Music made for the silver screen is rarely ever golden
Friends are the greatest influence on our sense of culture. We build and change our cultural preferences based on theirs and rely on their opinions and recommendations to shape our own into something reflective of what they know better than us - ourselves. We strive for our culture to be represented in our appearances, our demeanors, our very existence. We wish to be breathing, beating, walking manifestations of the things in which we see (and hear) the most beauty. And through all of the ways our friends affect the borders of our own cultural spectrum, we repay by the favor by bending and breaking theirs as well.
Common ground may be where the foundations of friendship are built, but a difference in styles and opinions is what can turn a friendship into something strong and great. Even when the differences cannot be overcome. Even when common ground on a particular subject cannot be agreed upon. Disagreement and argument is key to the depth of any relationship. But when is it too far a gap to bridge?
I have a friend and this friend has a problem that I consider to be a dire misconception. You see, my friend and I share a love for music, and for the most part love a share of music as well. But where it differs is this strange arena of opinion that seems to polarize not just our cultural beliefs and our friendship, but seems to polarize the entirety of the world's population. You see, my friend believes that music made for the purpose of a major motion picture's soundtrack is good. And I think that's complete and utter bullshit.
Music made for films is pushed down our throats by the same people that do so with the films themselves. Though many films are good, and though many are scored aptly, there is such a massive difference between quality film scoring and quality musicianship, that there is simply no overlap between the two. They are, at the end of the day, just two very different things.
Let's test something. I want you to think about some of the greatest film scoring from some of history's greatest cinematic achievements. When you think of this musical production; when you listen to it, does it draw up organic emotion and feelings, or does it do so by way of the film? For instance, when you hear the brilliant orchestra performance of the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, assuming you're a fan, you most likely are thrown into a whirlwind of emotions ranging from courage and bravery to love and achievement. But you do so with thoughts in your mind of hobbits charging the Black Gate of Mordor, Gandalf sacrificing himself to slay his demon, and Aragorn and Arwen making sweet, sweet love. As good as the music may be, it's forever influenced by your memories of cinema.
And remember that's a case of really good music providing the soundtrack for a really good film. It's not the norm. When you hear a pop star half-assing their talent to provide the backdrop to unmemorable cinematic mediocrity, and claim that the fact that it was used to score a film is what makes the musicianship of it all something special, you're not being logical.
Scoring by its very relationship to film is an attempt at music scrapped of any beauty it may have by a higher media. Most of it is lacking that central beauty because artists are rarely willing to put forth full effort into work that will never be the main attraction in its use. And most of the music, although created by an extremely high budget, has a direction chosen by experts in film and economics, not music. The industry draws artists for their pop persona and their ability to attract the mainstream, and not their ability to create artistic, beautiful music that could evoke emotion without the aid of cinema.
The outcome for most mainstream film scores almost always consists of something like an overrated pop star belting predictable lyrics into a weak beat in hopes of creating something repetitive and simple; something that highlights a particular moment of the film itself; an end result that won't distract from the main attraction - the film; an end result that cannot stand alone, but suffices when the listener is distracted by a $20 million film budget and a 75-foot screen; an end result that allows the music and film industries to work together to sell not just one, but two massive pieces of shit to a public largely lacking taste or the drive to develop their own opinions.
These are the reasons why when you hear a track made first and foremost as the soundtrack to a film, something about it (maybe a lot of things about it) seem incredibly lackluster. It's also the reason that when a quality song is produced and becomes so popular that it's later used for a major motion picture, it loses some of its authenticity. Music is art, and art is objective. But it certainly loses most of its room for interpretation when it becomes associated with an existing plot line and theme. The music, by extension, acquires the same theme, whether it wants to or not.
Think about The Weeknd's Earned it. Certainly a step away from his go-to downtrodden, heartbroken approach, Earned It may not have been an expected delivery from the pop superstar, but it’s still a good song brimming with his powerful vocals and a catchy hook. But when we think about the song today, all we can think about it the sex-crazed, overhyped cinematic adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey. To be honest, of all The Weeknd’s songs to choose from, it’s bizarre that the film’s producer landed on his safest and most family-friendly jam to be the marquee track of their raunchy production. But then again, music and cinema live in two very different worlds. The world of cinema was able to take a quality song, as out of The Weeknd’s comfort zone as it may have been at the time, and through the film’s overpowering influence, not only shift our opinion about the song, but affect the course of his career. Because of the film’s success and its largely middle-aged libido-seeking audience, The Weeknd’s own audience shifted overnight. He was no longer R&B, but instead became a musician whose primary focus was to make more songs that would remind his listeners of 50 Shades of Grey.
