By Eóin Donnelly
It’s getting a lot harder for Kendrick Lamar to sit down and be humble. By now such a dominant culture figure, a Kendrick Lamar Google search has long been a daily ritual for me. With every passing week, it feels like his star shines ever brighter, his art reaching cultural corners that hip-hop’s founding fathers never would’ve even considered possible. In decades to come, the trajectory of hip-hop’s reappraisal as high art will be inextricable from Lamar’s own career path. Inexplicably denied the Grammy for Album of the Year for the third time running, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music- the first non-classical or jazz effort to do so- is yet another milestone in his already illustrious resumé, and is perhaps the greatest indicator to date of his unique elevation of the genre.
Of course, this is not the first time that Lamar’s music has entered the realm of high art. His three major-label studio albums all hold this unprecedented distinction; for his cinematic breakthrough album good kid, m.A.A.d. city, an accompanying film was aired in the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art; its labyrinthine sequel To Pimp A Butterfly was archived in Harvard library just months after release; and now DAMN. has the Pulitzer. Quite a legacy for a man only in his 31st year. And let’s not forget this year’s Black Panther, now the 10th highest-grossing movie of all-time worldwide, a hugely culturally significant moment in pop culture forever interconnected with its soundtrack curator, Kendrick Lamar.
We shouldn’t really be so surprised. Many have rightly pointed out that the award is actually overdue, deeming To Pimp A Butterfly’s jazzy, poetic rollercoaster a more worthy recipient as well as being a more logical extension of the Pulitzer status quo. Like most old white men- who aren’t exactly Kendrick’s core demographic- the Pulitzer judges were late to the party. Alas, in spite of its domination of mainstream pop culture the perception of hip-hop as an underground sub-culture remains in some institutional circles, and it is paradigm-shifting moments like Lamar’s Pulitzer that will go some way to casting such prehistoric misconceptions to the dustbin of history. I won’t pretend that I predicted this victory, but I learned long ago never to doubt the reality-subverting potential of Kendrick’s creative output. You should’ve seen this coming. He was laughed at then, but this is exactly what Kanye West meant five years ago when he said the immortal lines: “We culture. Rap the new rock & roll. We the new rockstars.” As humorous as it is to imagine Elon Musk and Kanye West sitting round a table to talk intergalactic travel, rap music and whatever the Hell else they must talk about, I don’t take Elon’s words lightly when he describes West as his biggest inspiration. He even contributed a paragraph on Kanye in Time’s 2015 list of “The 100 Most Influential People”, praising his ability to engage, question and push boundaries without fear of being ridiculed. Establishing a human colony on Mars is just one of the crazy ideas Musk devotes his everyday working life to, and with this in mind his friendship with Kanye isn’t surprising at all, more so a perfectly logical reflection of a constantly evolving and complex world that all too often pigeonholes public figures in categories that are too small for both the person and the artistic lane which they supposedly represent. ‘Rapper’ remains a pejorative term, a word dripping in disdain when spilled from the mouth of your average Fox News acolyte, which is why Kanye prefers the term “creative genius.”
In many ways they couldn’t be more different, but the introverted Kendrick is a descendant of Kanye’s legacy, fearlessly redefining black masculinity through the prism of an art form that once limited that same identity to misogynistic, dangerous and averse to drug use. Unfortunately, that caricature still exists today, and it is in its survival that situations like two black men being arrested in Starbucks for a patently ridiculous trespassing violation can be allowed to perpetuate. One of the main reasons I’m so passionate about hip-hop is because of its ability to transcend racial barriers. If you’ve ever seen Kendrick Lamar perform live you’ll know exactly what I mean. I seen him for the second time this year in Amsterdam and the aura of euphoric unity among all people of all colours and nations is almost impossible to describe and more than impossible not to feel. ‘Alright’ in a packed-out arena is as good as life gets, jumping up and down chanting “we gon’ be alright” with thousands of strangers that, just for a few moments, feel like co-members of a mass movement where bullshit is the enemy and love is religion. I’m not talking the hippie kind. Unlike the perpetually-stoned, superficial ‘philosophies’ of John Lennon and his legion of followers that made Beatlemania so culturally significant in the 60’s, Lamar actually has some extremely profound things to say. There, I said it.
