This post was originally edited and published for Christ and Pop Culture’s Twelvetide, their version of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” song.
This year, 2018, featured films that surpassed the bar of excellence in cinematography, theater, and animation in ways that shifted American culture that is sure to have a lasting impact for decades. The highly anticipated Black Panther film exceeded fans’ and critics’ expectations, breaking box office records, while A Star Is Born opened number two its opening weekend, behind a disappointing Venom. But the soundtracks may be the best evidence of each film’s popularity and success. Black Panther: The Album went platinum, feverishly topping Billboard’s charts multiple weeks, while A Star Is Born debuted as a number one album on Billboard.
What makes these two albums distinct and noteworthy, however, is their ability to not only resonate with the culture, but their unearthly power to push us beyond ourselves and consider others. While this short space disallows the time to probe the depths of each of these albums, there are few takeaways worth drawing our attention to the next time we listen.
As a Christian, I believe we have not only the responsibility, but the opportunity to always look for the greater story humanity is communicating about God and our relationship with one another. The A Star Is Born soundtrack obviously tells a love story, but also empowers the culture to love on a micro, person-to-person level by using ostentatious musical arrangements that speak directly to the empathetic powers sewed into the fabric of our souls. Black Panther: The Album challenges the culture’s preconceived notions of outside cultures, particularly Black culture, and forces individuals to question their biases, moving people to love beyond what their ordinary comforts might allow. It also empowers African Americans to love themselves the way God made us, which is important when considering how long Black self-hatred has been endorsed by majority white governance.
Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper explore the rollercoaster twists and turns that most intimate partnerships endure throughout the lifetime of their relationship in a linear form in the A Star is Born album, which features sound clips from the film. (Spoiler alert: If you’ve not seen the movie, the album will be a spoiler.) The album begins with each person wandering about their own way until their paths cross. Listeners are introduced to Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) with a darker-feeling rock track featuring a grungy lead guitar and vocals on the opening track “Black Eyes,” while the first time we hear Allie (Lady Gaga) she contrasts Cooper’s tone with a brighter a capella rendition of Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” (a subtle nod to the film’s original star), followed by a live cover of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.” The album progresses exploring their infatuation and friendship phases with songs like the smash hit “Shallow,” “Always Remember Us This Way,” and “Look What I Found.” It advances into the deeper stages of relationships exploring commitment, heartbreak, and selfless love heard on songs like “Before I Cry,” “Too Far Gone,” and “I’ll Never Love Again (Film Version).” The beauty of the album is also its travesty, ending with (spoiler alert!) separation by death of the two central figures.
Similarly, Black Panther: The Album explores the dichotomy of two figures in the film: King T’Challa and Killmonger. However, where the A Star Is Born Soundtrack communicates the tale of two partners who end up separated by death, Black Panther: The Album examines how contrasting ideals across cultures and people groups can be unified through T’Challa and Killmonger—who are first separated, but later unified through death.
Kendrick Lamar, the album’s narrator and curator announces “I am T’Challa,” at the end of the opening track “Black Panther.” Midway through the album, before “Paramedic!” He contrastingly states “I am Killmonger.” This separation is later brought together at the conclusion of “Seasons,” as Lamar embodies both characters saying: “I am T’Challa. I am Killmonger. One world. One God. One Family. Celebration.” The themes across the album highlight the complex nature and the humanity of Black people across the world. And it accomplishes it by using a wide variety of artists from different parts of the globe like South Africa, the U.K., and western, southern, and eastern parts of the United States. In fourteen tracks, the album covers a wide margin of topics often appropriated, demonized, or criminalizedby majority cultures: hustle (“X”); power and responsibility (“Opps,” “I am”); love (“All The Stars,” “The Ways”); struggle (“Bloody Waters”); anger (“Paramedic!”, “King’s Dead”); heartbreak (“Redemption”); and self-love (“Big Shot”).
Movie soundtracks are tasked with the unique responsibility of capturing the essence of a film while maintaining its distinctive qualities as an album. They also have an incredible opportunity to expose new artists to new audiences in ways mixtapes or radio cannot. Soundtrack albums also allow fans of the movies to relive the emotions of the film while at work, working out, completing homework, or running errands.
Both A Star Is Born and Black Panther: The Album accomplished feats of carrying the emotions of their respective films beyond the movie screen. They helped fans of their movies build a culture around their films, and moved us beyond consumption to a meaningful analysis of our thoughts, behaviors, and actions with one another. One navigates the complexities of the interconnectedness between two lovers, the other promulgates two different experiences that create a beautiful portrait of diversity in the subcultures of Black artistry. One functions more fluidly as a soundtrack for its movie, while the other carries the weight of its own identity, working more as a complement to its movie. Regardless of structure, movies to be released in 2019 will do well to invest in excellently orchestrated albums like these.