good artist, m.A.A.d establishment

On Monday the Pulitzer Prize for Music was awarded for the first time ever to a hip-hop artist: Kendrick Lamar, for his 2017 album DAMN. It’s a remarkable, fantastic album, and absolutely deserving of this honor. As a lifelong hip-hop head (and someone who teaches a class on hip-hop, both as cultural phenomenon and literature), I naturally feel some kind of way. Fact of business, I’ve got lots of feelings about this moment.

Yes, and…

No rapper in 2018 deserves this award more than Kendrick. His music is layered, complex, intelligent, authentic, intriguing, and important. Plus it’s fresh, dope, bangin, funky, and other adjectives that celebrate the aesthetic.

DAMN., especially, is all of these things. It stands out for me as Kendrick’s best work in part because it runs the gamut of sonic textures, without neglecting the boom-bap electricity of the hip-hop I grew up with. I like 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly and I’m working to get familiar with good kid, m.A.A.d city, but — with all due respect to “Allright” and “Backseat Freestyle” — “DNA.” just hits so hard and swarms so deep that I never get enough of it. “HUMBLE.” has problems with its gender dynamics, but it’s an amazing song. And when even my permaculture-gardening bike-riding-even-in-winter radical-feminist backyard-chicken-raising Italian-American wife roams around the house reciting the opening refrain and choral variations of “ELEMENT.”, something magical is going on there. The Black Panther soundtrack is good, but (in my feeble opinion) it needed a hard-hitting track like “DNA.” or “HUMBLE.” to deliver a full package.

DAMN. is filled with excellent music, and the lyrics are fathoms deep. The Pulitzer committee is spot-on when it describes 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.”

One Pudgy White Guy’s Opinion

I’m a latecomer to the Kendrick party. For years students pestered me to listen to him (just as they had pestered me to hear Lil Wayne and Wiz Khalifa), but for whatever reason I didn’t (or couldn’t) get into him. Part of the problem was the complexity of his lyrics and messages. I grew up with Public Enemy and Run-DMC — who, for all their awesomeness, don’t always have complex lyrics. I’m proud to be black! Fight the power! Straight to the point: It’s like that, and that’s the way it is.

I’ve always enjoyed music that serves itself up in a clean and neat package. The thrash-metal group Ministry and the industrial-music band Consolidated (two of my favorites from high school) aren’t known for their overtones of subtlety. So when Kendrick demands not only repeated listens but also careful examination of the lyrics, I sometimes get confused and uncomfortable. (Yes, he really is saying “taste bloods”. What do we do with that?) Suddenly I find myself in the same spot my students are often in: this text ain’t gonna come easy, and I don’t always feel like doing that work, especially when school’s over and I’m just trying to find something to hear on the way home.

So much music (and other entertainment) offers easily-digestible nuggets of relaxation, or party-time excitement, or love-lost commiseration, or revolutionary encouragement, or celebrations of nature, or odes to tradition. The art that matters most is that which goes deeper to examine all the messy dimensions of human existence: Toni Morrison. The Wachowskis. Pablo Picasso. William Shakespeare. As hard as it is for some highbrow gatekeepers of Elite Culture™ to accept (and oh how the haterade did flow when the announcement was made), I agree that Kendrick belongs in that list.

He doesn’t do it for the ‘gram

That Kendrick comes from Compton is especially significant. Hip-hop was born in the Bronx, but in the 90s, Compton brought us a vital flowering of west-coast artists: Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Coolio, King T, The Game, Snoop Dogg (Long Beach is close enough) and The DOC (whose career was tragically cut short when his voice box was mangled in a car crash after just one album). Kendrick has a voice that is uniquely his own, built on the architecture of g-funk laid down by NWA and other legends from his hometown.

Compton is not known for being filled with wealth or receiving support from the larger Los Angeles metropolitan area. White flight after the riots in Watts (‘65) and LA (‘92) affected both demographics and economy. Today the city is 33% black and 65% latinx. 22% of folks in Compton are officially poor, compared to a national rate of 15%. In 2010 the FBI named Compton as having the eighth highest crime rate in the country.

