The Definitive Breakdown of Kendrick Lamar's "Alright" Video - DJBooth

The Definitive Breakdown of Kendrick Lamar's "Alright" Video

An insanely detailed look at the visuals that have Kendrick Lamar holding the Video of the Year title.
Author:
Publish date:
kendrick-lamar-alright-breakdown-1.jpg

On Sunday night, the opening of B.E.T.’s 2015 Awards, Kendrick Lamar stood upon a police car covered in graffiti while a tattered American flag waved in the background, rapping the lyrics to a modern day Negro spiritual on a stage honoring and celebrating black entertainment. Bold isn’t a strong enough word to describe his artistic drive. There is no fear in Kendrick, he stands before us knowing what needs to be seen, knowing what needs to be said. He doesn’t whisper, stutter or stammer. Kendrick Lamar yells.

That’s how I felt while watching his recently released visual masterpiece for “Alright,” a poignant, powerful yell from a man with a message. The six minute video is rich with symbolism, layered with question raising imagery that demands the squad and I get on our absurdly detailed investigation tip and attempt to examine and dissect the best video of 2015 so far (sorry Sean). So that’s what I’ve spent the last two days doing.

Scene 1: The Dark Apocalypse

The video begins with a wide angle shot of the Oakland Bay Bridge in a color that can only be described as dark sky paradise (you’re welcome Sean). It’s a black and white tone with a deep contrast that gives off a gorgeous yet ominous ambiance. The first 30 seconds is completely b-roll footage that’s made into a slideshow of deserted locations, bleak and almost apocalyptic imagery. Zooming in on the Port of Oakland, boats at sea, a neighborhood cloaked by smoke and sky scrapers. They intertwine an audio clip of “loving me is complicated” in the background before our ears are filled with Kendrick’s horrifying scream from “U.” Both screams are used during a strange shot of a black ceiling with mini lights glowing. The addition of a drunken Kendrick in a hotel room on the verge of jumping from the 16th floor mixed into this array of images would perfectly symbolize the depression and loneliness of “U.” It’s like a mini video within the video, a sign of things to come. The next scene is where things get weird. The video freezes like a buffering computer or a glitch in the matrix when a skateboarder appears soaring across the sky. I thought my computer froze the first few times I watched it but no, for reasons I can’t fathom it’s intentional. The skateboarder disappears and the scene changes abruptly.  

After the switch is the first time we truly hear Kendrick, reciting the poem that is spoken throughout TPAB, although it’s important to notice that it’s not the same poem as the album, small tweaks are made. Kendrick is treating TPAB not as a finished product but a continued work in progress, capable of shape shifting as needed. People are finally incorporated into the video, the first person is a body lying on the ground, no indication if he’s alive or dead. There’s a shot of three boys riding their bikes, a helicopter, a police officer, and a man that looks insane with anger. The first woman they show looks distressed, her face is shown right after an unidentifiable burning object. This is also where we see the first big change in the poem. Instead of saying, “The evils of Luci was all around me” as on the album, it’s “The evils of Lucifer was all around me.” The camera pans to a perfect shot of a church, there’s no better place for someone with the Devil on his tail. For a brief second you see a masked man lying on the ground before a crowbar busts through a window and a snippet of "Cartoons & Cereal" is smoothly transitioned in as a tease. The perfect song for the mayhem that is about to be seen on the screen. This video isn’t just incorporating other parts of the album but songs from years past. A bottle of Crown Royal is downed, a woman’s face covered in blood, a Molotov cocktail is thrown at a burning, graffiti rainbow as we hear another change in the poem. It's the apocalypse. 

Image placeholder title

“So I kept running, until I found my safe haven, I was trying to convince myself the stripes I got [this is said during a scene that looks like a kid getting jumped, possible gang insinuation?], making myself realize where my foundation was.”

Next we see a quick glimpse at the bridge again and the boy that will later be seen riding in the car with Kendrick, along with the three people standing on top of a police car. It’s hard to catch the small details as "Cartoons & Cereal" is reintroduced, this time finally dropping in all its glory and showing the foreshadowed insanity. It’s only for a moment, but that clip captures all the rage and aggression of a city gone mad. The money being thrown, the burning car (I believe it’s a police car), the men celebrating the destruction, it’s the most cinematic scene so far. Worthy of its own separate video and introducing a core concept of the video; it seems to exist on two different planes, a realistic plane and a surreal plane. This shot of the rioting looks completely surreal, an imagined nightmare, while other shots seem to be taken from true life.  We also see the boy that was face down earlier in the video reappear, this time running from a horde of boys, perhaphs the same ones shown beating someone before (is this also the boy previously show on the ground?). No one has distinguishable facial features, another touch of surrealism.

