Album reviews: Black Panther, Montgomery Gentry, Femi Kuti

Kendrick Lamar in Concert – Los Angeles
Kendrick Lamar performs at L.A. LIVE's Microsoft Square during NBA All Star Weekend 2018 on Friday, Feb. 17, 2018, in Los Angeles.

Femi Kuti
One People One World
(Knitting Factory, ***)

Femi Kuti opens One People One World, his 10th album, with “Africa Will Be Great Again,” an indictment of corruption and “economic destruction” in his native Nigeria that also sounds like a knowing twist on a contemporary American shibboleth. Against the blare of unison horns in dialogue with funky organ chords atop the Afrobeat polyrhythms he inherited from his father Fela, Femi Kuti envisions a time “when peace and love will reign” and “when we have first-class institutions, infrastructure and not political destruction.” In the title track, he proclaims, “Racism has no place / Give hatred no space,” and the idealistic generalizations gain power from the irresistible force of the vibrant, infectious rhythms.

Kuti is a protest singer, and though  One People One World has plenty to say about sociopolitical problems (“Evil People,” “Corruption Na Stealing”), it often returns to a comforting optimism (“Best to Live on the Good Side,” “The Way Our Lives Go”). His younger brother Seun Kuti has become more interested in their father’s jazz and improvising sides (on the forthcoming Black Times), but Femi favors compact, direct, and accessible songs that stay focused on their message and on the dance floor. — Steve Klinge

Various Artists
Black Panther: The Album – Music from and Inspired By
(Top Dawg/ Interscope ****)

If any collective artist project captures a cultural/social/political moment, it is this head-charging Marvel hero soundtrack curated by rapper du jour Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg boss Anthony Tiffith. Like 2017’s multiartist Quality Control: Control the Streets Volume 1 (with Migos, Gucci Mane, Lil Yachty, and Cardi B), Lamar here leads a parade of hip-hop and future soul’s progressive aesthetes in celebrating black pride and the innovative intersection of Afrocentric comix and film.

Individually, its songs are not the best of each artist. With or without the respective contributions of SZA and the Weeknd in  the uplifting anthemic “All the Stars” and the dour Africanish “Pray for Me,” Lamar need not ever perform these tracks again. As a whole, however, these collaborations – especially his dreamy “King’s Dead” teaming with Future and James Blake – are potent, intersecting, introspective storytelling tools that present a tall tale even when the flickering images end. Whether directly connected to the Panther or not, MCs Ab-Soul and Anderson .Paak share “Bloody Waters,” and pursue the issues of lethal longtime gang rivalries. Most haunting is Vince Staples’ “Opps” with Yugen Blakrok, a female South African rapper, and Ludwig Göransson, composer of the film’s menacing orchestral score. As creepy-craggy as Staples is (his usual), Blakrok matches his might with lines like “Crushing any system that belittles us  / Antidote to every poison they administer.” Add the moan of African talking drums and a house music pulse and you’ve got sound as dramatic and invigorating as Black Panther’s cinematic action. — A.D. Amorosi

Montgomery Gentry
Here’s to You
(Average Joe’s ***)

Barring any collections of outtakes and/or live recordings, this is the final Montgomery Gentry album. Here’s to You was completed just before Troy Gentry was killed in a helicopter crash in Medford in September, on his way to a show with his partner, Eddie Montgomery.

The duo’s hitmaking days of the early and mid-2000s were behind  them, but the album is a solid reminder of their rugged appeal. The songs continue to extol the virtues of small-town life and the sometimes flawed but hardworking and hard-partying people who live there, set to country music heavily laced with rock. And Montgomery’s burly baritone still plays nicely off  Gentry’s high tenor.

If the material occasionally flirts with the generic, these two pros still know how to sell it. And they have a sense of humor about it. The opener, “Shotgun Wedding” (featuring “a boy in a bulletproof vest”) seems to slyly send up country tropes.

Also, for a couple of good ole boys, Montgomery Gentry have been known to embrace diversity. That’s underscored by the penultimate number, “That’s the Thing About America”: “You can dream or do or say what you wanna” — even burn the flag! As final messages go, especially in these divisive times, it’s not a bad one at all. — Nick Cristiano