By Salvatore DiGioia
Sometimes a love song — if it isn’t pleading for forgiveness or grossly obsessing over physical intimacy — reaches beyond the bounds of conventional romance and begs to be taken seriously as a testament to its subject’s charisma. It shocks listeners sentimentally, pulling at heartstrings almost like a eulogy might, and truly convinces them its muse is extraordinary. Such odes often come dedicated to the mother of a musician or a world-renowned city, defined by monologue-style lyricism or their careful nods at famous landmarks. However, “The Ways,” a shimmering, soulful new sing-along from the star-studded Black Panther album, manages to overwhelm without taking any shortcuts. Symbolically penned to Nakia, Black Panther’s principle love interest within the fictional Marvel Universe, the song’s admitted infatuation proves powerful enough to strip even a superhero of his sensibility, leaving him helpless in his pursuit of the highly-esteemed “Power Girl,” utterly at her will. In this love story, the female has total control. Sometimes even a superhero must know his role.
“Something in the way you move / Radion beams castin’ vibrant views,” murmurs a starstruck Khalid in the song’s first verse, pondering upon her majesty through his warmly embracive timbre. Apparently, “Power Girl” has a habit of picking him up when he falls, leveraging her inner-strength and ultimately emerging as the superior creature, a stallion within plain sight. Though the man in this story has admittedly “fucked up so many times,” the Woman stands by, dusting him off or whatever, inevitably saving the day. It’s a predictable role for a Black woman, as has been pointedly explained by Beyonce, SZA, Solange and others in recent memory. Yet, there remains something strangely empowering about her counterpart’s confessing his inabilities; something charming about Khalid’s acknowledgement that, “Carrying a brother is not easy on your back;” something blatantly monumental about the song’s seamless ability to stitch such Afro-feminist thinking into the fabric of a buttery, big-budget love song, particularly one that’s been made for Black Panther.
Throughout verse two, Swae Lee (of rap-duo Rae Sremmurd) melodically pledges his love to “Power Girl” and vows to work tirelessly for her everlasting security. A less technically-gifted singer than his counterpart, he shifts shape using auto-tune to decorate the beat with distorted voiceovers while Kendrick Lamar chimes in via call-and-response. Some might mistake this intermission as an unnecessary break in an otherwise almost-conventional pop moment. However, countless listeners will consider Swae Lee’s crooning to be the song’s most definitive element, for it builds a fiery bridge to the youthful flairs of attraction burning in hip-hop. To hear his over-produced pronunciations of “Power Girl” aside those of Khalid is to experience two different comprehensions of music simultaneously — bubblegum mixed with next-wave.
Despite “The Ways” being officially accredited to Khalid and Swae Lee, it would be irresponsible not to mention that its instrumentals are by popular electronica group BADBADNOTGOOD. Long known for experimenting within hip-hop’s soundscape, this band of bass, keys, saxophone and drums does most of the heavy-lifting to establish the song’s chillingly hypnotic rhythm. Jittering hi-hats, gentle strums and dripping synthesizers set the tone so atop them, each vocalist can cozy up in his own territory. The result is remarkably radiant — a beat dually equipped to score a sun-soaked afternoon or a spaceship voyage through the outer-universe. Without it, no romantic sparks could be lit.
The phrase “Power Girl” itself possesses an irresistible modernity, implying the future as female and its spokesman as appropriately humbled. Employed as a pop lyric, it fights back against decades of patriarchal songwriting by depicting the helpless man’s surrender at foot of the dominant Woman. “The Ways” could have followed in the long, mostly male tradition of confessing attraction in song only to subsequently wallow in its muse's superficial beauty. Yet, instead, its artists’ rely on the phrase “Power Girl” as their centerpiece, subtly, but effectively, clarifying intentions in every chorus. By song’s end, listeners come to understand that “The Ways” is a love song, sure, but a platonic and non-sexual one; that its artists' are infatuated, sure, but more shocked and impressed by their subject than they are possessively attracted to her. They’re bewildered — psychologically, biologically, even spiritually. That’s what “Power Girl” is capable of. That’s how we know it’s true love.