We Gon' Be Alright: Kendrick Lamar and the Story of a Conscious Gangsta Ballad
I love a perfectly placed use of the word nigga in a song, there’s an art to it and Kendrick Lamar is one of the better artists in the-use-of-nigga field. I like to fancy him a musician of field nigga soul. I also think To Pimp a Butterfly should be institutionalized a Negro classic by an approved panel of thought-leaders from our own communities. At the same time, Lamar could benefit from an unlearning patriarchy course taught by those same leaders. My feeling is that an improved reading of women’s lives could further develop his ability to shape black humanity. But before I start, let me be clear, this is not a review on Kendrick’s Lamar’s new album. The truth is, upon hearing it in its entirety I found myself stubbornly lost in the song “Alright,” unable to move past repeat.
Kendrick Lamar is the son of a Los Angeles OG (original gangster). On the block we would say, ‘his daddy used to bang.’ In certain neighborhoods in Cali this gives him status, a gangsta is something many L.A. kids aspired to be. I for one grew up in the Baldwin Hills/Jungle/Crenshaw district wanting to be a crip, mainly because I preferred the color blue over red and crips had their own dance. But there was something else, something radically dangerous about being a gangsta, something that made me feel safe and excited whenever I saw neighborhood OGs working on cars and listening to oldies. Quite a few of them sported a perfectly parted head full of rollers that a girlfriend or sister did. Then the War on Drugs came. Then crack came. Then the batteram came. Then the mass incarceration and violent death of hundreds of OGs came. Then that shit wasn’t cute anymore. Crip walk blues.
Musically, the LA late 80s ignited the spark that became the flame of the ‘92’ Riots. Perhaps the music even set the tone for the half-hearted gang truce that followed. By shifting the focus from “black on black’ crime to police brutality for example, NWA’s “Fuck the Police” spawned an underground cultural movement voicing the rage of post Watts Riots victims of Californian state violence.
“And we hate Popo, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, nigga”
When Ice Cube released his second solo album Death Certificate in 1992, my crew and I received it as his official break from being a Nigga Wit Attitude to reformed student of Khalid Muhammad and the Nation Of Islam posse. Soon he would become a box office darling staring in kid friendly action films? Burn Hollywood Burn. But for real, Death Certificate was dope. A conceptual album, one of the issues it called attention to was the mounting tension between Korean shopkeepers and Black consumers. The forty-seven second song "Black Korea," was criticized for inciting the riots, but I think it was more of a prediction, a knowing that he expressed over righteous Sir Jinx beats. Cube ends the song with a telling verse:
“So pay respect to the black fist/or we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp/and then we’ll see ya/Cause you can’t turn the ghetto into Black Korea."
By no means am I endorsing the highly offensive lyrics on this track, but at the time it felt like a win and a theme song for Latasha Harlin’s symbolic death at the hands of a Korean shop owner, and because of that I knew every word of it. Florence and Normandie stand up.
L.A. gangsta rap has a special place in my heart, it carries a rarely recalled history of resistance. Is that same heart tender from the genre’s troubled relationship with black women? Yes. Equating “baby mama drama” with killer cops does not a healthy relationship make. Gangsta rap from Compton is even more triggering as most people who hear the city’s name, can’t help but imagine police caution tape as hood decor and cultural drive-bys. But Compton is unique for its relationship to hip-hop, giving the people The World Class Wrecking Crew, MC Eight and Compton’s Most Wanted, DJ Quick, Michel’le, 2nd II None, King Tee, Coolio? And Dr. Dre ‘might could be’ considered Compton’s gangsta musical mayor.
By the way, has anyone peeped how Compton-ites have been part of multiple national conversations recently? Serena Williams ended a 14-year boycott of the prestigious Indian Wells tournament after being heckled with racist comments in 2001. Her return was less a concession and more a special kind of forgiving grace. Filmmaker and cultural worker Ava Duhvernay speaks openly about her complex and seemingly contradictory love for AMG’s “Bitch Betta have my Money” and the UCLA BA in African American Studies/English she strolls with down the red carpet.
In Ava’s recent film about the Voting Rights Movement, Selma, activist Anna Lee Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey, channels The Color Purple’s Ms. Sophia. One of most compelling scenes from Selma is when Anna Cooper, in the spirit of Ms. Sophia, fights back when during a peaceful demonstration a cop assaults her.