The saying “you can’t have your cake and eat it” does not apply to Kendrick Lamar, who has found truly unique ways to traverse multiple artistic territories that are traditionally mutually exclusive, not merely co-existing within them but bending their long-established unspoken rules to his imagination’s will. On the one hand, he is undeniably a ferociously honest socio-political commentator in the lineage of Ice Cube and Public Enemy, yet he is also the musical mind entrusted with Disney and Marvel’s biggest blockbuster yet (Black Panther), a visual auteur bringing a consistent level of magic back to music videos not seen since Michael Jackson, and a prolific linguistic maestro who is just as proficient in the highbrow language of jazz and poetry as he is in brash 808’s and street slang. It is this closing of traditional racial barriers and expansion of artistic categories that makes Lamar such a thrilling creative mind, where every subtle move on the chessboard could be a prelude to a checkmate nobody saw coming. Take for example a song like ‘Bad Blood’ with Taylor Swift, a collaboration that felt weirdly forced at the time, but in the rear-view mirror- and like so many other of his more mainstream features- it looks more and more like the musical equivalent of a Trojan horse, a necessary sacrifice in a gradually unfolding grand blueprint for creative hegemony by a man that fits none of its preconditions. Kendrick Lamar is certainly worthy of the compliment of versatility, but it is doubtful if the adjective is worthy of him.
So why DAMN., and why now? DAMN. is an album that captured 2017 not only in a lyrical sense but in its composition, melding trendy trap and pop-rap productions with abrasive, dissonant beats in minor-keys that sonically articulated the duality of being alive in today’s seemingly never-ending political malaise. Its sprawling thematic depth and schizophrenic emotional heft is representative of the 24/7 news cycle we all now inhabit, where the claustrophobic obsession of ‘LUST.’ can co-exist alongside a bashful and intimate serenade to a loved one (‘LOVE.’), withering putdowns to the ‘bitch’ of inferior competition (‘HUMBLE.’), wearied ruminations on mortality via God’s wrath (‘FEAR.’) and teaming up with Bono to lament America’s 2nd Amendment crisis (‘XXX.’), and that’s not even half the tracklisting. In the end, the Pulitzer board was unanimous in their verdict, describing DAMN. 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.” What began as a consideration of a classical music piece with hip-hop influences transformed into a roundtable discussion on the merits of hip-hop itself. That’s a conversation of laughably old-fashioned pretence, no doubt, but however late to the party they were the Pulitzer board nonetheless must be commended for their receptiveness to new ideas and willingness to celebrate them, just as Lamar must be for creating art powerful enough to initiate such a profound shift in intellectual orthodoxy.
Hip-hop deserves this moment, not least of which for the enormity of its contributions to American life in not just music but also the spheres of contemporary tv and film. It is in many ways a microcosm of life itself, a space commonly misunderstood as a monoculture when in reality you are certain to encounter all kinds of different ideas, characters and stories within its kaleidoscopic tapestry. Those who claim otherwise tend to be wilfully ignorant and presumptuous cultural elitists whose ideas on art often seem to coalesce with obtuse generalisations on racial groups. Under the gigantic umbrella of hip-hop you have Jay-Z, Kanye, Eminem, Biggie Smalls, Lil Wayne, 2Pac, Nas, Drake, MF DOOM, André 3000, Kendrick, Cardi B, Logic, Ice Cube, Q-Tip, Snoop Dogg, Childish Gambino and many, many, many more, all totally different characters with their own subjective philosophies expressed through rhyme. With hip-hop almost reaching pensioner age that should be a truism, but you only need to look at reactions to Lamar’s win to see that bias against its cultural value still exists en masse amongst certain demographics. If you stereotype hip-hop you will more than likely stereotype black men. Avoiding and disavowing it completely on the basis of violence is the equivalent of refusing to ever go to the cinema because you seen an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie once and the blood made you feel queasy. The vehement debate which typically surrounds the crowning of the G.O.A.T. crystallises the notion of hip-hop’s variety, where rappers are primarily compared not by the catchiness or popularity of their songs but by their wordplay, their ability to weave complex narratives and the twin process of identifying social problems and how to solve them. All the way from the street corners and housing projects to the hallways of academia and Silicon Valley technocrats, atop the graveyard of rock music’s creative and spiritual dead end has bloomed hip-hop’s rich legacy, at its very best in Lamar offering teenage angst music of a more lyrically holistic and rhythmically diverse kind that can speak truth to power in a pop format without compromising on any of the blunt honesty, raw sonic edge or joyful catharsis through verbal resolution of suffering that makes the genre so intertwined with day-to-day life. As KRS-One once said: “rap is something you do, hip-hop is something you live.”
