Let’s talk about “Alright” for a second. It has become our generation’s protest song.
When you wrote it, did you have that in mind? Did you think of it as a protest song?
No. You know what? I was sitting on that record for about six months. The beat’s Pharrell. And between my guy Sam Taylor and Pharrell, they would always be like, Did you do it? When you gonna do it? I knew it was a great record—I just was trying to find the space to approach it. I mean, the beat sounds fun, but there’s something else inside of them chords that Pharrell put down that feels like—it can be more of a statement rather than a tune. So with Pharrell and Sam asking me—Am I gonna rock on it? When I’m gonna rock on it?—it put the pressure on me to challenge myself. To actually think and focus on something that could be a staple in hip-hop. And eventually, I came across it. Eventually, I found the right words. You know, it was a lot going on, and still, to this day, it’s a lot going on. And I wanted to approach it as more uplifting—but aggressive. Not playing the victim, but still having that We strong, you know?
Missy Elliott – WTF (Where They From) (Official Video) (2015)
Directed by David Meyers. A legend returns through the medium that helped us first recognize her greatness. The video for “WTF (Where They From)” proves that Elliott can still be the bold innovator that most of the world learned about nearly 20 years ago with her debut video, “The Rain.” Teaming with director David Meyers, this time Elliott leaves behind the hyper-real settings she famously inhabited for songs like “Get Ur Freak On” and “Lose Control,” and instead appears in more grounded locations like city streets and Metro stops. Still, she looks like a visitor from the future, sent to reflect the possibilities of boundless creativity.
Kendrick Lamar – Alright (Official Video) (2015)
Directed by Colin Tilley & The Little Homies. Through his twenties, prolific director Colin Tilley has specialized in glossy hip-hop videos like Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” and DJ Khaled’s “No New Friends.” For Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” he creates a starker experience befitting one of the most ambitious albums by a major artist in recent history. In the nearly seven-minute piece, Lamar emerges as a charismatic but vulnerable superhero, flying through the city and doing donuts in a parking lot as a kid gleefully sits shotgun. While the video for “Alright” owes some debt to filmmaker (and previous Lamar collaborator) Khalil Joseph in its editing, sound design and imagery, Tilley rises to the challenge of matching Lamar’s beautifully complex and conflicted vision.
Kendrick Lamar performs “Alright” on Austin City Limits. Episode premieres January 9th on PBS. Check your local PBS listings for airdates and times.
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
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