On his debut album for a major label, “good kid, m.A.A.d city” (2012), Kendrick Lamar did what many rappers do: he told the story of his childhood spent on the streets – in his case, of the working-class neighbourhood of Compton, Los Angeles.
His lyrics were so honest, he gave a tired subject a new lease on life. On the following album, “To Pimp a Butterfly” (2015), he did what few rappers do these days: drawing on the history of black music, with bursts of free jazz, funk and soul, he made a record like a howl of protest – against a society that sets black people up for failure. The record won four Grammy awards and a single, “Alright”, became an anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement.
On DAMN., he examines himself and finds a sinner. Rapping over the spare rhythms of trap, a style from the Deep South, Lamar confesses that he is wracked with lust, crippled by fear, and guilty of pride, greed and hypocrisy. But there is hope: Lamar is a man of faith.
On this moving, carefully crafted album, which is threaded with references to the Bible, he dispels his demons by summoning not just the Word of God, but the words of Lamar.
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.
Kendrick Lamar became the first rapper to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, a milestone for which the board cited his skill in telling the African American experience.
With the Pulitzer, the 30-year-old from the historically deprived Los Angeles community of Compton joins the leagues of celebrated American composers such as Aaron Copland, Charles Ives and John Adams.
The Pulitzer board, which also awards literature and journalism, gave Lamar the prize for “DAMN.,” an exploration of a classic hip-hop sound for an artist who has shifted gears musically with each album.
In its announcement, the Pulitzer board 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.”
DAMN., which reached number one on the US albums chart, moves forward the conversation about race that Lamar started on his previous album, To Pimp a Butterfly, which infused jazz and spoken word and gave voice to the Black Lives Matter movement.
DAMN. opens with Lamar addressing his cultural role indirectly with a snippet from a conservative talk show criticizing his lyrics against police brutality, which he again raises in the track “XXX.,” a reflection on the meaning of America that features U2.
But much of DAMN. is more personal and introspective, with the track HUMBLE. exploring the pitfalls of fame and Lamar also introducing a martial-arts alter ego, Kung Fu Kenny.
The Pulitzer board rarely awards mainstream music, last year giving the prize to the experimental opera composer Du Yun.
But the board in the mid-1990s introduced changes to make the award more inclusive. It has given the prize previously to jazz artists including Wynton Marsalis and Ornette Coleman.
Hip-hop also has been recognised by the Pulitzer board in the drama category with Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s modern retelling of America’s founding fathers, winning in 2016.
Despite the wide praise for Lamar, he has yet to win the most prestigious award of the music industry, the Grammy for Album of the Year, with both To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN. losing out to pop works.