A bright spot on an otherwise bleak album, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” instantly feels necessary. Besides being the most celebratory jam on To Pimp a Butterfly, it’s a modern-day liberation anthem. It’s that first salvational gasp after nearly drowning. Yet, for such a happy song, “Alright” is innately sad. By design, it’s supposed to be some sort of salve for the pain of losing Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and others, and for white supremacy. At the same time, it’s a reminder of everything that hurts. Saying we’ll be fine, as Kendrick suggests, is a choice borne of necessity, a mandatory joy and survival tactic that so many black people are compelled into. We seek music to heal the sickness. So we made “Alright” our Song of the Summer because it’s great and, in some ways, ’cause we had no choice.
There’s no telling which single on an album will truly move people. What makes “Alright” so powerful is how it became Our Song—in part, by merely existing. That there was no other song like it—meaning no collective anthem from which we all could draw hope—is part of what makes it great. I’m not the first person to call it a new black anthem. That happened fast and with certainty, though I wouldn’t go so far as to have it replace “We Shall Overcome.” If there were any magical record label tricks involved with its push, then we didn’t see it. The elevation seemed to be largely organic to the point where we—black people, separately and together—just decided that this was our jam.
Pre-summer, “Trap Queen” and “Uptown Funk” were high up in the Song of the Summer predictions, which has become more of a music critic pastime than anything meaningful. Last summer, the soundtrack was widely considered to be “Fancy,” a terrible song that’s also a perfect pop record. Leading up to Labor Day, people who care about these things either start christening the Song of the Summer, mourning the dearth of candidates or lamenting another summer without a clear-cut ubiquitous anthem (Huffington Post has already declared the Song of the Summer dead, bless its heart).
This year, the top contender isn’t as blatant. The Song of the Summer should technically be one that dominates in real life and market wise, on radio and charts. But as history goes, that’s not always the case (in my heart, the song of summer ’96 will always be Ghost Town DJs’ “My Boo,” not “Macarena”). It seemed like Wiz Khalifa would rule our existence with the sickening “See You Again,” and so far he has. His song is currently No. 1 on Billboard’s summer songs chart ahead of an even more nauseating single, Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.” These all pale in comparison to the power of “Alright,” the one song that we can all agree is the most important of the summer, one that bangs and delivers—maybe not universally, but to a group of people who matter majorly.
Celebrations across the country have been lit by its chorus. Protesters have shouted “We gon’ be alright” in unison, both at Cleveland State University during a Black Lives Matter rally and in Ferguson, Missouri, on the one-year anniversary of Mike Brown’s murder while protesters were being handcuffed.
Elsewhere, in places without visual evidence, people are and have been listening to it and feeling a sense of community or, at the least, some kind of momentary happiness. (Note that the highest position this song has reached on the Hot 100 chart is No. 86.)
“Alright” has purpose from the start, when Kendrick references The Color Purple over chopped angelic crooning while alluding to an invisible opposition. There’s not enough time to dwell on the eternal fight because the last line is an affirmation:
Alls my life I has to fight, nigga/ Alls my life, I
Hard times like, “God!”/ Bad trips like, “God!”
Nazareth, I’m fucked up/ Homie, you fucked up
But if God got us, then we gon’ be alright
You almost forget that it’s Pharrell—yes, the High Priest of Happiness—who’s in the beginning chanting, “We gon’ be alright!” with absolute assurance, while his own beat—layered with Terrace Martin’s sax riffs, drums by Soundwave and an overall aura of smooth—compels you to move a part of your body, most likely your head or your arms. It has a hook driven by a conditional “But” that turns potential for self-destruction into something stronger: a cool, positive mantra. Kendrick knows that we’re all wandering:
When you know we’d been hurt, been down before, nigga
When our pride was low, looking at the world like where do we go, nigga?
And we hate po-po/ Want to kill us dead in the street for sure, nigga
I’m at the preacher’s door, my knees getting weak and my gun might blow, but...
As uplifting as it is, there’s an up and down motion throughout the song (an “Everything Sucks But...” thesis), with religion, or whatever you believe in, and community being the refuge that ultimately pulls you out. All the while, Kendrick is there offering reassurance and wondering if you really get it: “Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon’ be alright.” The video is similarly pure pain and bliss.
“Alright” is the people’s chosen soundtrack to the shittiest parts of these past months and years and the worst parts of the summer. By the end of it, there’s a release. Do you believe? If you’ve ever heard the song in a party setting, then you know how instinctual it feels, at least for black folks. Fists pump and hope is temporarily restored after it’s knocked out of us once again, until we choose to believe.
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Image via YouTube