Kendrick Lamar has won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his 2017 album DAMN., the organization announced Monday.
It is the first time in the roughly 40-year history of hip-hop that the Pulitzer committee has recognized anyone from that essentially African-American cultural contribution, which has long since conquered the world far beyond the city that birthed it but still provokes spastic, ignorant fright-twitches from much of the white power structure of its home country. But by its nature, DAMN.’s recognition serves also to partially canonize a long list of other black men and women who’ve helped shape the genre. The prizewinning album directly samples stuff from James Brown and Rick James, features new Rihanna vocals, and indirectly draws on scores of other influences from the past and present of hip-hop, indie pop, and elsewhere.
The Pulitzer committee called Lamar’s most recent album “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affective vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African American life.” It beat out a new string quartet by Michael Gilbertson and a new piece for chamber choir, guitar, and percussion by Ted Hearne.
Though he’s now riding a three-album streak of intense and broad critical acclaim, Lamar’s ride to such a prestigious and unique piece of hardware has been less smooth than it might seem. After good kid, m.A.A.d city converted the narrower buzz he’d generated among hip-hop obsessives with Section.80 into much bigger critical and commercial success in 2014, Lamar got nominated for a slew of Grammys — but had to watch Seattle-based rapper Macklemore, a much easier talent for white America to swallow, walk away with the Best New Artist prize.
The prickly funk-jazz abstraction of 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly took the steam Lamar had accumulated with the Compton vignettes of good kid and steered the same style of lyrical content into musical packaging that found easier purchase in more cloistered corners of the cultural landscape. He played with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, met with the Obamas in person later that week, heard the then-president name his songs among his favorites — and then once again got snubbed for the biggest award he’d been nominated for at the Grammys, watching Taylor Swift walk away with Album of the Year. (This time, at least, he won the Best Rap Album trophy.)
DAMN., too, got ditched at the altar by Grammys voters, whose support for Bruno Mars in Album of the Year voting prompted some critics to again cry “snub” or see a straightforward dance-pop act as a safe pick compared to the more overtly political landscapes Lamar walks. (Others noted the Grammys more or less always do this.)
But now Lamar’s opus puts a flag in soil no other pop artist, from hip-hop or any other corner of the radio charts, can claim to have touched. Jazz legends Ornette Coleman and Wynton Marsalis have each won Pullitzers for their work, but Lamar is the first rapper or out-and-out pop act of any kind to snag an honor that almost always goes to symphonic compositions.