Kendrick Lamar has recently made history as the first ever rapper to win a Pulitzer Prize – inspiring us to explore what made this such a ground-breaking achievement, and take a closer look at the talent so deserving of it.
Since 1917, the prestigious Pulitzer Prize has honoured excellence in the arts across 21 different categories, including news reporting, poetry, history, drama and music. Yet despite the celebration of variety, a lack of diversity has been clear to see. The first award for music went to William Schuman’s secular cantata in 1943, and in the 54 years since then, the only break from a European classical tradition has been three jazz winners. Other musicians have received recognition elsewhere in the rankings, with Bob Dylan most notably – and controversially – winning the literature award, but the music category in itself has left the world of popular song unnoticed, let alone the hip hop genre.
So, why the change in the times? Why Kendrick as an artist, and Damn as an album? The rapper is certainly no stranger to critical acclaim, growing a wide and varied fan base from his first two albums, To Pimp a Butterfly and Untitled Unmastered. Kendrick’s mastered an ingenious ability to tell stories and depict experiences through his lyrics, with focuses on his Compton upbringing, hip hop stardom, and black culture in America as a whole. But Damn has commanded his greatest success yet, having already won a Grammy, Juno and American Music Award, to name just a few. Topping an impressive list, a Pulitzer Prize represents another kind of artistic merit entirely. A jury of distinguished composers, musicians, music critics and scholars of music chose Damn over a huge pool of entrants and nominees as a “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism, that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” On a compositional level alone, each track boasts a unique technical brilliance. Combine this with the clarity, complexity and honesty of his storytelling, and the result is outstanding.
With Kendrick already regarded as such an accomplished artist and cultural phenomenon, it begs the question of how much impact a Pulitzer prize can possibly make on his future career. But the figures speak for themselves: sales of Damn have rocketed by an incredible 236% since the announcement was made. And his ever-expanding fan base represents a union of demographics that is very rarely achieved: a collective of hip-hop fans both young and old, as well as people who barely follow the genre at all. This comes at a similar time to Hamilton – the sung and rapped-through musical about the American Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton – becoming the biggest hit on Broadway, further highlighting the new light being shone on hip-hop. The genre is gaining momentum and respect, and Lamar has a large part to play in this.
Clearly, Kendrick’s innovative abilities as a storyteller and lyricist have inspired lovers of music all over the world. And not only this, they’re a real inspiration to the writers and musicians at PHMG.