Rapper Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.” has won the Pulitzer Prize for music. It’s the first non-classical or jazz work to win the award.
The Pulitzer board on Monday called the album a work that captures the complexity of African-American life.
Lamar has been praised and lauded for his deep lyrical content, remarkable live performances, and his profound mix of hip-hop, spoken word, jazz, soul, funk, poetry and African sounds.
His major-label albums “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” ”To Pimp a Butterfly” and “DAMN.” became works of art, with Lamar writing songs about blackness, street life, police brutality, perseverance, survival and self-worth.
His piercing raps helped him become the voice of the generation, and easily ascend as the leader in hip-hop and cross over to audiences outside of rap, from rock to pop to jazz.
The Pulitzer for music, which was first awarded in 1943, generally goes to contemporary classical music; a quick scan through the list of previous winners reveals a lot of operas and symphonies. Lamar, however, is a hip-hop artist, and DAMN. is a hip-hop album. Lamar is now not only the first person to win a Pulitzer for a hip-hop album but the first person to win a Pulitzer for any music that’s not classical or jazz.
And even jazz, it’s worth noting, is a late addition to the Pulitzers. The Pulitzer jury once recommended giving the award to Duke Ellington in 1965, but the board declined to honor anyone that year. The first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer, Wynton Marsalis, didn’t take home his prize until 1997.
The Pulitzer for music is overwhelmingly homogeneous not only in the genres it recognizes but also in the race and gender of the musicians it honors. No woman won the award until 1983, and no African American won until 1996.
Lamar’s win is in some ways a vindication of a series of reforms that the Pulitzer Prize Board enacted between 1996 and 2004 that allowed it to gradually open up eligibility to music outside of the so-called “larger forms” — i.e., music beyond contemporary classical music.