When To Pimp a Butterfly was released in mid-March, it was not quite a third of the way through what, by any measure, has been a miserable year. The world, and America in particular, and for minorities specifically, has experienced a veritable buffet of social garbage. And it looks like there's a decent chance the same will be true next year, too. Will we be alright, as Kendrick Lamar assures? And who is that "we"? In the realm of the pop anthem, "we" have had a long life. Perhaps it’s the "we" who are champions, who will rock you. But more likely it’s the same "we" who shall overcome. "Alright" spoke to black Americans oppressed and murdered, these days so frequently by those on the government payroll and sworn to protect. "We hate popo," Lamar raps, "wanna kill us dead in the streets for sure." It’s a basic sentiment that in this country has become undeniably truer day after day.
But after Lamar’s dirge comes the chorus: "We gon be alright," an ebulliently simple five-syllable refrain, a future-tense assertion of delivery to a better, more peaceful place. In more than one instance, the song’s chorus was chanted at Black Lives Matter protests. It has soundtracked a movement. That's largely due to its holistic sentiment as a siren against innumerable injustices, but it has just as much to do with the fact that it's a great hook on a ferociously catchy song, produced by Sounwave and Pharrell Williams, with marching band propulsion and a jazz band's breezy reeds.
On it, Lamar acts as master of ceremonies as much as rapper. He starts the song with an incantation borrowed from Alice Walker: "All my life I had to fight," before detailing a world wracked with addiction, lust, greed, and Satan—basically all the sins and their mayor. Then Pharrell comes in to sweep it all away. "We gon' be alright!" That this chorus is so infectious is no accident; it’s sung by the same guy who made "Happy".
An argument could be made that the track's power is in the hook, the verses superfluous. And that might be true. Surely you can recite the chorus with no knowledge of the song, or even who sings it. Isn't that anonymous accessibility what makes an anthem? In that sense, with "Alright" did Kendrick Lamar write something timeless by writing something bigger than himself, something whose jubilant recitation turns us all into the author?
That future tense is always coming, and in a sense it already came. In the time since the song was released, there’s been the murder of Freddie Gray, the suicide of Sandra Bland, the recent police cover up in Chicago, the shootings in San Bernardino, in Colorado, massacres in Beirut and Paris. Things, may in fact, be getting worse. Will we be alright? Who knows. But we’ll at least be together. —Matthew Schnipper