Let’s begin with the obvious: Kendrick Lamar and hip-hop do not need awards to be validated.
In terms of acclaim and mass discussion, hip-hop is the dominant outsider, commanding the charts and the sonic epoch we find ourselves in, while simultaneously being maligned and scapegoated by toxic institutions. That said, these awards are necessary armor, a way to take the unfair burden of proof off of the artists and temper conversations about “real” music to a simple nod at the trophy case. In many ways, this award is a utility to the artist, a means to reduce their emotional labor and let them focus on delivering prize-worthy music—business as usual.
A Pulitzer in music for Kendrick Lamar is a Pulitzer in music for hip-hop when, for so many heads, casual fans, and the mainstream at-large, Lamar’s music plays as their definition of the genre. In large part due to the GRAMMYs’ constant snubs and the Pulitzer’s distance from hip-hop culture, this award feels weightier than any Album Of The Year recognition.
Of course, the Pulitzer fills a void for fans who are gutted year to year when Lamar misses out on AOTY by a hair. More importantly, it’s the legacy of the Pulitzer as a high art curator that turns this award into a blooming cultural moment. The message has been sent: hip-hop is high art. When we consider the ways in which high art and pop art have been historically racialized, this award is not only revolutionary, it is a moment of overdue reclamation.
We see the question raised, then, “Why not To Pimp A Butterfly?” If we are speaking strictly tactfully, awarding TPAB, Lamar’s most forward-thinking and consequently most timeless effort, would not have been as revolutionary as awarding DAMN. DAMN. is as of-the-moment as it is boundary breaking. An award for DAMN. speaks to hip-hop’s command of the contemporary sphere as much as it does speak to hip-hop’s stewarding music on the whole.
In a pleasant twist, classical composers don’t disagree with that sentiment. A finalist for the same Pulitzer, Ted Hearne told Slate that hip-hop’s influence does reach the classical pools traditionalists are vying to keep exclusive. “Hip-hop as a genre has been important to me as a composer, but Kendrick’s work in particular,” Hearne said. “He is such a bold and experimental and authentic artist. He’s one of the people that is creating truly new music.”
With a finalist in the category praising Lamar, we have to address the source of the looming fear of progress. For every Ted Hearne, there is a ripe think piece tearing down the accomplishment as political pandering and selectively quoting Lamar’s music to fit their narrative of hip-hop as a string of empty profanity.
Speaking with The Washington Post, composer Alex Temple, when asked if there was something “sonically threatening” about hip-hop, explained away the threat with a hard truth: people let the stereotype presuppose the research.
“I’ve seen some pretty shocking dismissals from people who listened to Kendrick for two minutes, lacking any kind of cultural or artistic context, heard some swears and an angry tone, and concluded that his music wasn’t worth listening to,” Temple said. “The funny thing is, these same people would respond to a casual dismissal of their music by saying ‘you need to educate yourself.’ They’re so secure in their elitist worldview that they don’t notice the irony.”
Those not trapped in an elitist bubble see Kendrick Lamar and hip-hop for all it’s worth. Also speaking with Slate, other Pulitzer finalist Michael Gilbertson recalls a moment where Lamar transcended both awards and music, and rose to the terribly exclusive pantheon of higher education. “I remember when I was at Yale, I heard some other grad students give a talk on some of the theological and conceptual narrative depth in his work, and I was really struck by that,” he said. “It changed the way I listen to his music.”
Gilbertson’s reaction to this Yale lecture entirely re-frames the misunderstanding Temple brings to light. The connotation of “Yale” alone is enough to reconsider these divisions between hip-hop and higher thinking. The message has been sent, again: hip-hop is higher education. It is a transcendent art form that deserves to be recognized within and outside of the scope of music.
So, just how far can Kendrick—can hip-hop—go?
Recall 2016’s institutional shake-up, when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature, wherein his Nobel lecture was a four-thousand word thesis on the link between music and literature. Obviously not racially motivated, Dylan also faced critical backlash from a score of outlets. He also received a wellspring of support.
Former United States poet laureate, Billy Collins even argued in favor of Bob Dylan as a poet, saying, “Bob Dylan is in the 2-percent club of songwriters whose lyrics are interesting on the page even without the harmonica and the guitar and his very distinctive voice. I think he does qualify as poetry.”
Now, could Kendrick Lamar win a prize for his poetry? Per the committee, Dylan won the Nobel for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” which is not too dissimilar from the language Hearne used to praise Lamar. Within this context, Kendrick Lamar is one of the most qualified poets within the American poetic tradition.
“Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, ‘Are my songs literature?’” Dylan confessed in his 2016 Nobel Banquet speech. For Kendrick Lamar, the question of literary merit is not rooted in time, but space. That is, what institutional spaces can Black artists occupy before a White majority lashes out? Allowing Kendrick Lamar the space to answer with an earnest “Yes!”, that will be revolutionary—not only for hip-hop, but for poetry.
Consider how poetry by Black women continues to be undercut by White critics, who see the confessional nature of the work as low-brow. For every accolade awarded to a Morgan Parker or Eve Ewing, there remain sprawling onslaughts on contemporary poetry by Black women and women of color, ostensibly because the content and form does not qualify as “true” poetics. Meaning, their work does not align with the comfort of the critic.
Would Lamar receive a similar strain of backlash? Of course, even with the privilege of being male, it’s not unrealistic to imagine critics taking to their keyboards to undercut the business of giving literary awards to rappers. Even so, a message would have been sent: hip-hop is the American literary tradition. With this Pulitzer in music, that message is coming.
“This is no longer a narrow honor,” Gilbertson rightly concluded. Hip-hop, art, institutions, none of these bodies should remain insular. In the age of sold-out 'Yeethoven' performances held at the Lincoln Center, there’s really no stopping these intersections; rather, there is only acceptance and acceleration.
Hip-hop is classical, is Pulitzer worthy, is and will be Nobel worthy. The world is catching up, and all the while, hip-hop continues to run away with victories.