Hip-hop is an art form based on spontaneity. Since the birth of the genre, a DJ or emcee’s ability to produce off the top of the dome was a measure of that artist’s musical skill. If you listen to stories from those who were present at hip-hop’s early stages, before it broke into the American mainstream, you’ll learn that people would gather anywhere and everywhere and just start rapping. They just wanted to spit their rhymes and tell their stories.
Sidewalk Chalk brings the Kendrick Lamar hit “Alright” back to this kind of natural, spontaneous setting. Depicted in an almost cartoon-like setup, the band sits in the back of a pickup truck on the side of the road. How did they get there? Maybe they were driving to a gig and just decided to stop and jam for a bit. At least that’s the vibe they wanted to convey in this video; it’s a really nice thought to have.
Kendrick’s version of the song is no stranger to jazz influences; the entirety of To Pimp a Butterfly is deeply rooted in jazz. However, Sidewalk Chalk’s cover brings “Alright” to another side of jazz, closer to what is present on Kendrick’s “For Free?” Elements of avant-garde and free jazz are all over this version of the tune: dissonant interplay between David Ben-Porat on trombone and Charlie Coffeen on piano at the song’s beginning, a honky-tonk piano sound that gives a slightly out-of-tune feel, and the replacement of drums with a tap dancer (Jumaane Taylor). The percussive drive provided by the tap-dance is a welcome addition; it’s a very fresh idea. (I wouldn’t mind hearing a bit more tap-dancing in general…) Sam Trump’s trumpet fills contribute an extra melodic layer, mirroring Terrace Martin’s sax lines on To Pimp a Butterfly.
All of these elements work together to pay respect to Kendrick’s work and construct an original take on the tune at the same time. Musical components like Rico Sisney’s original verses and the discordant trombone sounds towards the end of the cover give this song the Sidewalk Chalk stamp of authenticity. Creating an unoriginal cover should always be a worry for an artist, but Sidewalk Chalk handled the situation well. And for that I tip my metaphorical hat to the band.