When Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize for music, on Monday, he also became the first non-jazz or classical artist to collect that honor in its seventy-five-year existence. (“There’s a Pulitzer for music?” was, unfortunately, the early refrain on social media.)
That Lamar was born and raised in Compton, California, and writes deft and nimble rap songs about systemic injustice, made the announcement especially thrilling. It felt like a decisive dismantling of fusty ideas about high and low art and, especially, who gets to claim genius as his own. As my colleague Doreen St. Félix wrote, “The Pulitzers got it right.”
Following the announcement, the Pulitzer board was immediately hoorayed for its “relevance,” as if relevance itself is a virtue. Perhaps it is. There is the fear of calling Lamar simply a relevant choice comes too close to diminishing his deep expertise.
It wasn’t so much the board’s recognition of Lamar’s Zeitgeist-consistent insurgency that got everyone riled up; the organization has honored subversive artists before, including some who have adroitly (though perhaps not quite as explicitly) captured “the complexity of modern African-American life.” But this time, the board also chose to commend a musician working in a popular, vital idiom, and not just any idiom, but hip-hop, a genre that has been unapologetic if not brazen about its own profitability.
Disruptive genres are often only retroactively acknowledged, usually decades after their commercial and creative zenith. But Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize in an era in which rap music is as alive and as pervasive as it’s ever been.
When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 2016, his detractors settled on two routes of credible dissent: they either believed that Dylan’s work had been mischaracterized as literature, or that it would have more beneficial, in the most expansive sense possible, for the award to have been given to a less commercially established artist.
Merit-based awards of this stature aren’t supposed to function as boosters, exactly—the idea is to laud genius. Did Bob Dylan need another institution corroborating his talent? Does Kendrick Lamar?
They’ve both won and lost major awards before. At the 1965 Grammys, Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” was defeated, in the Best Folk Recording category, by Gale Garnett’s “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine,” a trifling, sentimental ballad that also made it to No. 1 on the adult-contemporary chart; more recently, Lamar lost the Grammy for Album of the Year to Bruno Mars’s “24K Magic,” a more approachable and infinitely less antagonized work.
The Nobel in Literature reflects a kind of accrued esteem—older works can be considered outside of the year they were published “if their significance has not become apparent until recently.”
But the Pulitzer is given to a single, new work. “It’s a prize for achievement and excellence,” the critic, author, and professor David Hajdu explained recently.
Hajdu was a member of the five-person jury that reviewed the possible entries and presented three finalists to the Pulitzer board for consideration.
“The jury listened to over a hundred and eighty pieces of music, and we deliberated, and there were a fair number of choices that could have justifiably been honoured this way, but we all thought this was the best piece of music. It’s not to discount the value of anything else,” he said.
He described “damn.” as “complex, rich, full of surprise and invention. Sonically, it’s highly sophisticated and original. It brings together melody, harmony, counterpoint, texture—all those elements, in a fresh way. And lyrically, it’s very powerful.”
Hajdu supported “damn.” because of its ingenuity and beauty, though he admitted its modernity also felt germane to the discussion. (He suggested that legacy institutions such as the Pulitzer Prize are often “better at recognizing vernacular or disreputable forms in reflection.”) He also pointed out that the jury was exploring “superb pieces of contemporary classical music that drew from hip-hop.
It makes sense that a more categorical recognition of that source material felt due. (Lamar has, interestingly, also brought elements of jazz into his own work—that cross-pollination is especially present on his 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly.”)
The Pulitzer board, like most award-granting institutions, still needs to be mindful of the cultural and political forces that inevitably inform its choices—of the seventy-one Pulitzer Prizes presented in Music, somehow only seven (!) have gone to women. (The first woman to garner one, Ellen Zwilich, received it in 1983—a staggering forty years after William Schuman collected the début Pulitzer in music.) Genius, of course, still has its invisible boundaries. But Lamar’s win nonetheless feels like a victory of sorts for everyone, a promise that true excellence is—as it should be—very difficult to ignore.
Source: The New Yorker