Ignored Obscured Restored
In my final recognition of Black History Month, today’s SotW is “Alright” from Kendrick Lamar’s seminal album To Pimp a Butterfly.
“Alright” was released as a single in 2015, about a half year after the August 2014 protests broke out in Ferguson, MI, related to the killing of the teenage Michael Brown by a police officer. The song confronts the friction between police and the residents of black communities – like Compton, CA, where he grew up – that they serve and has become the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement. (The video for “Alright” accentuates this.)
Lamar is no ordinary lyricist. He has a very high intellect that shines through the references he chooses to communicate his message. Take, for instance, the rapid fire lyrics of the second verse of “Alright.”
What you want you, a house? You, a car?
40 acres and a mule? A piano, a guitar?
Anything, see my name is Lucy, I’m your dog
Motherfucker, you can live at the mall
I can see the evil, I can tell it I know when it’s illegal
I don’t think about it, I deposit every other zero
Thinkin’ of my partner put the candy, paint it on the regal
Diggin’ in my pocket ain’t a profit, big enough to feed you
Every day my logic, get another dollar just to keep you
In the presence of your chico ah!
I don’t talk about it, be about it, every day I see cool
If I got it then you know you got it, Heaven, I can reach you
Pat Dawg, Pat Dawg, Pat Dawg, my dog, that’s all
Bick back and Chad, I trap the bag for y’all
I rap, I black on track so rest assured
My rights, my wrongs, I write ’til I’m right with God
An essay by Kyle Flick dissects the verse:
In this verse, Kendrick illustrates a battle he has with Lucy (Lucifer) as he offers Kendrick everything he could want. Kendrick stands before Cerberus, the hound that guards Hell, and he is beckoning him to come in and speak with Lucy. Kendrick mentions 40 acres and a mule, which is what the government originally promised recently freed slaves but never ended up giving it. Lucy offers Kendrick any material object he could want, trying to tempt him into coming to his side and ignore the opposite, God. Kendrick knows that the devil is evil but he is nonetheless being persuaded by Lucy to give into his greed. Kendrick wants to live like the rich rappers he listened to as a teen and Lucy is using this to his advantage to try and get Kendrick to come to his side. Kendrick realizes though that nothing will be able to satisfy his greed which Lucy embodies. He is becoming consumed with getting as much money as he can, falling into Lucy’s trap. Finally, Kendrick says, “Ah!” he realizes he is falling into his vice of greed and materialism and was very close to accepting Lucy’s offer.
Despite the intense language, imagery, and subject matter, the song is intended to convey hope and optimism – “we gon’ be alright.”
To Pimp a Butterfly reached #1 on the Billboard 200 upon its debut in 2015. A 2019 article in The Guardian, titled The 100 best albums of the 20th century, placed it at #4. It also took the #19 slot in 2020 when Rolling Stone updated their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Enjoy… until next week.