Less than a month ago, Kendrick Lamar made history when he won the Pulitzer Prize in Music with his newest album “DAMN.” After 75 years of Pulitzer Prizes, DAMN. became the first non-classical, non-jazz album added to the list of Pulitzer Prizes.
Award recipients of the Pulitzer Prize in Music demonstrates “distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance of recording in the United States during that year” (pulitzer.org). Composition is such a loaded term; it is so easy to assume that a “composition” is written by a classical composer. Kendrick is not a Western classical composer, but he is an authentic composer.
His album undoubtedly contains some of the most “distinguished” pieces in contemporary art of 2017. Kendrick Lamar is very qualified for this award. And yes, he (in my opinion) is far more deserving of the Pulitzer Prize in Music compared to the other candidates because he is so distinguished.
However, if the Pulitzer board valued and assessed his art in the way that they assessed the art of others, Kendrick Lamar would not have won the Pulitzer Prize in Music. Instead, Kendrick Lamar’s lyrical masterpiece DAMN. should have won him the Pulitzer Prize in Literature.
Born Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, this Compton, CA native started his musical career under “K. Dot” (allmusic). He released his first three mixtapes under the name K. Dot attracting Top Dawg entertainment by the time he was sixteen.
Lamar manages to combine colorful lyrics and synthesized beats to make an organic sound. He is a confident and powerful artist, earning Grammys for both DAMN. and his album “To Pimp a Butterfly” which center around racial inequality and troubles of an African-American.
Lamar is joined by artists like Chance the Rapper, Kanye West, and Drake who are constantly changing “the game.” Chance the Rapper has gained national musical attention after refusing to be signed by a label. Moreover, Chance has been recognized for his activism in his hometown of Chicago for public education. Kanye West has been a popular figure for a while but has recently gained attention for using his voice to talk about stereotypes and political expectations based on race. Drake, on of the most mainstream artists in the hip hop/ R&B industry, continues to gain following through his musical creativity. All are influential through their craft, and all have their own craft. But very few have transcended to another level of lyrical genius like Kendrick Lamar has.
Rap has intended to poetically spread a message from the beginning. Kendrick has revived lyrical rap. Not to say that it was ever lost, but through the decades, we’ve seen specific icons reintroduce the world to poetic rap through creative storytelling.
Perhaps the most iconic rap artist of all time is the late Tupac Shakur. Although his name and image has become a materialistic memory of sorts, it’s because these kids that wear the shirts know that he was a big deal. He is the true definition of poetry with a heart beat. Not far behind Tupac is the late Christopher George Latore Wallace, known as the Notorious B.I.G. Interesting enough, two of the greatest lyricists shared the same window of fame. Very rarely are there two artists who emerge above the rest.
Biggie Smalls and Tupac often rapped about hardships, about women, about money. The same things that rap artists have always rapped about, the same things that you hear in a lot of Kendrick Lamar songs.
Kendrick Lamar’s video for his chart-topper “ELEMENT.”
Looking at their lyrics; they rap about females, yes, but they rap about treating your woman right and encourages girls to “keep ya head up” (Keep Ya Head Up, 2Pac). They rap about money, yes, but to say that they never had money before “this rappin’ stuff” as Biggie called it (Juicy, The Notorious B.I.G.). Perhaps their most prominent theme is speaking about their culture in the Black community through songs like Life Goes On, ELEMENT., and Everyday Struggle to name a few.
The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy”.
When you break down their songs, their lyrical creativity mixed in with their impeccable scansion and rhythm nearly place them above Shakespeare.
I asked myself earlier, what really makes them above the rest? First, intention matters. They have reason behind each song that applies to their audience. Second, their speech is truthful meaning their vocabulary is unique yet relatable. And finally their rhythm and vocal musicality is naturally interesting and appealing. Not to mention, I was able to pick out all the literary devices that I learned about in AP Language and AP Literature in Kendrick’s Songs. These artists are intelligent, it would be ignorant of anyone not to recognize that.
Kendrick Lamar is one of the most popular and contemporary artists to have ever taken home a Pulitzer Prize, besides perhaps Lin-Manuel Miranda who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2009 (pulitzer.org).
Kendrick Lamar is nothing short of a Pulitzer Prize recipient. He represented lyricists from the past, the present and the future when he accepted that award. And honestly, it’s about time that someone from the popular music world won a Pulitzer Prize in Music. But many have not considered rap as a form of literature despite how poetic and rhetorical it is in nature.
In 2016 musician Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” USA Today. Kendrick Lamar may not be as old as Bob Dylan, but his impact is, dare I say, exceeding that of Bob Dylan’s and he still was not considered for the category. This is not an issue of recognition; Kendrick Lamar was well recognized as an artists. This issue goes far beyond recognition; Kendrick Lamar was not held to the same standard as others even though he should have been.
Winning as award as prestigious as the Pulitzer Prize was a huge step for artists of color, particularly the black community in the arts. There is no doubt that Kendrick Lamar was grateful for the award. But, the truth is that Kendrick Lamar’s album is a valid form of writing, as is any other song with lyrical content. Perhaps if Kendrick Lamar was judged on his words as opposed to his image, he would have been seen as a writer AND a musician.