The Pulitzer prize is arguably one of the greatest honours a writer can possibly receive. During this year’s ceremony on Monday, something unbelievable happened – the music category award, usually given to classical or, at most, jazz albums, was won by none other than the rapper and contemporary music icon Kendrick Lamar. The artist was first of his genre’s representatives to receive the prestigious accolade, sparking a wave of excitement and pride in the world-wide hip-hop community.
Alongside putting smiles on faces (mine included), the unorthodox decision of the award committee has also raised a few eyebrows. It is truly unusual to see rap, a genre rooted in urban culture and popularly perceived as incomprehensive bragging about money, fast cars and women, get recognized on such a high level for lyrics and poetry.
But it is about time for contemporary genres to be taken seriously. Hip-hop, rock, indie and other strands of modern music are nowadays much more socially important and influential to the younger generations than the classical and jazz records. In terms of musical complexity, coherence and creativity, one might argue that a 5-piece rock band or a repetitive, computer-made hip-hop beat is no match for a gigantic and carefully-layered orchestral composition, however in this day and age even the most stubborn of critics must face the fact that there are other elements of songs worth appreciation. In Kendrick’s case, the undoubted aspect that has won him the Pulitzer, along with a Grammy for Best Rap Album, BET Album of the Year and numerous other awards, is his poetical virtue. Not only has he resurrected the (deemed dead before him) tradition in rap of putting deeper meaning into lyrics, juggling flows and building complex rhyme schemes. His albums are not simply collections of songs – they tie into common narratives; instead of rapping about riches and threatening the world with AKs and machineguns, Kendrick analyses aspects of human mentality, tackles social issues of life in isolated poor minority communities and uncovers flaws of the American society. He truly is a modern-day poet, lyricist and a positive influence to thousands of young people who look up to him. Therefore, it is amazing to see this art being acknowledged and valued on such a serious medium.
But something doesn’t feel right. It is somewhat strange to see particularly “DAMN”, his most recent album to win a Pulitzer. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I don’t understand the hidden genius of the record. Maybe I don’t have the ear to evaluate its production or to fully appreciate the sometimes-minimalistic lyrics. I’m growing a bit tired of repeating myself over and over, but until I’m proven wrong, I’ll stand by my opinion that this particular album should not be the one to get this type of recognition. DAMN is inconsistent. It isn’t Kendrick’s biggest sonic masterpiece; it isn’t his best work lyrics-wise, either. It has some completely skippable tracks that don’t deserve to be anywhere near his best, let alone the Pulitzers. I’ve been recently re-visiting Lamar’s older records – his break-through album “Good Kid Maad City”, a vivid movie-like story of a teenager’s tough reality living in Compton; “To Pimp A Butterfly”, the incredible jazz-flavoured masterpiece portraying struggles of the marginalised people in America. Compared to them, “DAMN” (which still uncovers self-reflective themes and bears a common motif), with trap/pop singles like HUMBLE or LOYALTY, just doesn’t reach the same level, both in terms of poetic value and production. This is the sceptical part – the commercial album should not get the most attention and become the face of an artist who has a lot more to offer.
The only reason I see why DAMN won the award is because it was written and composed in such a mass-appealing and accessible way that it eventually brought Kendrick’s lyrics and ideas the public attention they deserved. Presumably, its instrumental charm and hit singles have spread its sound (along with the lyrics) just broadly enough to get noticed by the Pulitzer people (by “just broadly enough” I mean going Double-Platinum in the US, alongside 3 Platinum and 6 Gold certifications all over the World; winning Grammys, BET and numerous other awards). It had attracted many new fans to the community – some heard his mesmerising poetical agenda for the first time; HUMBLE and LOYALTY had sky-rocketed the charts and became anthems of 2017 party music all over the globe, so they had likely gotten a lot of people interested in the artist and prompted the discovery of material that hides under the surface. “DAMN” has basically been a gateway album for very broad masses into appreciating Kendrick’s music, and that’s where it can get genuine credit.
Maybe “To Pimp A Butterfly” was a pill too hard to swallow. Maybe “Good Kid Maad City” was too hiphop-y and, by the time Kendrick gained the current level of fame, has become simply outdated. “DAMN” was simply the one to gain enough clout to make the Pulitzer committee take Kendrick seriously.
You can say that my interpretation is only backed by my personal lack of sympathy for DAMN compared to Kendrick’s other work. And you will be right. I don’t think the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for music was won by DAMN. I think it was won by Kendrick Lamar. And he deserves it.