Thursday, April 19, 2018

Kendrick Lamar's Pulitzer Prize

Kendrick Lamar's album Damn. won the Pulitzer freaking Prize! I have a few thoughts.

First of all, in a world where Bob Dylan can win the Nobel Prize in Literature, anything can happen, so why the heck not a Pulitzer for a Hip-Hop album?

Second: I am much happier at Kendrick Lamar winning a Pulitzer than I was about Dylan's Nobel Prize. The Nobel Committee claimed they were looking outside the conventional "box" of literature, which is cool I guess. It is admirable if a committee as prestigious as the Nobel committee sometimes tries to draw attention toward outsiders -- people living away from the world's cultural centers, using languages that don't hold global power and status. But Bob Dylan is the most insider outsider you could possibly find for a literature prize: he's a rich and famous American rock star who writes in English who's already had awards, tributes and accolades heaped upon him since the freaking sixties. Heck, a white savior even used him to reach inner-city black kids in a '90s inspirational teachers' movie once. Really, folk music, singer-songwriter music, and white songwriters who peaked in the sixties have had more than their share of kudos already, and worst of all, Dylan's lyrics sound cool, but Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen's poetry look better on the page. One in fifty of Dylan's songs is a perfectly written gem, but twenty of fifty sound like they could have been much improved by a second, third or twelfth draft, and by cutting the fourth or fifth verses, and rephrasing a few lines in the bridge. Leonard Cohen never sang a verse whose lyrics seemed to need a once-over to tighten the screws, so I wasn't inspired by Bob Dylan's Nobel. But you know: "Is songwriting literature? So outsider! Such edgy! Many nice work, Nobel!"  Moreover, music genres and artists coming out of black culture have been historically under-appreciated and under-represented in media coverage, acclaim, respect and awards, more so as the awards get more prestigious, so giving the Pulitzer to a black artist making black music when almost every other winner of the Pulitzer for music has been a white person making white music...that's cool. Let us hope that balance continues correcting.

Third: I'm not an expert in rap or hip-hop, just a fan. I enjoy it a lot and listen to a lot, and I've been learning more and more how to listen to rap, what makes it good, and how to appreciate it better. Some rap is just silly pop, but the good stuff rewards more careful study. It's great to see Kendrick getting recognition like this, when the Grammys can't even figure out that people will remember his work far after everyone's forgotten Macklemore and Bruno Mars (who both won Album of the Year awards over Kendrick).

While black culture doesn't need validation from white institutions to be legitimate or deserve respect, I am still happy to see hip-hop recognized by the Pulitzer committee as a legitimate, exciting, artistically respectable genre. The black artists who create it deserve to stand shoulder to shoulder with any artist from any genre that's long been considered more "respectable" (which is of course code for white), and while that is true even if white folks like myself are not saying it, I'll happily add my voice to the chorus acknowledging this reality.

Fourth: from where I stand, Kendrick is peaking higher than just about any rap artist has ever peaked, combining social relevance, artistry and popularity. Lamar is the undisputed top rapper in the game right now, and really, the level he is peaking at right now is mind-boggling. His combination of ambition, social consciousness, musical adventurousness (especially on To Pimp a Butterfly, the album which was his application for "Most Important Rapper Alive"), lyrical complexity, rapping skill and awareness of his place in rap... has any other rapper been the most socially relevant, the most musically interesting, the most critically acclaimed, the most ambitious, and the most popular rapper at the same time, to the degree Lamar is right now? Only three or four other rappers ever took bigger swings than Kendrick has in the last three years, and he's been absolutely nailing his marks.

Which other rapper has peaked as high as Kendrick is right now? Make your argument in the comments, but I can't think of someone who's peaked in terms of social relevance, sheer rapping skill, sonic adventurousness, and popularity all at the same time, the way that Kendrick is peaking right now.

Fifth: Crazy as it seems, (and this is exciting) I don't think we've even seen his best yet. When Kanye West released "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," it was the sound of Kanye peaking, and everybody knew it. I think that will happen with Kendrick as well. I believe he still has one more gear, and one day he'll release an album that everyone will immediately recognize as an all-time artist's all-time peak. A Joshua Tree, a Lemonade, a Purple Rain, a Thriller, a Blue. It's going to be incredible.

Sixth: I've said for a while, if you love language and a beautifully turned phrase, you should be listening to rappers, full stop. The way the best ones stitch together beautiful, brilliant or complex and dense lines and deliver them at speed is amazing. If you're not so sure about that, here is a primer for how dense the lyrical music of good rap can be, based on the rhyme schemes in the rap musical Hamilton (which is a good place to start if all rap seems inaccessible to you).

Seventh: When someone says "I like all kinds of music. Except rap," it makes me sad. But ... I used to say that, so there's hope for them yet. I've been ranting for a few years now that rap and hip-hop are far and away the most interesting musical genres in Western culture right now: they're the most socially relevant, they have the most exciting artists, the highest ratio of artists trying to change the world, as well as massive popularity. Looking forward, I think that much of the most important protest music for our time, and much of the most interesting and challenging music, period, will be in the hip-hop and rap genres, so pay attention, and remember to read the lyrics.

Go get your hands on his album Damn., readers. Give it a few listens: it rewards repeated listens. Pick out a track and listen to it four times while reading the lyrics. It rewards that too. Read some reviews of it and listen again, after being told what to listen for. It rewards that, too. Watch the videos. Videos are part of the text... but the songs stand alone, too.

And congratulations, Kendrick Lamar!

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