By Jamel Smith
February 15, 2021
The best films generally have equally great soundtracks. That is certainly the case for Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah: The Inspired Album. The film, released on February 12, examines the triumphant and tragic life and death of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. It also boasts triumphant performances from its stacked cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons, Ashton Sanders, and Martin Sheen.
Much like the film’s cast, the sprawling 22-song soundtrack features an equally impressive roster of rap and R&B artists offering their varied takes on Black liberation politics. Executive produced by Hit-Boy, the soundtrack features tracks from H.E.R., Nas, Rakim, Nipsey Hussle, Jay-Z, Black Thought, Lil Durk, Pooh Sheisty, Rapsody, A$AP Rocky, G Herbo, and many more.
Curating a quality soundtrack is hard to achieve. That’s probably why it seems like a lost art. However, when done right, it can become its own entity, and later, immortalized into a classic– think TDE’s Black Panther, Beyoncé’s Lion King: The Gift, and Babyface’s Waiting To Exhale soundtrack. What they all have in common is a focus on story through song, elevated by a range of dynamic performances.
From its first track “Cointelpro/Dec 4,” the album snaps into focus under the vocal direction of Fred Hampton Jr., current chairman of the Black Panther Party Cubs and Fred Hampton’s son. In a remarkable show of legacy, Hampton Jr. shares the intro track with his late father Chairman Fred Hampton; his voice declaring the immortal refrain: “I am a revolutionary!” Hampton’s words of revolution loom over the sonics of the album. Every song is laced with dark, soulful production, as if trouble is lurking around every corner. The young revolutionary was assassinated at the betrayal of an FBI informant when he was only 21 years old.
The diverse and multi-faceted soundtrack is propelled by its high moments. “Fight For You” from H.E.R. was selected as the first single from the soundtrack and deservedly so. The 23-year-old R&B songstress delivers one of the most compelling vocal performances of her career as she sings about liberation and the continued fight against oppression. The track (co-produced by D’Mile) has since been nominated for a Golden Globe, and was included on the 2021 Academy Award shortlist.
Other standout tracks include Masego’s menacing contribution alongside JID and Rapsody, “Somethin’ Ain’t Right,” embodying the confusion and anger of Black people against unjust systems; G Herbo’s pro-Black anthem (“All Black”); Nas’ brilliant reunion with his King’s Disease producer Hit-Boy, “EPMD,” and Nipsey Hussle and Jay-Z’s historic collaboration, “What It Feels Like.”
In a powerful collaboration, Nipsey Hussle and Jay-Z attack their own agendas head on in their respective verses. Jay-Z touches on the wayward past and present of this country, as he hurls bars at the listener about the recent January 6 riots. The rapper also makes a lyrical connection to the slain revolutionary through a singular and important date: December 4, 1969 (Jay-Z was born on the same day as Hampton’s death). The late Nipsey Hussle’s verse about his trials and successes is haunting. His sights are clear: he is “the leader of this movement.” Similar to Fred Hampton, Nipsey was also a young leader in his community before his untimely death. The rapper and activist was murdered in 2019 at 33 years old.
Chicago (Fred Hampton’s home city) makes multiple appearances on the soundtrack with offerings from BJ the Chicago Kid, Polo G, and Saba. While the city’s signature sounds aren’t as prominent in the score, its legacy is represented well in the tracklist. Saba and Smino’s “Plead the .45th” serves as a beautiful homage to Hampton’s life and legacy– one that centers and informs the Windy City.
While there are moments where the soundtrack drags– that is to be expected with 22 songs– it ends on a brilliant note from hip hop legend Rakim (“Black Messiah”) and, overall, provides a perfect sound bed for a film that is equally youthful and revolutionary. Judas and the Black Messiah: The Inspired Album is a passionate homage to a man and an ideology that still resonates in the molecular structure of hip-hop and Black culture at large.
Listen to Judas and the Black Messiah: The Inspired Album. Judas and the Black Messiah is now available on HBO Max until Sunday, March 14.