I never thought I would get emotional about someone winning a Pulitzer Prize (unless, in some twisted alternate universe, I was the one receiving it), yet this morning, upon reading the news that Kendrick Lamar had received the Pulitzer Prize for Music, I felt elated. It’s hard to logically explain my reaction to something so far removed from myself. A part of my joy sparks from my specific position as a person who partakes in two different worlds — those of hip-hop and literature — on a regular basis. These two worlds had collided, one recognizing the other. Hip-hop, something that is so commonly written off and disparaged as vulgar, crass, violent, and problematic, though I’m not arguing that it isn’t any of those things, was being recognized as art. More specifically, Kendrick Lamar, whose work I’ve long adored, was being recognized as the poet, musician, and artist that I had always felt he was.
When I came to Medium a few weeks ago, I came with a few ideas in mind for longer pieces that I would like to write in the future. The one that I had mentally worked on the most was an idea for a piece on Lamar’s album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” which I esteem as a masterpiece, pure and simple. It is a work that inspires me every time I listen to it, and I honestly feel that not enough has been said or written about it. I was waiting for the right time and right specific ideas to come for me to write that piece, and I still am. But today, I have reason to write about Kendrick, about “DAMN.,” about his importance to society, and about his value as an artist. And that is something that brings me great joy.
It’s a little ironic that “DAMN.” is the album to be awarded a Pulitzer and that it’s the album I’m here writing about. Of his last three major works, the other two being “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” and “To Pimp a Butterfly,” it’s probably my least favorite and the least lyrically dense and musically ambitious. I’m not taking anything away from “DAMN.” — it is a fantastic album, but there’s no denying that its predecessors are both incredible as well. The level of depth and variation in these albums speaks to Lamar’s talent as an artist. “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” dealt with Kendrick’s experiences as a young teen growing up in Compton with sounds of the street, stories of parties, robberies and shootings; “To Pimp a Butterfly” went wider in scope, hitting on themes of race relations in America, the Black experience, and capitalism, to name just a few. It was more ambitious, too, musically, moving away from conventional hip-hop and using more jazz and soul influences to shape the sound of the album. “DAMN.,” in some ways, could be seen as the perfect reaction album to the 2016 election. Catharsis oozes from the sadness, anger, and frustration at the state of the country that saturate the album. Lamar is clearly angry and depressed and mentions Trump and Fox News by name a few times, but never makes them the overt focus of his music as some of his contemporaries do. After all, Trump and the “alt-right” movement thrive off of opposition; strong reactions are exactly what have reinforced them to become as strong as they are. The album’s sound is completely different from his previous works, working more with the sparse, stripped-down, and rough tones of trap music.
But there is so much more here than just reaction to the political climate of America. Like his last two albums, religion plays a significant role in “DAMN.,” as do sex and money. Kendrick is constantly warring with temptation, with different ideas of self, and represents many different perspectives on these things through his use of polyphony. Lamar has always done this — changing his voice to occupy different voices or points of view. It’s highly effective, allowing him to explore various viewpoints and avoid being pigeonholed. The Kendrick we see in his song “LUST,” with a dark, almost trance-like voice, is much different from the one we see on “LOVE,” which features a crooning, devoted-to-his-woman kind of Kendrick. These two songs are a clear example of how Lamar can explore different sides of themes, especially ones that can be problematic, without assigning one or the other to his own persona. In other words, he’s able to explore moral issues without making explicit moral statements; he’s just inhabiting a voice from his conception of reality. Whether he’s speaking from different voices present in society or exploring a theory of multiplicity of selves, the bottom line is that his music, when looked at holistically, is complex, varied, and important.
Nowhere else do we see such a clear yet challenging presentation of such a wide variety of topics. Kendrick’s voice is important to our present society because of how clearly he speaks about the reality of being Black in America — a reality that so many people seek to ignore or discredit. While hip-hop is normally associated with an illusion, the glamour of being a rich rap star, with women, money, alcohol, and drugs raining from the sky, Kendrick Lamar takes it upon himself to establish his own sound and present a differing voice in society that is real and accessible. His work is contrapuntal in its ability to take illusions and myths eschewed by society and hold them up to the light of his own, harsh reality. “DAMN.” is an album that very much deals with counterpoint, with four of the tracks being stacked in opposite pairs: “PRIDE” and “HUMBLE,” “LUST” and “LOVE.” Each of these pairs is complex and must be carefully contemplated, since Kendrick never gives us a track that can be taken at face value.
