Every single year, music gets braver. It gets broader, too — for every faithful soul revivalist, there’s a button-pusher breaking down the walls of what we know pop music to be. 2015 saw plenty of every stripe of artist issuing every kind of song in abundance. It’s been a provocative year and also an especially generous one.
In five years, 2015 might look like a turning point, a moment when music got wilder and weirder and a lot more vital — when the indie kitsch and nihilistic bent of the aughts started to fade into distant memory. It’s hard to look back on a year like that and figure out what music meant the most to us when we’ve been bombarded with all kinds of brilliance every week.
Kendrick Lamar’s magnum opus, To Pimp a Butterfly, has no shortage of beautiful and dark songs that encapsulate the Black American experience. “Complexion” is a soulful number that tackles colorism with an outstanding guest verse from Rapsody. “i” taps into self-love, while “u” flips the script and goes in on self-hate. “The Blacker the Berry” castigates murderers of every creed and code. The body of work is almost exhaustingly thorough, but “Alright” sticks out like a reasonably intelligent person at a Trump rally. We’re ushered in as a choir’s soulful harmony meets Pharrell’s patented four count start. Lamar screams, “Alls my life, I had to fight,” referencing Sophia’s heartfelt soliloquy in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and then we’re guided through Lamar’s complex yearning for some version of Eden.
Kendrick Lamar – Alright (Official Video) (2015)
“Alright” is buoyant, festive, serious, personal, and all-encompassing. Only a song so brilliant in so many ways could earn the honor of becoming a protest song, effectively dethroning “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, a gospel hymnal that’s been widely considered the Black American National Album for more than a century. Over the last couple of years, police brutality, systemic oppression, and racism have become a focal point in the American consciousness. It’s nothing new — Richard Pryor spoke on it years ago, as did Dick Gregory and a host of other impossibly smart comedians. Rodney King was beaten like a rag doll and the officers who did so were punished with a slap on the wrist. As a new laundry list of names enter the fold — Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, the victims of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church terrorist attacks, etc., etc., ad infinitum — “Alright” has played as an antihistamine to the pain that’s so frequently been doled out to Black Americans.
If time, history, and practicality are any indicator, we’re probably not going to be alright — at least not in this lifetime. But the point of gospel is having faith in what isn’t there. You have to have faith in something that isn’t exactly tangible, a deep and spiritual faith. “Alright” isn’t about determination; it’s about forgetting cold, harsh reality and hoping for something brighter and better if only for three minutes and 39 seconds.
“Alright” is the gospel song we need in these trying times, and gospel is also about community — your brothers and sisters, if you will. Above all, “Alright” is a damn fun song, and that’s what puts it leagues ahead of tracks with similar content. In 2015, all across America, in the clubs, bars, and concert halls, dozens and dozens, sometimes hundreds or thousands of black and brown and white and yellow folks have proudly and joyfully screamed, “We gon’ be alright.” With that kind of love, fuck practicality, time, and history. Maybe we actually will be alright. –H. Drew Blackburn