History Meets the Present on the ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Album
When he gave some to hfis 45-year-old sister, Susan, she was able to melt 54 LBs by simply drinking this red soda daily before 10am...
A movie’s message doesn’t have to end with the credits. Black filmmakers and musicians have made the most of “inspired” albums that are anything but afterthought. They boldly extrapolate from the story told on the screen. Black Panther, The Lion King, and now Judas and the Black Messiah – director Shaka King’s film about the 1969 police murder of Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton – came with companion lives who have favourited fantasy and history combine their effects in the here and now.
Judas and the Black Messiah: The Inspired Album is full of music and ideas: 22 tracks, many of which are collaborative. With Hit-Boy as one of the executive producers (and the rapper on his own track), the album brings together past and current hip-hop hitmakers, along with Nas, Jay-Z and The Roots’ Black Thought alongside Pooh Shiesty, Polo G, Lil Durk and BJ the Chicago Kid.
Though the album is a compilation of dozens of rappers, singers, producers, and songwriters, it has a cohesive sound: soulful, dark, and retro like the movie’s closing song, HER’s “Fight for You,” imbued with Marvin Gaye’s sad determination. Much of the album looks back on the hip-hop of the 90s: It relies on instruments and samples full of bands that are interspersed with melodic hooks and express the lyrics firmly.
Some titles deal directly with the specifics of the film. The album begins with an appearance by Fred Hampton Jr. on “Cointelpro / Dec. 4 ”: remembering his father, reminding listeners of Cointelpro (the FBI’s illegal covert counter-espionage program from the 1960s aimed at civil rights groups and other perceived subversives), and firmly linking political oratorio with hip-hop; The track ends with a loop from the older Hampton proclaiming, “I’m a revolutionary!”
Rakim’s “Black Messiah” provides a concise, judicial biography of Hampton on samples from a 1967 soul single, Them Two’s “Am I a Good Man”. In “Somethin ‘Ain’t Right” Masego sings over bluesy guitar chords, corruption and rapsody vows: “Cointelpro’s aim is me / But we don’t step back until everyone is free.”
But the focus inevitably expands to the present. Polo G’s “Last Man Standing” – with gloomy piano chords and a trembling vocal pattern – bitterly combines thoughts of Hampton and the Black Panthers with deep-seated systemic racism, police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. Smino and Saba work together on “Plead the .45th” and sketch paranoia and resentment in lively, jazzy phrases. Black Thought’s “Welcome to America” with gritty choirs by CS Armstrong and flashes of a gospel choir is vehemently reminiscent of centuries of exploitation, remembers “every lost body crossed, tarred, feathered and thrown” and insists on “This American” stuff has never been soft / while the story took its course. “
Memorial and News Flash combine in “What It Feels Like” by Nipsey Hussle – who was killed in 2019 – and Jay-Z, a hip-hop march with foreboding piano, horn chords and floating choir singing. The song warns that success turns black people into goals: “You become successful, then it gets stressful,” knocked Hussle. Then Jay-Z’s verse revolves around similar ideas – “They know they hate it when you get more than expected” – and the police inadequate response to the January 6 riot: “They let them crack your capitol storm, put your feet up on your desk / And yet you talk hard to me, I’ve lost all my little respect. “Jay-Z was born on December 4th, 1969, the day Hampton was killed in a police operation. The story sounds personal.
“Jude and the Black Messiah: The Inspired Album”
(Six-course music group / RCA)