In this moment, Ms. Sophia became a metaphoric character representing fearless physical resistance against state sanctioned violence and Black patriarchal violence for that matter (you told Harpo to beat me?). Dignity. And it was the fact that Kendrick Lamar’s song “Alright” starts with the words of Ms. Sophia, "Allz my life I had to fight" immediately followed by, yes, a well placed nigga, that drew me in, ear to the speaker deep, to this song.
I want to unpack this. It would be great if the use of Ms. Sophia’s words were an expression of Lamar’s commitment to promoting the principles of intersectionality and bringing Black women’s violent experiences into the conversation about police brutality. Almost, but not quite. Kiese Laymon, one of my favorite minds in the world right now shares his struggles with Lamar’s challenges around women and gender. “The Kendrick album made me cry because of how dope it was as an album, but it also made me cry because, even though he's working, he's so far from thinking about the ways black "liberated" men terrorize black "liberated" women everyday. We ain't even talking about that because the bar is so low. Still, I love that Kendrick is working.” It means a lot to me that I can use the words of black men that support my concerns and there are many of them out there openly unlearning patriarchy, alongside trans men, gender queer and masculine identified women, not to mention cisgendered women and feminine identified men who internalize patriarchy as well.
This song and Lamar’s public struggle with women inspired important personal reflection on the ways all of us are indoctrinated by patriarchy as a system. In the song you can hear his commitment to introspection, reinforcing the fact that he is indeed working.
“Misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression”
The album-cover offers a striking visual component to the music and reads like Black boy zombies of mass incarceration on the front lawn of the White House. I can feel the presence of Barack in the back watching from the West Wing. There’s also a dead judge with scratched out eyes beneath the underdogs. But where the women at? Black women too are over-represented in the prison industrial complex, over-sentenced by judges who think our kind best in cages. So boy bye, stop it with the single gender narratives of police brutality! Still, the album cover is undeniably compelling and a refreshing break from the standard celebrity driven photograph of the individual artist.
So now that I think about it, this may not qualify as a proper song review. I think it was more of a desire to create structure around the stream of conscious the music and lyrics invoked in me. So let me at least share what came up for me when I listened to it as a DJ. First off, Pharell Williams, Lamar and Mark Spears (Sounwave) wrote and produced the fuck out of this track. Musically it gives me the deep funk anger of southern crunk or trap music. It uses the 808 drum for punctuation with enough bottom to support what feels like a conscious gangsta ballad, a love letter to Black people. His flow is acrobatic. I’m a student of the movement of his lips when he rhymes and I can feel the music orbiting around his ideas.
I wrote most of this piece in an Amsterdam café, having taken the Metro 54 to get to the city’s center from its only community referred to as a ghetto, the historically Black and predominantly Surinamese Bijlmer. The Curries, salt fish, fresh mint, olives, dates and kenkey found in the Bijlmer’s local markets lets you know that Ghanaians, Aruban, Moroccan and Turkish folks can be found here as well.
I’ve spent the last four months in Amsterdam researching this community for a project called “The Global 80s,” where I use aspects of DJ culture to explore the social conditions and political temperature of nine cities to understand the way music expressed the collective mood of people impacted by institutional racism and displacement in the 1980s. This may be another reason why the song resonates. Music from Compton makes me think about the crack economy of the 1980s. Cultural critic and scholar Robin Kelley brilliantly describes this period, “When the crack economy made its presence felt in poor black communities in Los Angeles for instance, street violence intensified as gangs and groups of peddlers battled for control over markets. Because of its unusually high crime rate, Los Angeles gained the dubious distinction of having the largest urban prison population in the country.”
On the day I heard “Alright” for the first time, I just so happened to bike past a police blockade being conducted at two o’clock in the afternoon in Amsterdam's Bijlmer. There were vans, several cars, intimidation and a remote computer station set up to run the tags of people who could be penalized on the spot for outstanding parking tickets and unpaid taxes. Papa J. Baldwin’s words came through me in that moment, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor." My anger swelled in being a witness to the policing of black bodies ‘East coast, West Coast, Worldwide’ and with Lamar in my ears I felt held through it. There is nothing more that I need right now than to hear Black people chant in unison 'nigga we gon’ be alright.’ Thank you Compton, for reminding me that like white supremacy, Black resilience is global. I live because this song is so full of us….well placed niggas.