And still roses grow from concrete. Kendrick grew up in Section 8 housing with a family living on welfare. His mom worked at McDonald’s while his dad tried to get paid in the streets. Kendrick was turned onto hip-hop in 1995 when he saw Dre and Pac shoot the video for “California Love”. He got good grades in high school, and shares a story about fear in the classroom (something he has in common with many of my own students): “This is always in my head: There was a math question that I knew the answer to, but I was so scared to say it. Then this little chick said the answer and it was the right answer, my answer. That bothers me still to this day, bein’ scared of failure.” Lamar has taken all that raw material and turned it into beautiful art, stretching from the everyday carnality of “LUST.” to the Shakespearean gibes-be-gone existential reflections of “Sing About Me”. He inspires hope on “Alright” and self-love on “I”.

Kendrick Lamar represents the finest traditions of hip-hop: knowledge, creativity, authenticity, volume, aggression, confidence, connections to one’s roots, and constant evolution. His videos are intense and his music never takes the easy way out.

However…

As happy as I am at this important milestone, there’s a part of me that feels uneasy. Part of it is a general subconscious derision toward official endorsements of the culture I love. As Chuck D once said: “Who gives a f— about a god-d— Grammy?” Those of us who love hip-hop have spent decades watching The Man frown and disapprove of our art forms. We’ve been told by erudite scholars (even David Foster Wallace, unfortunately) that it’s not even music. We’ve watched the worst bits (retrograde though they are) get stereotyped and scapegoated into caricatures and oversimplifications of the vital culture that sustains us. We’ve seen pop stupidity get promoted as The Best of the Best, and talented artists get ignored in favor of those who chase controversy and crossover appeal.

I could easily name a dozen MCs who have produced work every bit as powerful and excellent as Kendrick’s. Public Enemy’s 1999 song “I” — quite different from Mr. Lamar’s song of the same name — is a profound and beautiful examination of identity in pre-millennium America. Chuck D’s lyrics have evolved over 20 years, ranging from the deeply personal to globally political. PE’s 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet has never received one-tenth of the recognition it deserves as a work of art. Chuck and Flav have produced a number of “virtuosic song collection[s] unified by [...] vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism”.

Boots Riley from The Coup is another artist with an impressively diverse oeuvre. Their 1994 album Genocide & Juice is perhaps the most important hip-hop concept album ever made, and one of the ten best hip-hop recordings of all time. It provides a panorama of American life no less vast than Honoré de Balzac’s Comédie humaine, set to funky beats and filled with brilliant wordplay.

And so on. Of course the presence of other, less-celebrated artists does not (and must not) take away from the joy or significance of Kendrick’s achievement — or the recognition of it. Naturally, my beef is not with K-Dot but with an industry and global system of celebration that always comes late to the party, ignores the decades of foundational work that creates the culture, and asks the simplest, most banal questions once they give up the mic.

Writing in the New Yorker, Doreen St. Félix said:

I would argue that the award is a bigger event for the Pulitzers than it is for Lamar, or for hip-hop’s morale. [...] the Pulitzers push a reformation campaign, finding a canny opportunity to stake a place ahead of the curve. [...] Rap has not primarily depended on the recognition of traditional bodies to flourish and to change. It’ll be fun to hear how Lamar finesses a verse to include the word “Pulitzer.”

New York Times classical music editor Zachary Woolfe mentioned another important point about the significance of the award:

There seems to be broad agreement, which I join, about the quality of “DAMN.” — its complexity and sensitivity, its seductive confidence and unity, its dense weaving of the personal and political, the religious and sexual.

But there is also wariness, which I join, about an opening of the prize — not to hip-hop, per se, but to music that has achieved blockbuster commercial success. This is now officially one fewer guaranteed platform — which, yes, should be open to many genres — for noncommercial work, which scrapes by on grants, fellowships, commissions and, yes, awards. [...] it has felt for decades like an integral part of the Pulitzer’s mission is to shine a light on corners of music that are otherwise nearly ignored by the broader culture. The award has acted as a reminder — though long a way too stylistically limited one — that artmaking exists beyond the Billboard (and now Spotify) charts.

(In that same piece, NYT chief pop critic Jon Pareles nominates, “for a retrospective Pulitzer”, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.)

I believe the Pulitzer Prize is a powerful part of world culture, and it’s a beautiful thing that they have (finally) honored an artist from the world of hip-hop. (We should also remember that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop play Hamilton won a Pulitzer in 2016 for Drama, so there’s that.) I hope this honor will get more people to take hip-hop seriously, listen to DAMN., and (in the words of Punch, from his label Top Dawg Entertainment) never “speak with anything less than respect in your mouth for Kendrick Lamar”.