One of my favorite scenes in any movie is from the 1988 indie Blaxploitation parody I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. The rookie hero Jack Spade, played by writer/director Keenan Ivory Wayans, asks his mentor John Slade (the inimitable Bernie Casey) why he’s being followed by a full-on band. Slade’s response is iconic: “They’re my theme music. Every good hero should have some.”
His words are not only prophetic, they’re integral to what makes a good hero film. Where would Superman be without the iconic theme whose onomatopoeia became shorthand for the briefs his early incarnations wore on the outside? What about The Dark Knight‘s insistent, ominous, two-note refrain to highlight rising action and stirring emotional resolve? Or how about those Avengers, with their intrepid march, at once inspiring and militant, telling the audience that the star-studded super team is on the way to save the day?
But what happens when the superhero in question represents more than just truth, justice, and the American way? What if the hero must also represent a break from the status quo his profession so often fights to uphold? What if, rather than inspiring the masses of the general audience, the hero is instead an inspiration to a very specific demographic of people who historically found themselves barred from representation in the pages of cape comics and on silver screens? That hero would also need a very specific theme song, not just representative of his mission but of his people, of his upbringing and his culture.
I’m happy to report that the soundtrack to Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, itself a different kind of superhero movie in more ways than one, understands this and services this idea as admirably as the film’s titular character does the legacy of his revered namesake. Like the Black Panther soundtrack before it, the film understands its cultural relevance, the moment it speaks to, and the world it must represent, and does so, making it one of the best hip-hop-oriented film soundtracks ever created.
In the film, Spider-Man isn’t the one we all know and have grown bored with. Instead, he’s a 15-year-old, Afro-Latino charter school student named Miles Morales. He hails from Brooklyn, he throws up graffiti stickers anywhere he can reach, he wears unlaced Jordans and he listens to the contemporary music any real-life kid of similar description would. That means the film opens with the soundtrack’s lead single, the Post Malone and Swae Lee collaboration “Sunflower,” playing right in Miles’ headphones. It returns again and again throughout the film, however, as a display of its meaning to the character; he uses it in crisis moments to relax, or when he’s in his room alone doodling in his notebook, just like any teen would their favorite song.
Likewise, the hip-hop-laden compilation lends life and realism to Miles’ colorfully-animated environments. It sounds like New York. This is where the world is now; Juice WRLD and Jaden Smith are two of the biggest rap acts on the planet, so of course, the kids at Miles’ school would be listening to their music in the halls. The Afropop of Thutmose’s “Memories” is the sound of the vibrant culture of the melting pot, as is Anuel AA’s “Familia,” a reggaeton track that Miles would almost certainly enjoy listening to alongside his streetwise, Puerto Rican mother Rio.
When the songs’ purpose switches to uplift, underpinning the movie’s pivotal moments, it again subverts the expectations of the form as Miles’ journey does on screen. Alongside the swelling emotion, there is rebellion; these songs aren’t just mushy, they’re defiant, abrasive, brash. “I like tall buildings so I can leap off of ’em,” swaggers Ghanian rapper Blackway on “What’s Up Danger,” the album’s leading track and the song that tracks one of the film’s most important moments. It’s Miles’ story, but as the movie aims to import, the mask can belong to anyone — expectations and conventions be damned.
The most impressive part is how the compilation hangs together as its own separate body of work. In fact, that’s the only way XXXTentacion’s rushed-sounding, out-of-place appearance on “Scared Of The Dark” even makes sense — there’s no way you can convince me that a superhero meant to inspire a marginalized population would ever be caught dead supporting someone like X. But aside from that one blemish, the Into The Spider-Verse soundtrack is about as close of a mirror image of modern hip-hop can be, which may be the most encouraging part. Songs like Duckwrth‘s “Start A Riot” and the posse cut “Elevate” are driving anthems meant to reflect the gripping, pulse-pounding action onscreen as much as they are the soundtrack of today melange of social movements — which have most often been youth led.
That’s how Vince Staples — who is having the breakout year of any up-and-coming rapper off movie placements and trailers alone — and Lil Wayne share space with underground sparks like Coi Leray, YBN Cordae, Amine, and Ski Mask The Slump God — all artists in a 15-year-old idealistic Black kid’s favorite playlists. Amine is here, as is Denzel Curry. These are the artists who speak most strongly to Miles’ generation, even as Miles’ story is meant to inspire them to believe that they can be their own heroes. Each of these artists is telling his story, but in a slightly different way — just like the alternate reality-hopping storyline of the film, there are many ways that we can all be heroes, with a leap of faith.
Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is in theaters now. The soundtrack is out on Republic Records. Get it here.