Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples Get Upstaged on ‘Opps’

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Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

If it’s not quite redundant to say that the soundtrack for Black Panther is, well, a soundtrack, blame Kendrick Lamar. His audience has grown accustomed to the Compton superstar traversing five dimensions in each individual album; it’s easy to imagine that the Panther soundtrack, curated and produced by Lamar and featuring him on every track, is operating along similar polyvalent lines. Like his proper collections, Black Panther: The Album is a stage for political statements channeled through religious callings and personal commitments. “It’s all prophecy, and if I gotta die for the greater good then that’s what it gotta be,” Lamar spits on closer “Pray for Me.”

But the collection is also, to a unique degree, an opportunity for dispensing patronage and building alliances. On many tracks, Lamar’s vocals peek in like a gifted party host, introducing disparate sounds and artists to each other and supplying them with an occasion to converse before tastefully fading away. SZA and Kendrick’s Black Hippy teammates Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, and Schoolboy Q all get a prime slot to flaunt their powers of language. “Pray for Me” affirms a prior partnership with the Weeknd; other tracks do the same with Travis Scott and Future. Lesser-known artists from SoCal to South Africa to Sacramento have a chance to deliver star turns, and do so; delegations from Atlanta and London are honorably received. It’s a chance for Kendrick to be the circumference instead of the center of the world: Imagine Graceland fused with Wakanda and distilled into a playlist. Lamar’s sense of perfect timing and competition manifest more indirectly: BP:TA’s 49-minute length compares favorably to Drake’s own African-inflected playlist More Life, which, though not a soundtrack, is as long as a feature film.

“Opps” is the track that sums up his vision for the whole collection. Consciously or not, Vince Staples has been operating as a kind of understudy to Kendrick. Like Kendrick, he is, at 24, a precocious, critically acclaimed, and politically astute talent. Kendrick’s pairing of Staples with Ludwig Göransson’s racing Afro-EDM beat shows a keen awareness of Staples’s current instrumental comfort zone, and Staples slices through the hurtling digital sonics with a delivery exuding, as always, next-level cool under extreme pressure.

It seems improbable that Vince’s poker-faced precision and Kendrick’s calibrated bursts of arrogance could be upstaged, but that’s exactly what happens once South African rapper Yugen Blakrok arrives: Rich with colorful metaphors and varying in flow, her 24-bar third verse immediately eclipses her more famous partners.

I’m half-machine, obscene with the light sword;
Look inside the brain, it’s a ride in the psych ward.
What you standing on the side for?
Roar like a lioness, punch like a cyborg.
Spit slick, my attack is subliminal:
Flowers on my mind, but my rhyme style sinister;
Stand behind my own bars like a seasoned criminal.

In less than 45 seconds, South Africa is back on the hip-hop atlas in a big way. But where A Tribe Called Quest or Dr. Dre referenced the struggle against apartheid in the ’90s, now South Africa itself, liberated, has given rise to a rapper who can match the highest standards of the genre. The prospect of black self-determination is a theme strong enough to link fictional Wakanda with the real red Compton, blue Long Beach, and rainbow-flag Johannesburg. If reality often falls short of the moving image, that hardly subtracts from its power when, accompanied by thrilling music, the execution proves so masterful.

Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples Get Upstaged on ‘Opps’