Music has always played an important role in Spike Lee joints, from E.U.’s “Da Butt” in “School Daze” to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” in “Do the Right Thing” to entire soundtracks by Stevie Wonder and Prince for “Jungle Fever” and “Girl 6”, respectively.
The director’s new film, “Chi-Raq”—which takes aim at gun violence in Chicago’s South Side—is no exception. Featuring new tunes written specifically for this project, the “Chi-Raq” soundtrack (out today on 40 Acres and a Mule/RCA Records) is a true companion to the movie rather than just a random collection of songs. In a nice touch, the 13-track set showcases famous Chicago natives like R. Kelly and Jennifer Hudson as well as some of Chi-Town’s local talent. Kelly provides the highlight, digging into the city’s house roots on “Put the Guns Down,” a rousing call to disarm featuring an assist from Chicago rapper Tink. “Every hood, every block, somebody’s dying over nothing/ All this hating gotta stop, we gotta know life is worth something,” he sings over a thumping, bass-driven groove.
On another standout, “WGDB,” Chicago’s Kevon Carter strikes a more reflective note, pointedly asking, “What’s the use of saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ if we’re going to kill ourselves?” Elsewhere, Mali Music and Jhené Aiko make a smooth twosome on “Contradiction,” a reggae-spiced slow jam. But this uneven album misfires when Nick Cannon, who plays gang leader Chi-Raq in the film, raps on two tracks: “Pray 4 My City” and “My City.” His costar Hudson—whose mother, brother and nephew were shot to death in Chicago in 2008—fares much better on the gospel-charged closer, “I Run,” a testimony of perseverance that powerfully hits home.