The most impactful scene of this extremely long intro - can we even call it an intro? - shows a man being slammed to the ground. Well, it looks like the ground, when the camera angle switches you notice that it’s a wall and he’s being manhandled by white police officer, the same officer that was briefly shown during the b-roll. Before he can slip the cuffs on (or does the cop let the man go intentionally?) the man pushes the officer and makes a run for it. The officer without hesitation pulls his gun and mouths the words freeze before pulling the trigger. It’s something about seeing the gun discharge in slow motion adds a level of intensity to the scene. It feels horrifyingly realistic, we're no longer in the world of the surreal. During it we hear Kendrick recite, “While my love ones was fighting a continuous war back in the city, I was entering a new one, a war that was based on apartheid and discrimination.” That last line hits hardest while watching a white officer shoot a black man. That’s the war he’s referring to. Blue versus Black in America.

Image placeholder title

Before we see the outcome of the shooting, the video transitions into a beautiful shot of a lamp post and the silhouette of the city. The title flashes: Kendrick, the director Colin Tilley, Top Dawg and the “Lil homies” are all accredited. Russian playwright Chekhov Anton once said, “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." That’s this very first shot. The very same lamp post is where the final scene of the video takes place, foreshadowing on fleek.

Notably, seemingly all of this initial section is shot in Oakland. I think this holds great significance. Oakland is still local, west coast, a very Kendrick decision. Every visual thus far for TPAB hasn’t left California. Also, Oakland is historically known as a location recognized for resistance. It’s where Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party in October of 1966, and yet also has a deep history of police brutality cases. I recently read an article that reports 74 million dollars was spent settling 417 police brutality lawsuits in Oakland alone. This is the perfect location for a video themed around dirty law enforcement. Oscar Grant, a black man killed by a police officer in 2009, was one of the first widespread accounts of police brutality to be captured on a cell phone and shared through social media. It lead to much public outrage, protest and riots. Sound familiar? These are the images America needs to see if it can ever hope to reckon with its sins. 


Scene 2: Frontseat Freestyle

The video jumps to a scene, essentially an entirely different video with only loose ties to what’s come before, featuring Kendrick in an old school automobile with his Black Hippy brothers. I think this is the first time all four have been together in a music video since the 2012 “Say Wassup.” Notice this shot in a very different style, much less dreary and ominous. It’s also an interesting juxtaposition, Kendrick went from freestyling in the backseat before committing a home invasion to driving in the frontseat, proclaiming he’s going to be the greatest rapper and calling TPAB “another classic.” I know Twitter has been wanting the song to be officially liberated since the video release, sadly it doesn’t exist beyond this clip. Colin Tilley told MTV:

“But the crazy part is, when we’re sitting there, all of a sudden, Kendrick was like, ‘Hold on, man. I’m totally hearing something completely different for this right now.’ He’s like, ‘I’m gonna write this song and we’ll send it to you tonight. But we’ll do this song as a segment before the video even starts.’ So, they sent me the song like two days later and we continued to build on it”

We can add the “Frontseat Freestyle” to the same group as the “Untitled” song performed on Colbert Report, and possibly the verse he rapped at the end of his B.E.T performance. Sounwave should give the people the beat, we need something to deal with this withdrawal. While the song is amazing, it doesn’t beat the magnificence of what we see once the camera pans out. The car isn’t being driven but carried by four white police officers. I think this is a play on King Kunta/Kendrick, and how in ancient times royalty was carried on litters, a wheelless form of transportation. The police are like servants, carrying the King of Compton to his next destination, a powerful image because it completely reverses the black man-police officer power dynamic of the first scene. [Spoiler Alert: You can only see him for a brief moment, but the cop that is carrying the car on the back passenger side is the same cop that will later shoot Kendrick at the end of the video. The decision to use the same cop doesn’t seem like a coincidence. Chekhov would agree.

Image placeholder title

Scene 3: Donuts With The Little Homie

Three minutes into the video and “Alright” the song finally plays. The first scene is a top shot of a Z28 Camaro, likely a 2015, and a ground covered in the kind of tracks created by doing an absurd amount of donuts and dollar bills falling like snowflakes. We saw a brief glimpse of this scene way back in the "Dark Apocalypse" section. It zooms in to the inside, Kendrick is the driver and the little hooded boy from the bridge shot is holding a large amount of cash. He’s obviously the little homie, possibly one of the many that ended up on the album cover. It’s worth noting he has the best rapper hands I’ve seen in sometime. They begin in the same location, a viewpoint of the Oakland Bay Bridge, circling the police car that the kids are dancing upon. Throughout the video these two are together in the car, doing donuts like Walter White when Skylar wouldn’t allow Walt Jr to keep his Challenger, they even get into a brief car chase with police, with money still flowing from the windows. I think the money is an offer from Lucifer and these images are Kendrick’s way of symbolizing he doesn’t want Luci’s dirty money, suggesting Kendrick is completely detached from materialistic items. They aren’t necessary, overcoming and reaching the state of “alright” can’t be bought. Especially with the Devil’s assistance.

