How the ‘Wakanda Forever’ Soundtrack Helped Rihanna Top the Charts Again

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Today (Nov. 11), the highly-anticipated sequel to the 2018 blockbuster film Black Panther, called Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, reaches theaters in the United States. But already, its soundtrack — released today through Roc Nation/Def Jam/Hollywood Records — is making waves: its lead single, “Lift Me Up” by Rihanna, debuted at No. 2 on the Hot 100 this week, the elusive singer’s 32nd top 10 record and first since 2017, and became just the fourth song this century to debut in the top 10 of the all-format Radio Songs chart.

It’s a considerable success, not just for Rihanna but for the Wakanda soundtrack as a whole, which is full of artists from Nigeria, Mexico, the U.K. and the U.S. and blends local language music and artists with the cultural connectivity of the film — and helps Def Jam’s executive vp/chief creative officer and one of the producers of the project, Archie Davis, earn the title of Billboard’s Executive of the Week.

“There’s a spiritual connection with this song and the conviction in Rihanna’s delivery that engages listeners,” Davis says about “Lift Me Up.” “I think once audiences see the film, they’ll feel that energy even more.”

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Here, Davis tells Billboard about putting the soundtrack together, the impact of Rihanna’s involvement, as well as that of filmmaker Ryan Coogler, composer and producer Ludwig Göransson, and late Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman, and the strategies behind marketing soundtrack albums as opposed to an artist’s album. “A great soundtrack reminds you of a film, but a great album feels so vivid that you can almost see it play out in your head,” he says. “We try to do both.”

This week, the lead single from the Wakanda Forever soundtrack, Rihanna’s “Lift Me Up,” debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became just the fourth song this century to debut in the top 10 of the Radio Songs chart. What key decision did you make to help make that happen?

It was a team effort, one thousand percent. It was important we set up the release properly on such a short timeline. A key component was carrying this record on tour around the world to make sure the right people heard it before it was released. Shout out to our radio teams at both Def Jam and Roc Nation for working tirelessly, leaving no stone unturned. All the records that our radio teams broke helped pave the way for us to debut in the fashion we did. The music video was also an integral component, which we shot on the Monday of release week and had out by that Friday. It was a complete effort by everyone to help us debut “Lift Me Up” with real impact.

This is Rihanna’s first song as a lead artist since 2016. How did you get her involved in this project?

I give all credit to the filmmaker for connecting with her when she saw the film. I think that helped move her emotionally to even want to be part of this project. Kudos to Ryan Coogler and Ludwig Göransson, and a million praises to Tems, Rihanna, Tunji, Wale, Davies, Jay Brown, Omar Grant, Shari Bryant, and the whole Roc Nation team for pulling it together. I also think, in a way, a lot of this came from Chad.

What was it about this song that you felt resonated so well, not just for the film but also among music fans?

Its relatability. The lyrics “Lift me up / hold me down, keep me close / safe and sound.” There are so many people we wish we could say that to. Those are words we tell our children, wish our ancestors could say to us, maybe even pray at times. There’s a spiritual connection with this song and the conviction in Rihanna’s delivery that engages listeners. I think once audiences see the film, they’ll feel that energy even more.

What did you want to get across with this soundtrack?

We wanted this project to be an immersive audio experience. I see the music existing as an invisible character, an extension of Wakandan culture that can be heard sonically and felt emotionally. These songs are all tied to emotions in a way I’ve never seen done before in a film. There’s an intentionality behind all the music, and my hope is audiences will be equally submersed in the music as they are experiencing the film. The two entities work hand in hand. There are a few different languages on the soundtrack, but those willing to research will find easter eggs through the music.

This album features a slew of Nigerian and Mexican artists, as well as American and British hip-hop artists. How did you choose who was involved and how did you make sure that it all fit together?

I think we chose by prioritizing authenticity to the story and understanding the nature of our platform. For example, while exploring Mayan Mexican culture it was important to choose artists that could relay such a precious identity. However, that’s not to say we couldn’t hear an artist like Rema shine the way he does on “Pantera” alongside Aleman. This is where Ludwig’s genius presents itself. He was learning how to construct these sounds with producers from their respective cultures while simultaneously experimenting. Authenticity was paramount. We also wanted to make sure the voices of many, even some that are lesser known, were represented. To think this movie and music would only resonate in the U.S. would’ve been a disservice.

Soundtracks can be hit or miss on the charts — some come and go, but some become massive hits. What goes into making a great film soundtrack that also translates to chart success?

In my opinion I believe it’s a great story, amazing narrative, and a host of incredible artists that care about the art being created. None of this can be done without amazing artists. If everyone understands the weight of the message we’re trying to convey it helps tremendously. My job is to make sure I help that message resonate within culture and the world. A massive amount of research goes into these projects, and direction from the composer and director helps as well. We’re ultimately trying to create a world that’s portrayed visually with music and there’s a great level of care that goes into each project. Those are general pillars, but each project is different from the last. Being able to learn, adapt and react is important. Sometimes there’s momentum or energy that comes from the least expected places that you must follow. It may lead to a dead end, but there’s something to learn in that process. Being able to harness those experiences and channel it holistically with a clear vision in mind all combines to make a great soundtrack.

What goes into developing and marketing a soundtrack like this as opposed to an artist’s album?

Soundtracks are worked on by lots of people, with many influences and real deadlines. When it comes to marketing a soundtrack, I feel like you’re also marketing the community to ensure it’s surrounded by the culture being represented. I think a key difference with a soundtrack is I have a built-in story I’m moving off of, whereas an artist is a blank canvas. An artist’s album a lot of times is someone’s real life experience. It’s a different conversation when you have to put your face out there as an artist. With a soundtrack like this you get to play make believe, in a way. There’s more room for imagination and that’s where we can expound upon as much as possible for the audience. A great soundtrack reminds you of a film, but a great album feels so vivid that you can almost see it play out in your head. We try to do both.

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