Kendrick Lamar may have lost the Grammy for his album “DAMN.”, but his musical prowess was recognized elsewhere. Lamar is the first artist outside of the classical and jazz canon to win a Pulitzer Prize since it extended its prizes to music in 1943.
While rap may not immediately conjure an image of prestige, Lamar’s fourth LP should change your mind. From the radio hits that came off this album, it appears to be comparable to any other rap album, but a look beyond the surface reveals it to be much more.
The album is truly a work of art. It is complex and cohesive. His songs stand individually as strong, separate statements, but they also work together as a dignified unit. He uses repetition and common themes, such as religion and racism, to make each song flow into the next. When you listen from the first track to the last, the album feels holistic and, by the end, the work comes full circle. His first lines are the same as his last: “So I was taking a walk the other day.” The incompletion of that dependent clause at the end of the last song is eerie, yet satisfying.
“He has a much bigger and more thematic framework,” said Kendra Salois, an AU professor of music and culture. “Framing it in that way allows you to hear more in each song and to hear each song as a reflection on a more universal human condition.”
Not only is this album a wonderful conglomeration of lyric and sound, it is also a commentary on contemporary issues. Lamar speaks directly on gun control, police brutality and his feelings of vulnerability. He uses symbolism to address racism and specific incidents of hate crimes that are so well-embedded into his work, they are hard to catch on the first listen.
Lamar’s album is also a clear medium of his own self-expression. He makes straightforward references to his own faith, most obviously in the song, “GOD.” He uses Biblical references and certain phrases to create a unified theme of religion in this album. He consistently states that “what happens on Earth, stays on Earth,” and throughout most songs, Lamar questions God, but also attributes his own success to Him.
“Everything I say is from an angel,” Lamar says in “GOD.”, the second to last track on “DAMN.”
He also becomes quite vulnerable by the end of the album, particularly in the song, “FEAR.” In this track, Lamar relays that he doesn’t think he can “find a way to make it on this Earth.” He connects with his black audience, relating to them through the constant fear and insecurity that he lives with everyday, even being a wealthy man.
“There is a really important thing that hip hop does for its audiences, no matter who those audiences are,” Salois said. “It refuses to back down from talking about its own experiences.”
Lamar is clearly deserving of this honor. His album is a social commentary and it is a poignant narrative of the black experience in America. His Pulitzer win for “DAMN.” is especially important for the hip-hop medium as a whole. Many think of hip-hop as a music genre full of lyrics and images that degrade women, and at some points it is. But, for those who are listening closely, rappers often write with their heart on their sleeve.
“Given that our culture historically devalues black thinkers and contributors, I think it’s a significant thing that the first hip hop composer has been awarded a Pulitzer,” said professor Aram Sinnreich, who chairs the communications studies division in the School of Communication.
Hip-hop has spoken towards the black experience for decades, since NWA put out “Fuck Tha Police” in the 80s. Contemporary rappers continue this tradition. J. Cole’s 2016 album, “4 Your Eyez Only,” not only signified a turning point in his personal life, but it also pointed towards the black experience and police brutality. Jay-Z has a similar new tone in “4:44” and Kanye West has written about the black experience in almost all of his albums since the song “We Don’t Care” on his 2004 LP, “College Dropout.”
“People don’t think of rappers as intellectuals, they don’t take them seriously,” said freshman Isaiah Hug. “If America is meritocratic, shouldn't the intelligent and creative get recognition?”
Sinnreich said that music has “always” been an important way in which humans have conversations about “who matters and who doesn’t.”
“Music is the way that human beings negotiate...cultural and identity politics in a way that is abstract enough for us to understand universally, but also concrete enough to matter,” Sinnreich said.
Although black men struggle with confinements of masculinity and racism, hip-hop has consistently been a medium through which they can freely express their concerns and insecurities. It is not just a form of music to talk about drugs and women, as some may think. To many, it is a form of liberation.
“Most artists, no matter how much they would like to get paid or how much they appreciate the fame, just need to do the work for themselves to express themselves,” Salois said.
Lamar’s honor is not just a personal victory. It is a victory for all rappers who are trying to show how their music can influence and inspire, and it is a victory for the audience that Lamar writes for; those that can relate to and commiserate with his experience.
“It’s all about representation,” Sinnreich said. “It’s about who gets a seat at the table, it’s about whose lives and perspectives are taken seriously, [and] it’s about whose lives are valued.”
“It was always me versus the world,” Lamar laments at the beginning of the song “DUCKWORTH.” “Until I found it’s me versus me.”