Here’s a 30-year-old question I have: Why wasn’t the ‘Poetic Justice’ soundtrack better?

OPINION: In an era when Black movie soundtracks were as good as — if not better than — the movies they supported, 'Poetic Justice's' soundtrack is entirely forgettable. 

Poetic Justice 30th anniversary, Janet Jackson
Close-up of American singer and actress Janet Jackson on the set of her film 'Poetic Justice' (directed by John Singleton), 1993. (Photo by Anthony Barboza/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

On an upcoming episode of my podcast, “Dear Culture,” I decided to revisit the classic cinematic treasure “Poetic Justice,” which stars Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur. The film was released in 1993 (this is important), so I figured a 30-year celebration and revisiting of the film made sense because, well, just like a great many of you, I love a good Black movie. Oh, who am I kidding? I also love a bad Black movie. I just love Black movies. Unfortunately, because my love for shenanigans runs deeper than most, half of the movies starring the Black community that I’d love to dissect are ones most people haven’t seen, but an early 1990s movie by John Singleton with Janet and Tupac? Yeah, we’ve got a critical mass of viewers. 

So “Poetic Justice.” I definitely remember the movie more fondly and mo’ betta than I think it is, but that’s not what’s important here. What is important is that while I was doing my research on the movie, it dawned on me that I couldn’t name a single song on the soundtrack off the top of my head. That’s an oddity; early-to-mid-’90s Black movies were as known for their soundtracks as they were for the films themselves. You can’t talk about “Love Jones” without talking about the soundtrack to said film. “Menace II Society” has ICONIC ’90s records (“Streiht Up Menace” by MC Eiht, “Unconditional Love” by Hi-Five, etc.) as does “Above the Rim,” whose soundtrack is so good, it’s arguably the greatest movie soundtrack of all time. “Waiting to Exhale” is also arguably the greatest movie soundtrack of all time. And don’t even get me started on “New Jack City,” “Juice,” “The Show,” “Jason’s Lyric” or “Boomerang,” AMONG OTHERS. 

Even other John Singleton films like “Boyz n the Hood,” “Higher Learning,” or “Baby Boy” have notable soundtracks. 

In my head, I decided that I must be trippin’. It was 1993 — surely the soundtrack to “Poetic Justice” must have slipped my mind. I’m the problem, not the soundtrack. Whew, was I wrong!

As I checked the track listing for the film, I was dumbfounded, even befuddled, at how non-memorable the soundtrack to “Poetic Justice” happens to be. How a film starring one of the biggest musical artists on the planet at the time and one of the most promising up-and-coming rappers/actors — which nearly guaranteed we’d all be watching the film — managed to feature a bunch of songs that literally didn’t register, almost at all, is curious. In fact, the only two songs from the soundtrack that I remembered were Usher’s “Call Me a Mack,” and Tupac’s “Definition of a Thug Nigga.” The latter is my favorite Tupac song ever, but I don’t remember it from this film at all, though it was apparently recorded for the movie. In fact, I’m not sure the song played in the movie at all. Janet has no songs on the official soundtrack, though an interpolation of “Again,” from her then-recently released “Janet” album plays in several scenes towards the end of the movie. Fam, the movie opens up with a remix to A Tribe Called Quest’s classic record “Bonita Applebum.” Is that song on the soundtrack? It is not.

TLC, Tony! Toni! Toné!, Naughty By Nature, Babyface, etc. all seem to have just sent the soundtrack music supervisor whatever they had sitting around on the day they decided to put the soundtrack together. It’s quite astounding that such a high-profile film from the early ’90s, in the era when movie soundtracks were a thing thing, is so bad. And you know I mean it with my whole heart because I used “thing” twice in that last sentence for emphasis. 

If I’m being honest here — and perhaps slightly controversial — the soundtrack being lackluster kinda sorta tracks here; the movie itself seems like it could have used a few more passes on the script upon revisiting. Maybe the whole project needed to get out of the door. I’m just surprised because of who was involved with the movie (and when) that it dared to have a wack soundtrack because I’m sure everybody knew when they put it together. 

It’s 2023, and it doesn’t matter at this point. “Poetic Justice” is a classic film and that’s the most important part. I just really can’t believe the soundtrack for such a landmark ’90s Black movie isn’t better. That is not justice. Or poetic. 

I’ll see myself out (but not to listen to the soundtrack).

Panama Jackson

Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest), but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said: “Unknown” (Blackest).

Make sure you check out the Dear Culture podcast every Thursday on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, where I’ll be hosting some of the Blackest conversations known to humankind. You might not leave the convo with an afro, but you’ll definitely be looking for your Afro Sheen! Listen to Dear Culture on TheGrio’s app; download it here.