The way in which Kendrick views himself is also extraordinarily complex and rife with meaning. Just within “DAMN.”, Kendrick is vicious, laid back, supremely confident, fighting his own demons, intoxicated with the allures of the world, disillusioned. He’s anxious that nobody is praying for him, when everyone is asking him to pray for them. He worries about being judged and fears becoming a modern-day Job who will be tested by God. He’s elated over his accomplishments, he’s reflective on life in America and on Earth. No rapper to date has introduced such a multiplicity of self-perception and identity.
His music is undeniably and brilliantly complex, too. “DAMN.” starts with “BLOOD,” which tells an allegorical anecdote, a story that begins again at the very end of the final track, denoting that there is a possible meaning in the album’s continuity. I laughed when I read a Reddit user’s theory that the album should also be listened to backwards for further insight into its meaning (like that one theory that “The Shining” was meant to be watched forward and backward)… And then Kendrick released the Collector’s Edition of “DAMN.,” which, in fact, features all of the tracks in reverse order.
There is meaning in the progression from song to song, but each song itself is deeply nuanced. Look at the contradictory ways he talks about being Black, about stereotypes, human nature, etc. in “DNA,” his references to God (Yahweh), being cursed both as a Black man and as a public figure in “YAH,” the critique of our materialist society that hip-hop often epitomizes in “LOYALTY,” the masterful evocation of the experience of depression in “FEEL,” the layered storytelling in his signature slippery, lucid style in both “FEAR” and “DUCKWORTH” — all the while making music that is compelling and dynamic, crafting beats that are unique and that change halfway through the song, being vulnerable and honest about his anxiety and depression, and asserting his dominance at the top of the rap game.
Michael Ondaatje once said, “If Van Gogh was our nineteenth-century artist-saint, James Baldwin is our twentieth-century one.” Kendrick Lamar, if you ask me, is our twenty-first-century artist-saint. In a manner similar to Baldwin, he’s complex, he refuses to be put into a box or stereotypes, he speaks loud and clear about his vision of America, and he is a voice that everyone needs to hear today. In 2016, his album “To Pimp a Butterfly” was nominated for several Grammys, including Album of the Year. It lost this latter award to Taylor Swift’s “1989.” This year, “DAMN.” lost Album of the Year to “24K Magic.” In a sense — and I understand that this is going to sound rather snobbish — Kendrick’s works transcend the award of Album of the Year. It isn’t that he doesn’t deserve this highest honor given by the music industry, but rather, it’s the other way around. When his song “Alright” became the anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement, often likened to a modern-day “We Shall Overcome,” there was no going back. While he has continued to be a popular rapper who tops the charts, he became, in that moment, something much more.
Yes, this award is overdue and it does very little to push Kendrick further into the upper echelons of rap: he’s already so far ahead of his contemporaries (and predecessors, for that matter.) But what this award does do is legitimize Kendrick Lamar’s music as a valuable voice, something that can actually be learned from. Recognizing that voices in hip-hop can speak to real issues with poignancy and that these voices contribute to something larger than the music industry is a big deal. In a rapidly polarizing world that seeks to exclude and discredit other points of view, we need the inclusivity that this choice of award displays. We need developed and passionate voices, like the ones present in Lamar’s music, to understand, to critique, to tell us of realities that we may be removed from. We need Kendrick Lamar and we need to take him seriously.
So, it behooves all of us to go back and listen closely to “DAMN.” Listen closely to Kendrick as you would a great social critic or writer, because that’s what he is. Listen closely to his music as you would closely read a great work of art, because that’s what it is. Listen and then listen again, look up the lyrics and annotations (genius.com will really help out on understanding references he’s making), and think about why this work was deserving of a Pulitzer Prize. Take him as he is, with his merits along with his flaws. “DAMN.” is an album that wants us to understand the feeling of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” but it’s also a project that is at times loud and raw, at others resigned and spacey. Given our present circumstances, we all feel this way, which is what makes “DAMN.” so damn relatable for various groups, settings, and feelings. Lamar has stated that making albums is a “spiritual process” for him, and I believe that consuming art can be, when the art is of the highest quality, a spiritual experience. Kendrick challenges us to experience emotions, lyrics, and stories present in his work and we to connect hip-hop on a deeper level — a level that can only be described as spiritual.