And that’s the terrible power of cinematic music. It can take a song and its artist, completely destroy their individuality, and make the artists and their careers continue forward always aligning with the film’s agenda. Music made for film’s limits an artist’s room for creativity and limits an artist’s effort, while music borrowed for a film forever taints its originality and constricts its impressionistic value. Music made for the silver screen is rarely ever golden.
But let’s think about the hype surrounding the soundtrack for the upcoming superhero film, Black Panther. The powerhouse hip-hop conglomerate, TDE is made up of some of the most talented artists in all of music. Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, SZA, Isaiah Rashad, SiR, Jay Rock, Lance Skiiiwalker, and Ab-Soul are all signed to the label, and the label, with Kendrick Lamar at the helm, have developed the score for the film. The film alone has built a tremendous amount of excitement, and the added bonus of the film’s soundtrack being produce by such talented artists has brought even more fans to the stage front.
Kendrick Lamar has a hot-and-cold history of feature projects, providing unstoppable fire in verses with certain artists, and stumbling altogether with others. But he has never failed in the release of a project that he has overseen. Every one of his solo albums somehow holds firm to the impossibly high expectations that all of his previous work has created. His albums dictate the course of hip-hop and with it, have a large effect on music as a whole. So, the question on everyone’s mind for the past month or so has been, can Kendrick Lamar do it again? Can Kendrick Lamar, with an album he is overseeing, but an album that is also heavily populated with a wide list of features, and an album that is being developed first and foremost as the score for a film, create another masterpiece worthy of his previous music?
Well, the album is out, we’ve listened, and we can say the answer is complicated, but Black Panther: The Album surpassed our expectations. It exists somewhere between the highest level of quality film soundtracks ever created largely by mainstream artists, and the lowest level of Kendrick Lamar albums ever released. That’s no slight to Kendrick. As talented as he is and as profound as all of his solo work has been throughout his career, no one ever held the expectation that the album would live up to, or even be measured on the same scale as his previous work.
But, with Kendrick risking his reputation by diving into an industry that has long negatively affected other talented artists, we were gravely concerned, especially with the pre-release of the early singles for the project. All the Stars featuring the supremely talented vocalist and songwriter, SZA, was and still is, a massive letdown. It’s very clearly a song meant for a cinematic experience, but because of it, lacks the weight to stand on its own. The same can be said for Pray for Me, featuring the once-great, now freefalling R&B behemoth, The Weeknd. But through the early struggles and the warning signs of the possibility of another failed cinematic musical project, Black Panther: The Album is better than we ever thought it could be.
The film’s cultural importance is vast and so naturally, Kendrick Lamar, whose own art exists at the forefront of often touchy social discussion, was brought in to run the show. And as far as soundtracks go, Kendrick Lamar has done a better job than just about any music scorer in Hollywood has done while bringing together mainstream artists to develop a cinematic album. Created for a film where music is needed to enhance moments emotionally, the album as a whole lacks some consistency. And though the album stumbles at points and is not the best work of any of the artists included, there are certainly moments of brilliance.
Seasons by Mozzy, Sjava, and Reason is an early standout.
Travis Scott and Kendrick Lamar deliver another powerful collaboration on Big Shot.
Bloody Waters, an expectedly artsy and funk-driven jam by way of Anderson .Paak, James Blake, and Ab-Soul lives up to the off-kilter musical genius of all three.
The marquee, self-titled leadoff track is a brilliant Lamar-only exhibition of bars.
At the end of the day, it’s a great soundtrack that surpasses our expectations and a decent album by the standards of all the talent on board. But the reasoning for the difference in opinion about the project is that cinematic soundtracks and true albums are still, even with the release of Black Panther, very different things, and no matter how good of a soundtrack I hear, the artistic integrity of the music is not magically multiplied by the mere fact that it was made for cinema.
And at the end of the day, remember that this project is of particularly high quality in comparison to the rest of cinematic soundtracks, and that most fall completely short of Black Panther, which falls completely short of any true album put out by the included artists.
I’ll listen to the album. I’ll pick around the songs I don’t like and favor the ones I do. It is no masterpiece by album standards but is arguably so by standards of cinematic soundtracks. Simply put, it’s complicated territory and my friend and I, alongside the rest of the world’s population for or against the role of cinematic soundtrack, will undoubtedly continue this argument off-paper for months to come in the wake of Black Panther.