Image placeholder title

Scene 4: Dancing / Kendrick’s Connection To The People / Flying

I’m a fan of connecting narratives, how artist are able to tell a continuous story through multiple videos. In the past, we’ve praised Flying Lotus and Childish Gambino for their inventive approach to bringing their music to visual life. It’s possible that Kendrick was influenced by Flying Lotus’ visuals for You’re Dead. Kendrick and Fly Lo have been working working together lately, it’s not a farfetched guess. Especially since this video flips between gritty reality and a fantasy world that brushes up against the supernatural, a style that’s become Fly Lo’s playing ground. One of the other immediate parallels I drew between the two is the use of dance. Flying Lotus has been using dance to express an acceptance of death and with Kendrick, dance is used to express joy, and dance has appeared in all of this videos for TPAB so far. In “i” they dance for self-love, in “King Kunta” they dance for self-worth, and “Alright” they dance in the face of adversity. It reminds me of a clips from Twitter that I saw during the Baltimore protest for Freddie Gray. Michael Jackson impersonators took to the streets and danced during the turmoil in hopes of lightening the mood and raising the spirits. Throughout “Alright” there are plenty of dancers that give off a similar vibe, from the three on top of the police car to the awesome 100% Real Negus cranking the whip. It’s also worth noting the Oakland kids have style, likely local kids that got a chance to express the current dance culture. They aren’t in skinny jeans jerking like it’s 2012 but real intricate pop locking that leaves me wishing I had Wild Style on VHS. 

Image placeholder title

Right after showcasing the car, the video enters into complete surrealism with a floating Kendrick. Without explanation he is literally living out what R. Kelly told us he believed he could do. It doesn’t immediately show Kendrick airborne, between many transitioning clips, they tease the concept by showing his Timberlands in the air before revealing his entire body. As he glides down the road, you see kids acknowledge him by looking wide eyed and stretching their arms out as if he’s Superman, especially once he lands on the lamp post of doom. The kids that were riding their bike in the first scene are shown again at the end looking up to him, telling us that he isn’t some ghost or phantom that can’t be seen.

When the video was being shot, a photo leaked of the crowd shot - that photo didn’t do the clip justice. The video started with such bleak imagery but soon as the music drops, every scene seems to be filled with hope and people. You get filled with a sense of sincere optimism. Any shot that includes Kendrick and people there’s nothing but joy. He’s like their guardian angel, watching from above. It’s also worth noting that in every video for TPAB he’s surrounded by the people, his people. No famous friends been used as extras but the normal men, women, and children you see daily. The kind of people that appear on his album cover.

Image placeholder title

For the entire first verse he travels down the streets of Oakland, it’s not until the second verse that he reaches L.A. I’m still not sure on why the location switches or why he decides to sit upon the traffic light outside the Staples Center like a gargoyle, but I have a theory. Back in 2012, on the release date of GKMC, Kendrick decided to do an impromptu performance outside the Staple Center in celebration of his debut album release and thank you to the people that have supported him. There was no admission fee or previous awareness, he sent out a tweet during the Lakers vs. Sacramento game and thousands eventually showed up. Only a handful of songs were performed before the police rained upon his celebration due to heavy traffic and a rumored altercation. It’s fitting that he returns to the location, on a traffic light right outside the Staple Center to watch over the very same location where people flooded to see him perform three years prior. Similar to how Superman always watches over Metropolis, again, a guardian. I’ve read a few comments that accuse him of using a green screen for the scenes but during the video shoot on Memorial Day back in May, cell phone footage of the shoot unfolding was released. No green screen, just Kendrick, a crane, and a little bit of insanity. That's the reason for his bulky jacket and awkward stance, there's a harness attached to Kendrick and the crane.

I question how he was able to teleport from the traffic light in downtown L.A back to the lamp post in Oakland at the end, but then again I can’t try and use logic when a rapper who flies is involved. The camera angles for the last few scenes are incredible, it makes the lamp look like the epicenter of the city. From that location he can witness all and be witnessed. Notice that when the officer arrives, he gets out of the car with gun in hand. Yet, when he shots Kendrick, he only uses his two fingers and makes the banging sound with his mouth. K. Dot's executioner is also extremely calm the entire time, his face is completely emotionless, almost casual. In scene one we see an officer shoot someone with an actual gun, why the exception here? I like Nathan’s theory, that this scene is an example that murder by weapon isn’t the only way police officers are killing Black Americans. They don’t have to pull a physical trigger to end a young Black man’s life, something we’ve seen with the recent case of Kalief Browder.

After the "shot" we watch as Kendrick’s body spills blood as he falls to the ground, the poem begins again, ending when he hits the ground. The screen fades to black and returns, a close up on Kendrick’s face where he gives the camera a Kodak smile. Kendrick getting shot symbolizes that on this path to change there will be casualties. Change doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a painful road, but one we have to walk with joy and belief that things will be better. That we will be alright. Kendrick understands that his message is bigger than him, that if they shoot him they aren’t able to kill the hope. We have to smile because we have hope. It’s a video that was released at a time when black churches are being burned down, black lives are being taken without justice and the days seem to only be getting darker. A song radiating hope is needed. “Alright” is that song, the video just amplifies the message.

Image placeholder title

There is no fear in Kendrick Lamar, and that’s why he’s currently got the video of the year crown.

[By Yoh, aka We Yoh Be Alright, aka @Yoh31]

Related