At this point in his career, Kendrick Lamar isn’t exactly wanting for recognition. The Compton rapper has won dozens of awards, including 12 Grammys, a spot on Time‘s 100 Most Influential People list and a rock-solid position as his generation’s greatest rapper. Now he can add a Pulitzer Prize in Music to that list, the first ever by a pop musician of any kind. Without a doubt, Kendrick’s lyrics – especially their focus on the historical persistence of premature death in Black life – are arguably as potent a source of cultural criticism and journalistic description as any of this year’s other Pulitzer winners. And the award, arriving just months after he was snubbed for an Album of the Year Grammy, will no doubt expand K Dot’s singular musical legacy. But it also speaks to hip-hop’s complicated, even troubled, transition from subterranean Black expression to one of America’s most accessible and important artistic resources. In many ways, there’s still a long way to go.
Part of the reason this award matters is that hip-hop lacks legitimating institutions to tell its story and manage its history. Until the Hip Hop Hall of Fame’s proposed museum is developed in earnest, the Black cultural phenomenon shaping today’s mainstream sensibilities lacks an established musical canon; culture mags like XXL and The Source no longer stand as gatekeepers in determining what denotes a “timeless” rap album; classic hip-hop stations are largely non-existent even with nearly 40 years of classics in the vault. The larger pop music community hasn’t been much help either. Every Grammy season invites another round of circular conversations on the Recording Academy’s disconnect with youth culture – and specifically Black culture.
This absence leaves institutions like the Pulitzer to step into the void and confer a sense of status, and that comes with its own cluster of problems. In the past, the Pulitzer voting body has been tripped up by racist pitfalls. 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. The decision to award a contemporary musician – the result of a half-decade of conflict behind closed doors – hardly felt like a moment worth celebrating.
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Even after a rule change in 2004 expanded the board’s purview to popular musics outside the European tradition, it still took 14 years for mainstream music to be considered serious art. A rapper receiving an award that’s so respected in elite art circles is certainly a moment of progress. Lamar’s music sits firmly within the rule-breaking, free radical jazz tradition made possible by Monk and ‘Trane. In that way, as unprecedented as it seems, the jury has drawn a through line from 1965 to 2018 perhaps without even meaning to.
Still, as is the case with many “firsts,” the win both further cements Damn.‘s afterlife as a musical triumph and reminds us of the hollow feeling that comes when Black art is memorialized in a white-dominated space. It also brings to mind some criticisms of the racial gap in seemingly all-encompassing institutions like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Library of Congress and other national awards meant to speak to an intrinsic Americanness. Such was the case in the lagging canonization of artists like Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Public Enemy and Run-DMC.
Lamar already has one album entered in the Library of Congress and will no doubt be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in any meaningful conversation. But the life and death of an album so concerned with how life itself begins and ends does beg the question of where an album goes to die. And whose heaven does it belong to?