Kendrick Lamar Duckworth won a Pulitzer. KENDRICK LAMAR DUCKWORTH WON A PULITZER. The all caps are necessary. It’s a big f-cking deal. On Monday, it was announced that Kendrick’s album DAMN. has been awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for music.
Kendrick’s win is historic not only because he’s the first hip-hop artist to earn this prestigious honour, he’s also the only artist outside of the classical and jazz music genres to win. This is why DAMN. winning a Pulitzer is so shocking and thrilling. It’s not because DAMN. is undeserving. Since the album dropped, there was little question about whether it was absolutely deserving of all the highest music honours of the past year but I don’t think anyone could have predicted that it would win THIS honour – especially after the Grammys snubbed Kendrick of Album of the Year.
Kendrick winning a Pulitzer for the same album he lost the Grammy for Album of the Year is a poetic F-CK YOU to the Recording Academy. To quote Beyonce, “ain’t that ‘bout a bitch?” After Kendrick lost the Grammy’s highest honour, I wondered if the Recording Academy was embarrassed. If they weren’t then, they sure are now. Doreen St. Felix wrote an incredible, poignant piece for The New Yorker about Kendrick’s Pulitzer and she put it like this:
I certainly did not expect the Pulitzers to be what finally proved the Grammys irrelevant.
There it is. The Grammys are officially less relevant to the current musical climate than the Pulitzers. They are less relevant than a prize that went to Angel's Bone by Du Yun last year. If you just went, “Who?” you proved my point. Go ahead and yell at me, classical music stans. The point is that the words “prestigious” and “hip-hop” have historically been at odds even though this is a genre that dominates mainstream music charts, has become the soundtrack of popular culture and provides searing social commentary on black American life. When Jay-Z became the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame last year, I wrote that it was a small vindication for a genre that is largely overlooked as a credible music genre. It’s not a leap to deduce that this disrespect is because it is a genre dominated by black people.
Kendrick’s Pulitzer win is also shocking and thrilling because the spaces that include Pulitzer Prize music winners are not typically the spaces that welcome people who look like Kendrick Lamar. This prize is usually awarded to classical music artists and a few jazz artists. Before hip-hop, it was jazz that was denigrated as that lesser-than genre populated by black people. The Pulitzers have ignored hip-hop until now and in its 100-year history, it doesn’t have the best track record for awarding black talent.
I’ll let Rolling Stone break it down:
Duke Ellington was reportedly livid in 1965 when the jury rejected a special citation highlighting the preeminence of his work. Ellington would earn that achievement posthumously in 1999 – an overdue fate he'd share with other Black jazz geniuses like Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Louis Armstrong. Between 1965 and 1995, no living Black artists won at all. When one finally did, the award was tossed to Wynton Marsalis for his unimpressive jazz-opera Blood on the Fields.
According to The Guardian, an African American wasn’t awarded the prize until 1996. With that context, Kendrick’s Pulitzer is even more stunning and significant. The Pulitzer Prize committee described DAMN. 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.”
That’s snob for Album of the Year. That description is a bit pompous but it’s not wrong. DAMN. is all of those things and more but since hip-hop has been left out of these uppity music conversations for so long, the question is now whether these artists even want to be rewarded in this way. I’m sure Kendrick Lamar is flattered by this recognition but he probably didn’t dream of winning a Pulitzer when he was growing up in Compton. He probably didn’t dream it because it wasn’t a dream that a black kid in Compton would dare to dream. Until now, it would seem impossible. And until now, a recognition like this may cause people to call a rapper a sellout. The fact that Kendrick’s music is so ubiquitous is partially why the Pulitzer Prize committee even considered his work. The Pulitzer Prize Administrator Dana Canedy (who I should note is the black woman responsible for this hilarious meme) said their decision was unanimous.
UNANIMOUS. I will never get over this. To anyone claiming that Kendrick is officially not cool anymore because of this honour, here’s a quote from philosopher Kanye West: “It's not cool anymore for no one to hear your sh-t. That's just the hipster justification of failure.”
We’ve been calling Kendrick Lamar the greatest rapper of his generation for years on this site. DAMN. was Kendrick’s definitive masterpiece. Even though this newfound respect for hip-hop is long overdue, I can’t help but get excited about what seems like a definitive cultural shift to finally hold up this genre to the esteem that it deserves. It’s about DAMN time.
Here's Kendrick performing at Coachella on the weekend.