Kendrick Lamar's Pulitzer for "DAMN." proves the influence of hip-hop can no longer be ignored

The Pulitzer committee's message was clear: Rap and hip-hop are art forms of staggering and universal importance.
 / Updated 
Image: 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards - Show
Kendrick Lamar performs during the 60th annual Grammy Awards on Jan. 28, 2018.Christopher Polk / Getty Images for NARAS
Get the Think newsletter.

I voted for Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.” for Album of the Year in the latest round of Grammy voting, but I wasn’t surprised that he was beaten out by Bruno Mars. My fellow Grammy voters are rarely an adventurous bunch. In fact, they’ve only awarded a hip-hop record the year’s highest accolade twice. Plus, Bruno Mars is a consummate entertainer and palatable to a broad cross-section of the voting community, while Lamar’s art is more, well, difficult.

It’s been nearly 50 years since the modern rap genre grew out of the urban landscape of the late-20th century and the stew of music and political urgency, not to mention the DIY ethic, so prevalent during those times. Yet the mixed reaction to Lamar’s historic Pulitzer Prize for Music award was predictable, if nothing else. (He is the first non-classical, non-jazz winner in Pulitzer history.)

There’s an easy argument to be made that the Pulitzer committee actually needs Kendrick Lamar far more than Lamar needs its accolades. But ultimately, this moment feels bigger than Lamar in so many ways.

There’s an easy argument to be made that the Pulitzer committee needs Kendrick Lamar far more than Lamar needs its accolades.

“You know, you’ve got to take care of what you say you love,” Public Enemy’s Chuck D told me last year of his crusade to have rap and hip-hop regarded in the same way that the Golden Age of rock is in popular culture. “What's the reason for a 16-year-old wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt? What's the rhyme and reason? Rock has a whole machine around it that perpetuates these legends, and it began at a time when the culture was obsessed with music. But I think there's been this neglect or absence of accountability by rappers in hip-hop to say, ‘Hey, look man, this thing is a wonderful art form that can go for 50 to 100 years. It can be revered as much as The Beatles if you look deeply enough into it.’”

Chuck D may have been unimpressed by the Pulitzer board's formal announcement, which called “DAMN” a “virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”

The board's language smacked a bit of faint praise, especially in these hyper-woke times. But there was also no mistaking that Lamar’s win elevated his genre into the same realm inhabited by classical, jazz and Pink Floyd and The Beatles. The message was clear: Rap and hip-hop are art forms of staggering and universal importance, not just to those who love them, but to the world at large.

And that, my friends, is bigger than any Grammy win could ever be.

It’s been a long road, to be sure. I remember all too well the bottles hurled at Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow when I saw them open for The Clash in the early-1980s. But that was nearly 40 years ago. So the often unintentially hilarious, yet still heartbreaking, chorus of anti-Lamar and hip-hop comments on Twitter last week — especially those compiled by @NewMusicDrama — were a reminder that even after all these years, some of the old battle lines are still in place.

There are a few things going on here, of course. First, there’s the antediluvian trope that rap and hip-hop isn’t “music.” But considering that the genre has long since put rock and roll in its rearview mirror as the preeminent cultural signpost, this argument feels more tired and racist (yup, I had to go there) than ever.

And while it has to sting for lovers of classical and jazz, the world — and art, especially — is moving at a remarkable clip. Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize last year is just another example of that fact. The musical bonafides of rap and hip-hop can no longer be denied. Moreover, how long has it been since rock and roll had anything close to the impact Lamar and company are having on the cultural conversation?

The musical bonafides of rap and hip-hop can no longer be denied. Moreover, how long has it been since rock and roll had anything close to the impact Lamar and company are having on the cultural conversation?

In the other corner are those who argue that irrespective of genre, Lamar and “DAMN.” aren't worthy. For these critics, it’s not that hip-hop isn’t music, but rather that there’s a laundry list of artists who arguably deserved the award more. Indeed, among Lamar’s fellow finalists were special talents — artists also seeking to comment on the world around them in their art. These finalists included people like Michael Gilbertson, whose string quartet was rewritten in the wake of the 2016 election, and Ted Hearne, whose “Sound from the Bench,” a cantata for a chamber choir, electric guitars and drums, includes texts from Supreme Court decisions.

While both would no doubt have been worthy winners, “DAMN.” is just as beautiful and just as thoughtful in the way it comments on and presciently reflects our times in surprising and clever ways.

It’s also true that Lamar is hardly a household name at this point. The general public was blissfully unaware of his debut album “Section.80,” or even its astonishing follow-up “Good Kid, M.A.D.D. City.” His remarkable, genre-straddling follow-up “To Pimp A Butterfly” gained mainstream traction in part because Tony Visconti, the producer of David Bowie’s final album, “Blackstar,” mentioned that the ailing legend had found inspiration in the album’s extraordinary sonic mélange.

In fact, you could argue that “To Pimp A Butterfly” is a superior album to “DAMN.” It certainly has all the hallmarks of a classic work of art — strong melodies, artful collaborations, piercing lyrics. But what’s so amazing about “DAMN.” and what most of the commentary in the immediate aftermath of Lamar’s win failed to acknowledge, was that it was written and produced by an artist who had already made it. While no longer the same artist who burst out of Compton with staggering wordplay and a palpable hunger, Lamar was still able to produce a work of stunning musical inventiveness, as well as the sophisticated and historic lyrical content found in Dylan’s early, earth-shattering works.

Pulitzer juror David Hadju told The New York Times that he and his colleagues had listened to more than 100 “pieces of classical music that drew upon hip-hop as a resource” during the selection process, which in turn led the committee to “put on the table the fact that (rap music) has value on its own terms and not just as a resource for use in a field that is more broadly recognized by the institutional establishment as serious or legitimate.” There was no dissent when “DAMN.” was chosen as the winner, according to Hadju.

“It shines a light on hip-hop in a completely different way,” Dana Canedy, the administrator of the prizes, told The Times. “This is a big moment for hip-hop music and a big moment for the Pulitzers.”

She was half right.

Jeff Slate is a New York City-based songwriter and journalist. His writing can be found at sites like Esquire, Rolling Stone and Quartz, among others. He tweets at @jeffslate.

Read more: George Harrison at 75: How the quietest Beatle became the most popular one of all

Get the Think newsletter.
MORE FROM think