By Kenneth Edison, Editor-in-Chief
Follow him at @krazo1
Kendrick Lamar’s historic Pulitzer Prize win is a referendum on hip-hop’s place not just in American culture, but in high art.
The 2017-18 Pulitzer Prize for music was awarded to Lamar’s fourth studio album ‘DAMN,’ the first non-jazz or classical album to receive the honor. And that fact is what speaks volumes about the artistic merit that hip hop is finally receiving after spending decades being largely vilified as thug music with little to no artistic merit whatsoever.
It takes little more than a quick glance at conservative pundit Ben Shaprio’s column titled ‘Rap is Crap’ to see why this is such a tonal shift from how the genre has usually been perceived.
In his 2009 column, Shapiro labels legendary rapper T.I a, “thug idiot” and dismisses the entire genre as not being music at all.
Another more widely publicized instance of harsh criticism of hip hop came from Fox News reporter Geraldo Rivera who infamously made the claim that “hip hop has done more damage to young black and brown people than racism in recent years,” to an audience of millions.
And yet, just a few short years after those harsh labels were put on the rap genre, we have a rapper being awarded one of the most prestigious awards in media from a century old institution. Even more monumental is that this honor was bestowed on a rapper from Compton California before more established genres like rock and pop were even given that level of veneration.
The Pulitzer board itself praised the album 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.”
No longer is hip hop viewed as a youth phase, gangster street music or an edgy underground sub-genre, but rather an integral part of American culture.
And make no mistake, Lamar’s victory is not an isolated incident, but rather the latest in a growing movement of hip hop artists finally being recognized as just that, artists.
Back in June of 2017, rap legend Jay Z became the first rapper to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Ten years prior, Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five were the first rappers to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and others such as Public Enemy and NWA followed (not without some controversy of course).
And yet, the triumphs of ‘DAMN’ are special because not only is it an admission of hip hop’s artistic merit, but it’s achieving that admission through direct competition with incumbent genres like jazz and classical music.
And perhaps this honor would not feel so triumphant if it was placed on any other album, but it being given to Lamar just has an air of gratification to it. Since his debut, Lamar has been lauded by fans and critics as the lyrical miracle in hip hop that has inspired so many other artists to do better.
His socially conscious lyrical style and slightly experimental production backing it has led to his music being anthems for a larger movements of progress not just in the black community, but in American culture in general. It was only a few years ago that his groundbreaking hit song ‘Alright’ became an unofficial rallying cry for the black lives matter movement.
Perhaps if the Pulitzer had instead been awarded to another immensely popular rapper like Drake, who is known for his ability to write club bangers and catchy R&B inspired hooks, it would be seen as more of a commercial achievement rather than an artistic one.
Either way, it’s a great time to be a fan of hip hop. Not only is the genre unquestionably the most popular in music, for the first time in its history, it’s being acknowledged as one of the best.