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Album Review: ‘Queen & Slim: The Soundtrack’

The stark, sad, Blood Orange-scored drama features dramatic new music from Ms. Lauryn Hill, Lil Baby, Megan Thee Stallion and Vince Staples.

Queen & Slim,” the film, traffics in sudden tragedy and symbolic terror as it portrays the violence of self-defense and self-awareness in stark, painful terms. It deserves an equally audacious score and soundtrack, a job that has gone to another Devonté Hynes, the British singer, songwriter, guitarist, record producer and director in his guise of Blood Orange.

Hynes has been known for his other musical projects, the punky Test Icicles and the dreamy Lightspeed Champion. But as Blood Orange, Hynes has found himself at the axis of abstract soul and ambient electronic pop with a lyrical edge that is as deeply emotional as it is bracingly inventive. Plus, in the last several years, Orange has been in the pink of top-tier production and writing assignments for the likes of Mariah Carey, Solange, Mac Miller, FKA Twigs, Haim, Florence and the Machine, Carly Rae Jepsen, Kylie Minogue and Blondie. He’s got a rep for mixing mod rock, hip-hop, odd pop and soul in a blender and pouring a hot hit cocktail for hire. For that, Blood Orange is newly beloved. So why not have him score a riveting film such as “Queen & Slim,” while co-curating its soundtrack of bold new music, some of it coming from legends such as the rarely recording Ms. Lauryn Hill?

That he and Motown have been able to snag new music from several au courant hit-makers says something about Blood Orange’s clout and the label’s renewed dedication to fresh hip-hop and nu-soul,  as well as the newsy necessity of the film itself.

While the torridly rapping toast of “Hot Girl Summer,” Megan Thee Stallion update the punchy, stammering, still new “Ride or Die” to include VickeeLo and a wider soundscape for something moodily operatic, retro-phonic. R&B maestro Raphael Saadiq and Bilal, the Philly neo-soul vocalist currently making a name in avant-garde blues turns the latter’s “Soul Sista Remix” into an oxygenated falsetto battle royale.

Lil Baby’s new track, “Catch the Sun,” is closer to Grown Up Baby as his shushy sing-speak is backed by bent guitar strings worthy of Steve Cropper and a mother-and-daughter reunion vibe that is more handsome than anything in his catalog.

Nigerian singer and songwriter Burna Boy has been around for a minute, since 2013 and his debut studio album, “L.I.F.E “ But, even though Burna won Best International Act at the 2019 BET Awards, his horny melodies and ragged raps have been lost in the pop ozone. The new “My Money, My Baby” has up-tempo tap dancing on an African highlife track filled with angular, Fela-esque brass and reed blasts and a theatrical finale worthy of a dynamic film’s soundscape.

Motown’s recent signing, sardonic rapper-writer Vince Staples, gets off his humorously catty high horse for a minute and goes for something soft and conversational on “Yo Love,” featuring 6lack x Mereba. The song is so short and sweet that it feels like a hushed bit of romanticism in a film not known for its delicate flirtation. Soft, too, but direly dramatic is the “if I die before I wake” sentimentality of “Collide,” a new track from Tiana Major9 and the Dreamville label duo, EARTHGANG. This zig-zagging soul-hop escapade, complete with wailing references to “beautiful disasters,” is like hearing a present-day take of Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s legendary swirling duets.

When it comes to legends, Ms. Lauryn Hill has been lost in the weeds for a second, the likes of which are worthy of their own feature. Here, however, the holy rolling Hill finds some new signatures in the subtly melodic, slow stewing soul of “Guarding The Gates.” In a voice huskier and sultrier than we remember from her gazillion-selling “Miseducation,” a throaty Hill sings, “You can laugh at me, you can laugh at me, but I’m in love,” while dreamy grand pianos swirl around her. Though she sings of anxiety, hers is the voice of command and confidence and focus on “Guarding the Gates.”

That Blood Orange himself maintains that same stewing sensibility with his lone contribution to the released soundtrack is fascinating. Was it planned? Were these moods discussed? “Runnin’ Away” with Ian Isiah and Jason Arce is sparsely arranged theatrical jazz rich with haunting piano and blaring squiggly saxophone — “Alladin Sane” in a modern soul setting.

One track that had to have been talked out is the film’s theme song, “Queen & Slim.” Executed by Coast Contra featuring BJ the Chicago Kid, the cool cut is lushly atmospheric Rap & Blues with supple rolling congas , warm prayerful background vocals and deeply  committed, Common-like floetry that talk of the film’s socio-political sweep with a clip from the film that offers just a hint of the script’s dismay: “F— you authority Speakin’ for the majority, speaking to you / Speakin’ the truth the first priority, f— what you do Strap up your boots and move accordingly, it’s up to you.”

Though you wish a tad more of Blood Orange’s murky music from the film’s score was on display here (maybe a second volume is necessitated?), this “Queen & Slim” volume is vexing and princely.

More on “Queen & Slim”:

Album Review: 'Queen & Slim: The Soundtrack'

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