Film soundtrack review: Black Panther (2018)

In what is perhaps the biggest Marvel film in recent years, we explore the cinematic sound of Black Panther: it’s orchestral score – composed by Ludwig Gooransson – and the accompanying contemporary soundtrack curated by rapper Kendrick Lamar.

Utterly seismic. These are a couple of words which come to mind when describing the two-pronged sound of the latest Marvel release: Black Panther. Set mainly in the fictional country of Wakanda in Africa, both accompanying soundtracks provide a visceral sound to a story which champions and celebrates African culture.

An earth-shaking sound

The orchestral soundtrack proceeds as if it were a film itself, with many electronic and special audio effects entwined into the score, while long pauses and transitions separate the moments of grandeur from the percussion-heavy African sections.

In ‘Wakanda’ appears the main theme of the film’s fictitious setting, and is heard throughout and in various forms. Complementing the vast onscreen African landscapes in its first appearance, a traditional African melody is heard in the form of a visceral solo voice. The proceeding orchestral accompaniment, combined with native-sounding percussion, slowly creeps in, and quickly transforms into an epic sound laden with brass – the latter we feel is very much a staple sound signature in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Although with a 132-piece orchestra, as well as choir at composer Ludwig Göransson’s disposal, it would almost be rude not to include such noise.

The composer also shows moments of ingenuity by neatly rewriting the Wakanda theme into an orchestral setting in ‘Ancestral Plane’. Muscular sounding strings add a new and refined dimension to the theme, which later reappears in the upper registers of the instruments. This brings the emotion to a solemn climax in the scene where T’Challa, the main protagonist, meets his deceased father.

African soundscapes

Image: YouTube

But while Göransson shows prowess in his orchestral arrangements, he also demonstrates a great aptitude at creating powerful and atmospheric African soundscapes. For example, in ‘Warrior Falls’, forceful African drums and chants are laced with delays which reverberate across the wide soundstage.

At its extremes, there are moments where all three elements of orchestral, African and hip-hop sounds meet. Göransson keeps the symphonic music unified in its rhythms, providing room for the percussion and sub bass to breathe in their subtlety. All in all, it’s quite an achievement for this eclectic blend to work so well, considering the diversity of genres heard at once.

Tracks like ‘Killmonger’ and ‘Killmonger’s Challenge’, named after the main villain of the film, exhibit a hip-hop heavy side of the soundtrack, with the seemingly ever-popular trap hi-hat sound appearing alongside the orchestral accompaniment and native African sounds. The hip-hop beats reflect the cultural origins of the young villain, who was raised in America.

An album for the times

Image: YouTube

As well as an orchestral soundtrack, an accompanying hip-hop release was also recorded. Curated by Kendrick Lamar, an artist at the top of his game, the album is titled ‘Black Panther: The Album Music from and Inspired by’ – and inspire it does.

The album’s content signals to the film through references to characters, the original score and the story; the latter permeates through a socially conscious narrative transformed to reflect to the world as we know it.

The opening track speaks from the perspective of T’Challa while a melancholic piano sample meets tribal drums infused with hip-hop beats, imitating the percussion-heavy symphonic soundtrack.

This storytelling continues in ‘Opps’, where Kendrick raps ‘you’re dead to me’ – a direct nod to the villain in the film – over industrial sounding beats. Interestingly, the way he raps the hook is identical to the tuned percussion sounds in ‘Wakanda Origins’ heard in the score. This is a nice musical touch and provides a coherent link between the two soundworlds, however I thought the tracks of the heavily lauded hip-hop release would play a heavier role in the onscreen proceedings.

There are moments of pop-magic in ‘All The Stars’, the lead single from the soundtrack. Guest singer SZA marries an expressive melodic hook to lyrics about connecting with the stars, a symbolic link to the spirits that watch over Black Panther in its own comic book lore.

The album also features guest appearances from James Blake, Anderson .Paak and The Weeknd, showing that this release means serious business.

Futhermore, there is no denying that hip-hop has overtaken rock music in its popularity, with the genre giving a platform for swathes of artists to highlight societal issues on a never-before-seen worldwide scale.

Black Panther confirms this shift in taste, and the film has harnessed the opportunity to bring to fruition a hip-hop album that seamlessly blurs the line between fictional story and real life. This makes for a truly landmark release, testament to the current pop landscape and one that won’t be forgotten, culturally or socially, anytime soon.

– Alex Weston

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