Kendrick Lamar's civil rights anthem 'Alright' almost didn't happen

Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly” is a multiple Grammy award-winning masterpiece.

Its eclectic mix of hip-hop, jazz, soul, funk, and myriad of other styles is a testament to the incredible range of the Compton-born rapper. The album won Lamar four Grammy awards in 2016, bringing his total to seven. 

More than just a great album, it features several singles that’ve gone on to become anthems of the modern social justice movement. Most notably, the 2016 single, “Alright” has become the anthem of a generation:

Beyond being an incredible song, its chorus became a rallying cry of protesters in the United States —  “a kind of comfort that people of colour and other oppressed communities desperately need all too often: the hope — the feeling — that despite tensions in this country growing worse and worse, in the long run, we’re all gon’ be all right,” as Slate culture writer Aisha Harris put it.

In Chicago, when people gathered to protest a rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, “We gon’ be alright!” was sung in celebration of the rally’s cancellation:

#TrumpRally protesters chant “We gonna be alright” after announcement of a Trump no-show.
— Chicago Reader (@Chicago_Reader) March 12, 2016

And in 2015, a Black Lives Matter assembly in Cleveland chanted the song’s chorus, reportedly in response to police arresting a 14-year-old protester:

Countless other examples exist. More than just a great song, “Alright” is the anthem of the modern civil rights movement.

It’s joined socially-conscious hits like Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” as bigger than music. “Alright” is an incredible achievement for a man who’s already achieved so much. And it’s one that almost didn’t happen.

The Creation of “Alright”

Kendrick Lamar recorded “To Pimp a Butterfly” in studios across the US with a variety of different producers.

Legendary producer — and acclaimed musician in his own right  —  Pharrell Williams was one of those producers. After having collaborated on Lamar’s 2012 breakthrough album “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City,” Williams and Lamar collaborated once again on “Alright.”

Williams can be heard on the chorus, chanting “We gon’ be alright!” 

Pharrell williams hat grammy awardsChristopher Polk/GettyWilliams is notorious for his occasionally very large hats.

More than singing it, though, Pharrell Williams is actually the man responsible for both the song’s addictive beat and its anthemic chorus.

“[Pharrell] had the hook. P had the ‘Alright.’ That’s him on the hook,” Lamar told famed music producer Rick Rubin in a recent interview for a GQ cover story. Williams created the beat behind “Alright” as well. In fact, the beat was complete a full six months before the song itself was. 

And then Lamar left it alone for half a year.

Kendrick Lamar with Rick RubinGQLeft: Kendrick Lamar Right: Rick Rubin

“I was sitting on that record for about six months,” Lamar tells Rubin in the interview. “The beat, Pharrell…between my guy Sam Taylor [a music publisher and friend] and Pharrell: ‘Did you do it? When you gonna do it?’ They was on me.” But Lamar couldn’t find the right lyrics, so he sat on it. And sat on it. And sat on it.

“I knew it was a great record, I was just trying to find the space and to approach it,” Lamar said. “What’s the approach? The beat sounds fun, but it’s something else inside of them chords that Pharrell put down. It feels like it could be more of a statement than a certain tune.”

It was Williams that ultimately pushed the song toward the what it is today; he came up with the hook, and Lamar ran with it. “Just saying that, the ‘alright’ phrase. What does ‘alright’ represent? What does ‘we gonna be alright’ represent?,” Lamar says.

After that, the words apparently came flowing out.

Kendrick Lamar (Top Dawg EntertainmentA still from the video for Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’.

“That was one record that executed exactly how my approach was the moment I put the pen to the paper,” he says. In “Alright,” Lamar channels the struggles of the modern black experience in America while also recognising hundreds of years of struggle that led to this point.

It’s an anthem of positivity written amidst a backdrop of civil unrest.

For some context, these all took place in the last six months of 2014 (during the recording of “To Pimp a Butterfly”):

  • The shooting death of an 18-year-old black man named Michael Brown by a 28-year-old white police officer, and the weeks of protest that followed.
  • The death of a 43-year-old black man named Eric Garner at the hands of two white New York Police Department officers; Garner was being arrested for selling loose cigarettes at the time of his death.
  • The shooting death of a 12-year-old black boy named Tamir Rice by two white Cleveland Police Department officers. 

As Lamar puts it, “There was a lot going on  — still to this day there’s a lot going on. I wanted to approach [‘Alright’] as more uplifting, but aggressive. Not playing the victim, but still having that ‘Yeah, we strong.'”

The anthemic nature of the song, the symbolic importance of its chorus, and its deep references to African American history (“40 acres and a mule“) are all surgical and deliberate. And it’s clear that it took much more than the beat and hook coming together for “Alright” to become “the protest song of our generation” (as Rick Rubin puts it). 

“That song could’ve went a thousand other ways,” Lamar says with a grin. “A thousand other ways.”

The full, nearly hour-long interview is excellent — watch it here:

NOW WATCH: Nobody had a bigger impact on music this year than Kendrick Lamar

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