Kendrick Lamar beat out a string quartet and a cantata to take the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for music on Monday. That’s an extra $15,000 and another notch in the Compton rapper’s belt for his Grammy-winning album “DAMN.”
The Pulitzer Prize website described the rapper’s album as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”
This is quite flattering for an artist who’s only been an A‑list celebrity for the past six years or so. This isn’t a capstone on a decades-spanning career, but it does mark the first artist outside of jazz and classical music to take the award.
It’s a big step for rap and hip-hop, as it marks an end to the unspoken boycott of pop and rap by the Pulitzer Prizes. Even then, it should be noted that the cantata in question was a spoken word narrative with a chamber choir, electric guitar, and drums. Clearly the judges weren’t averse to more lyrical works.
Does Kendrick Lamar truly deserve the Pulitzer Prize for “DAMN.” or is this an attempt to stay hip? The album received generally positive reviews and had every song topping Apple Music’s charts the night it released a year ago, but it also came on the heels of two outstanding projects and “untitled unmastered,” a compilation album of impressive throwaway songs.
Before the discussion gets hung up on whether rap deserves a Pulitzer in general, it’s important to note the judges’ thought process. In an interview with the New York Times, music critic David Hajdu said that the judging committee realized some modern classical artists demonstrated influences of hip-hop in their work. Because of this, rap suddenly had a foot in the door, with “DAMN.” receiving a shot at the prize.
Nevertheless, “DAMN.” certainly doesn’t bear the same artistic merit as its predecessors “good kid, m.A.A.d city” and “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Both of Lamar’s previous albums told a narrative and more explicitly addressed “African-American life.” The single “Alright” from the latter project even became the anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement. It seems the Pulitzer Prize’s own rationale for awarding “DAMN.” is meant for the rapper’s greater body of work.
Like Lamar’s 2016 Best Rap Album Grammy for “To Pimp a Butterfly,” the Pulitzer award seems late. It’s a great honor, and a long time coming, but it seems more like a “happy belated” than a celebration. “To Pimp a Butterfly” was more than a collection of singles and certainly more focused than the still-impressive “DAMN.” Drenched in jazz and funk influences, “To Pimp a Butterfly” forced listeners to dive into the politics of racial inequality and discrimination while even spawning college courses centered around the project.
In short, if Lamar deserved a Pulitzer Prize, it was two years ago. And if the Pulitzers needed Lamar to maintain their connection with music, they have a lot of catching up to do.