes and the success of Doggystyle, his debut?

Of course, the auteurs of the film industry always took better care. Stevie Wonder’s Misrepresented People and Marc Dorsey’s People in Search of a Life are two songs that ensure that the relevant Spike Lee films (Bamboozled and Clockers) have an effect from the get go. But, as cohesive albums, the soundtracks to both films had their fair share of expendable material, with the good parts making the collections worthy souvenirs.

Black Panther: The Album perhaps forms part of this example. A grand, epochal movie — hyped to the core — meeting the vision of a record label (Top Dawg Entertainment) that has the hip-hop world in a chokehold.

Soundtracks are not scores. At best, they are marketing gimmicks with a pretence at a soul.

And yet, for the most part, Black Panther: The Album, executive produced by Top Dawg chief executive Anthony Tiffith and star player Kendrick Lamar is a listenable companion piece to the movie. Accounting for much of that is the decision to keep most of the production and performances in-house, (Sounwave is credited with most of the tracks), while — in keeping with the film’s themes — making a calculated leap at diversity within the diaspora.

The second aspect meets dubious success. All The Stars, the soundtrack’s first single (featuring Kendrick and SZA) has already misfired with an uncredited pilfering of Liberian-American artist Lina Iris Viktor’s work for its video (directed by The Little Homies and Dave Meyers).

On the other side of that, you have the global emergence of a South African emcee who has quietly been sharpening her skills in the country’s underground scene. Yugen Blakrok, a member of the Yeoville-based Iapetus Records, has, in some quarters, been the talk of the release — with Billboard naming her verse the best of the album. As the story went, Yugen murked both Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar when she laid her verse down in the song Opps.

An atmospheric, drum-propelled and club-ready song, it has one of those brisk, four-on-the-floor beats that require serious flowing skills. Lamar and Staples prove themselves to be gymnasts on the track, variously dealing with the alienation and profiling of black men, in particular, building up the anticipation for what Yugen will do when her turn comes.

But as Digital Zain pointed out to me in an online conversation, what the two bring to the track is somewhere outside the ambit of pure rhyming. They bring presence, fire, intensity. Bar for bar, however, Yugen has hers gilded, as if every moment in her career has been leading up to this one verse.

She approaches her mic duties with the precision that is all over her 2013 album Return of the Astro-Goth. But whereas producer Kanif Sebright’s signature, spacey production forces Yugen’s rhymes to be emitted at a steadily tumbling pace, the beat to Opps (credited to Sounwave and Ludwig Goransson) has sonic interjections and intermittent pauses that turn it into something of an obstacle course.

The beat, by its nature, leads her to truncate her couplets. Her poise, though, draws attention to her words instead of subduing them. The end result is that her manifesto is clear, laced with imagery for days (“Young Millie Jackson back to the shit”) and entendres that reference the comic origins of the film as well as the Black Panther Party.

In an age where the term slaying is bandied about recklessly, that “Young Millie Jackson …” line takes on samurai-esque gravitas.

Of course, Opps is among the better tracks on a compilation some have been calling a de facto Kendrick album, but there is still a lot to choose from here, in terms of a “curated playlist”.

Other South Africans flying the flag on this compilation are Sjava, whose hook and verse on Seasons, a collaboration with West Coast rappers Mozzy and Reason (not to be confused with the South African rapper of the same name) prove the tag to his self-styled music movement (African Trap Music) as something of a misnomer.

His brief verse (sung in isiZulu) and the hook (in English) transform the track, sounding at once like it was voiced in the hills of KwaZulu-Natal and a studio somewhere near Waterhouse in Jamaica. He transcends locale and holds his own against the pair of rappers.

The two-for-the-price-of-one tag team of Babes Wodumo and Mampintsha are somewhat forgettable in the gqom-lite/R&B mishmash that is Redemption, also starring the falsetto voiced by Zacari. But perhaps here, the fault is with the beat more than it is with the performances, which fails to inspire the verbal and sonic mayhem we have come to associate with gqom.

Thematically, there are plenty of moments where participants go out of their way to relate to the themes of the film. Kendrick’s verse in the opener Black Panther, for example, channels T’Challa, the lead character. Khalid and Swae Lee’s wispy The Ways, is possibly culled from a love interest in the film.

In parts of the album, there have been some efforts to avoid the disjointed nature of motion picture soundtracks, with songs like Paramedic! (starring SOB x RBE), the excellent Bloody Waters (with Ab-Soul, Anderson .Paak and James Blake) and King’s Dead (with Jay Rock, Future and James Blake) more or less segueing into each other.

But ultimately this is a compilation and the focus is scattershot, with black nationalist themes and gang codes existing side by side, pretty much as they would on a Kendrick album.

The need for Kendrick to be present on most tracks can be grating at times, as the only logical form for some of his contributions is by way of ad libs or some such nominal contribution. But perhaps that’s all part of the fine print.

More than film soundtrack, Black Panther: The Album is a testament of a new generation of ghetto youths, whose experiences span further than the confines of California.

But, as Saudi’s verse proves in the song X, South Africa is still a safe space for Americans looking for an echo-chamber approach to diversity.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.
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