by Julia Vaccarella ’20
The Pulitzer Prize, which was first awarded in 1917, is granted for outstanding work in journalism, literature, music composition, and other related fields. This year, Kendrick Lamar received the music award, established in 1943, for his album DAMN. This is quite an accomplishment for Lamar, who is the first artist to win a Pulitzer Prize for a hip-hop album.
The Pulitzer selection committee was united in their decision to choose Lamar. In fact, the record was said to be “the best piece of music” among those considered by David Hajdu, a juror and critic for The Nation. Despite this, there are mixed responses regarding this decision, as the music Pulitzer often focuses on works in the classical genre. John Pareles, however, the chief pop music critic at the New York Times, says, “To me, this prize is as overdue as it was unexpected…It’s an award for hard-won persuasiveness.”
Since early on in his career, Lamar has established himself as not only as a rapper, but also a genuine lyricist. Fans praise the depth of his songs and the words that he speaks, which are essentially responsible for the great success of DAMN. The selection committee characterized it 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.”
In the record, Lamar draws upon themes such as pride, loyalty, and fear, all of which are titles of his songs. In Lamar’s most popular song on the album, “HUMBLE.,” he reflects on his personal success in comparison with other contemporary rappers. Many also praise DAMN for its spotlight on police brutality and racial profiling.
Lamar has been praised for his ability to paint a highly personal picture of himself and of African-American life in the 21st century. He additionally discusses the issue of poverty in black communities. He specifically highlights Compton, California, where he grew up, in many of his songs.
Lamar’s award has also prompted a response regarding the extent of lyrical artistry within the genre of hip-hop and rap music. Proponents of Lamar’s talent have argued that this type of composition has the ability to produce just as strong of a message as classical music. The fact that the Pulitzer committee selected Lamar to receive this award presents rappers with new and improved levels of artistic appreciation.
It will be interesting to see what Lamar produces next as many will be looking closely at his lyrics in conjunction with the music that he produces. In an article with Rolling Stone after the release of DAMN, Lamar said, “If I can make one person—or 10 million people—feel a certain type of euphoria in my music, that’s the whole point.”