In its summary of the Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 album Damn, which it awarded the 2018 prize for music, the Pulitzer board characterized the album as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of African-American life.” The music world erupted in approbation—and a fair amount of hand-wringing—at this recognition of Damn’s artistic merit. Rightfully so: Lamar’s win marked the moment when the prize—long the exclusive province of classical and, more recently, jazz music since its 1943 inception—recognized a piece of popular music as possessing the same intellectual and cultural import.
Of course, Lamar isn’t just any pop musician. He’s one of the most important and popular hip-hop artists working today. As such, we can’t help but perceive his win as black music’s penetration into a rarefied cultural realm that has been so effective at policing its boundaries that, before Monday, many people didn’t even know that a Pulitzer Prize in music existed. Lamar’s Pulitzer scans as validation for a genre that has provided the nation’s most vital, daring, and avant-garde music for decades but has been largely ignored by high culture’s gatekeepers. In the words of Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy, the prize “shines a light on hip-hop in a completely different way. This is a big moment for hip-hop music and a big moment for the Pulitzers.”
Part of me wonders if the light that this prize is shining on hip-hop is as flattering as we think. Given that the Pulitzers missed an opportunity to award Lamar’s 2015 opus To Pimp a Butterfly—an album every bit as sonically adventurous and self-consciously literary as Damn—the recognition feels belated, even opportunistic. Maybe that’s because, as Doreen St. Félix has argued in the New Yorker, this prize does more to bolster the Pulitzers’ credibility than hip-hop’s. After all, the genre’s place at the center of American music has been apparent to anybody who was willing to pay attention; Monday confirmed what has been clear for more than a decade now. In this sense, the Pulitzer board’s recognition of Damn lends the institution credibility by bringing its concerns in line with those of the majority of listeners, demonstrating that it is prepared to participate in an ongoing intellectual conversation with critics and fans who long ago recognized hip-hop’s tendency toward musical experimentation and social commentary. Hip-hop remains where it was before the prize. Only the gatekeepers have moved.
The cultural framework that the Pulitzer board used in awarding Lamar the prize feels more important than the question of credibility, though. In its emphasis on a supposed “vernacular authenticity” that allows listeners passage into black life’s inner workings, the board pressed Damn into a familiar discourse on black art that converts its aesthetic concerns into anthropological ones. As I’ve argued before, hip-hop is constantly struggling against this impulse to reduce the genre to a politicized and “authentic” expression of black life, or a window onto an assumed black reality. Even as the board attempted to integrate hip-hop into a cultural field characterized by experimental, abstract rigor, it instantiated a general tendency for critics to reduce black music to a mere reflection of black experience. This contradiction suggests that the most persistent frame of reference that culturally white institutions have for black artistic production is as the realist representation of authentic experiences.
This is especially disconcerting in the case of Damn, which explicitly announces itself as a fever dream. The album opens with a skit in which Lamar narrates his own death after an encounter with a mysterious blind woman. Soon after, Lamar thrusts us into a kaleidoscopic exploration of original sin and the impact of personal choice in a world where black people’s material and political conditions often seem to foreclose the very possibility of choice. Even for Lamar, the album is highly unstable, with songs that rarely allow the listener to listen comfortably. Discordance is the album’s unifying aesthetic logic. Tracks like “DNA” And “XXX” feature jarring changes in beat and tempo that keep listeners on their toes. On “Yah,” a laidback tempo presents a pleasant façade, only for what sounds like a bassoon sample to ripple through the track at odd intervals and unsettle the whole affair. Throughout all 55 minutes, a cacophonic set of sampled voices—from Geraldo Rivera to Rick James—interpenetrates with Lamar’s, so that the album is constantly producing a dizzying sense of unstable perspective.
None of this forecloses the possibility that Damn expresses something about the “complexity of African-American life,” as the board says. Lamar has never been averse to using his music as a vehicle for addressing racial politics or dignifying the oft-overlooked details of marginalized black life, and Damn continues that tendency. Songs like “DNA” and “XXX” boil over with a barely restrained rage at the state of American race relations. The stunning final song “Duckworth” is a narrative track that invests the apparently true story of an encounter between Lamar’s father and his label’s CEO with the quality of an epic poem. However, the attempt to make authenticity the album’s central concern forecloses a close examination of the formal difficulty and complexity that turns blackness into something more unfamiliar, strange, and compelling than the word authentic can encompass. It misses a crucial aspect of Damn’s stylistic tendencies: Along with its accompanying visuals, the album is a surreal exploration of faith and personal accountability that often seems uninterested in racial authenticity. If Lamar engages in the black vernacular, it is because that’s the language in which he chooses to speak, not because he is trying to present the audience a realistic view into black life.
The board’s summary suggests that black art is most useful as a chance to gain a vantage point on black life or make a statement about culturally white institutions’ liberal tendencies. It’s difficult not to think that the board awarded the album more for its social and political import than its artistic merits. Such reasoning leaves much to be desired, and makes one wonder how likely equally virtuosic, but less political, hip-hop artists like the Atlanta rap trio Migos would be to win the award. Similarly, they are masters of their craft who have molded contemporary hip-hop in their image through the sheer force of their talent. Their rapid-fire triplet flow is now prevalent throughout the genre. However, the expectation of politically salient “authenticity” with which black art is saddled might mean they never achieve recognition from culturally white institutions.
Of course, hip-hop has thrived for more than four decades without such recognition and will be just fine without it. It says a lot that Lamar himself has yet to speak about his Pulitzer honor. While we should take pleasure at the fact that the arbiters of high culture are aligning themselves with popular sentiment, we shouldn’t base hip-hop’s cultural legitimacy on their praise or evaluate it according to their criteria. If we do, we risk losing sight of the sonic and lyrical innovation that is the genre’s hallmark.