Speaking of hip-hop’s dismantling of rock’s cultural throne, there’s an old David Bowie quote that Lamar’s Pulitzer calls to mind: “The young have to kill the old. That’s how life works. It’s how culture works.” Bowie’s last album before his death, Blackstar, was famously inspired by Lamar, whose endorsement of a collective of underground L.A. jazz musicians- Thundercat, Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington et al.– has sparked a revival of sorts in the genre, both in its own right and within the eternally burgeoning parameters of hip-hop. There comes a point at which conventionally cherished cultural institutions reach their sell-by-date, when the gatekeepers that run them exemplify their stubbornness by erecting higher and higher fences to protect their own subjective cultural castles, even while tides of everything else come crashing in around them. Thankfully, no blood had to be shed at the Pulitzer offices. Bowie of course was speaking metaphorically, in any case, but his point that culture moves with the youth and to stand in its way is only to expedite the inevitable is an invaluable one that will hopefully inform the ethos of similarly outmoded cultural institutions going forward. Look no further than the Grammys, whose decisions have been so laughably off the pulse of pop’s zeitgeist in recent years that it’s doubtful if they’ll ever again regain clout as cultural tastemakers. Now that the Pulitzer gatekeepers have welcomed hip-hop in, just wait and see the Grammy tastemakers do the very same next time Kung Fu Kenny album season rolls round. With three bonafide classic albums under his belt, it’s about time they did.
The outcry from certain segments of social media to Lamar’s win have been depressingly predictable, isolating Kendrick lyrics from their context in order to advance the tired narrative that places all of society’s problems at the doorstep of hip-hop. Critiquing them is as easy as Tom Hardy gets Tinder matches, but rather than focus on the lone line of booers in a global arena full of applause I will instead include the thoughts of composers Michael Gilbertson and Ted Hearne, who were finalists in this year’s Pulitzer award. Forget what I have to say, I’m just a fan that’s in love with a dream that’ll kill me. The opinion of musical peers will always be the foremost metric by which artists are measured. For Gilbertson, as a gay man from Iowa the themes of self-love as well as the theological and conceptual layers of Kendrick’s work really struck him, while Hearne was effusive in his praise of Lamar’s “super important” impact on his approach to composing. “He is such a bold and experimental and authentic artist. He’s one of the people that is creating truly new music”, Hearne told Slate Magazine. It’s easy to imagine an alternate universe where the response to Lamar’s paradigm-shifting Pulitzer is less courteous, but his traversal of the intersection between art and commerce has been so balanced and expertly-managed that excluding internet trolls it’s nigh-on impossible to find a naysayer. Compare such a reaction to 1965, when the Pulitzer committee’s discussion on extending its traditionally European classical remit to jazz musicians was so hotly-disputed that rather than give the prize to Duke Ellington, there was no award at all, and it wasn’t until 1997 that jazz was afforded enough artistic legitimacy to win the award. On the other hand, the respect afforded to Lamar in so many artistic realms and areas of public discourse in his relatively short career is indicative of the cerebral and visceral magnitude of his work, as well as the humility of spirit and pious deference to his predecessors he has exemplified throughout his trailblazing run at the top of the rap game.
Unquestionably one of the most influential voices of this generation, Lamar’s name and the reputation of hip-hop itself has just ascended to all-time highs with the awarding of the Pulitzer. To be clear, this is not to say the Pulitzer or any other accolade is a prerequisite for the art form’s legitimacy, which will soon have its own Hall of Fame and its own gatekeepers to decide which classic hip-hop works are worthy of recognition in Harlem’s prospective 20-storey homage to hip-hop history. In the interim however, the cultural institutions which have the job of eulogising all musical culture and by extension black musical culture are predominantly white-owned and white-controlled, thus it cannot be overestimated what a landmark achievement Lamar’s Pulitzer is in its deconstruction of cultural elitism and its clusterfuck of problematic distinctions between meritorious art and unwelcome sideshow. To borrow again from the wisdom of Kanye West, the cultural barriers that were used to separate people in the 20th century still have remnants today, and the greatest art of the coming century will come from all the lunch tables working together. Corny, I know, but it’s true. The use of the n-word in hip-hop, of course, has long been the most obvious target of its critics, rearing its head again in the tweets of angry conservative types and rock & roll zealots in the aftermath of Lamar’s victory. Like every other possible critique you could have of hip-hop, it’s already been dismantled in Lamar’s discography. Alas, I was reminded of ‘i’ from To Pimp A Butterfly, where Lamar redefines the word as the similar word of Ethiopian origin, ‘negus’. Its meaning? Black emperor, king, royalty. It’s an important distinction for Kendrick, who told Vice last October about his world-changing ambitions: “When I’m gone, I can rest peacefully knowing that I contributed to the evolution of this right here, the mind.” It’s becoming a lot harder to deny it: Kendrick Lamar is, by far, the realest negus alive.
Now, what rhymes with Pulitzer?