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Damned If He Does, If He Don’t

Kendrick Lamar's Pulitzer Prize reveals the way hip-hop has scrambled the distinction between music and literature.

Rich Fury/Getty Images for Coachella

For the first time the Pulitzer Prize “for distinguished musical composition by an American” has been awarded to a rap artist. Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 album DAMN. was introduced into the jury’s discussion late in the game. The jury mused on some classical works influenced by hip-hop, The New York Times reported, before the conversation moved into a “philosophical discussion” about what kinds of music were on the table for Pulitzer consideration. If hip-hop was an influence, why was it not also a candidate? DAMN. was the only hip-hop album under consideration, juror David Hajdu told me.

The late introduction of Kendrick to the discussion shouldn’t suggest that the jurors are unfamiliar with hip-hop as a genre, only that the prize itself has long been limited to jazz and classical music for reasons that aren’t set in stone but presumably have to do with those forms’ exclusive status as “high art.” The Pulitzer website describes Kendrick’s album 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.” This adjective-noun pair-string doesn’t capture much about the album itself. “Rhythmic dynamism” and “affecting vignettes” and “vernacular authenticity” all read like marketing copy for convincing classical nerds that hip-hop is music. The Pulitzer’s administrator Dana Canedy called DAMN. “a dense and sophisticated collage of hybrid sounds, polyrhythms, layered under what we would probably consider pulsing kinetic text.” Again, this is true but it doesn’t help to differentiate DAMN. from any of the other good hip-hop albums of 2017. It could describe Vic Mensa’s The Autobiography, or Meek Mills’s Wins and Losses.

The Pulitzer’s vague language arises from the question of whether rap truly occupies the same artistic universe as music that doesn’t run on language. But this is a question that should open up Kendrick’s oeuvre, not close it, and also allow us to explore the way hip hop has compromised the distinction between music and literature. Julia Craven even wrote at HuffPost that DAMN. is a work of journalism in the form of oral history. Flow is not just words and it’s not just melting those words down into the beat and it’s not just the timbre of the voice. It’s something else that comes together in the person of the poet-musician. Neither literature nor music as critical categories quite cover it.

Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album is a portrait of a man in, if not a crisis, then a crux: How can he square his own success and proven talents against the knowledge that everything is given and taken away by meaningless chance? DAMN.’s opening track “BLOOD. starts out with the strings of a ‘70s soulful jam and a story about a lady who has lost something. “Hello ma’am,” Kendrick says. “Can I be of any assistance? It seems to me that you have lost something. I would like to help you find it.” The lost character replies, “Oh yes, you have lost something. You’ve lost your life.” Gunshots open the album and will close it too, in the Ted Taylor-sampling “DUCKWORTH.” “Whoever thought the greatest rapper / Would be from coincidence,” Kendrick sings, considering an alternate universe in which “Anthony killed Ducky” and “Top Dawg could be servin’ life / While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.” Pop.

Kendrick brings politics straight into the album in track two, “DNA.,” which samples Geraldo Rivera expressing contempt for rap and its effect on black America. The song’s joyful threat of a bassline is Kendrick’s response. The dreamy, stoned “YAH.” and its refrain of buuuuzzin’ turns us inward, as Kendrick introduces the album’s theme of family and its emotional obligations. Fox News wants Kendrick, but news to Kendrick is his niece, who sees him on TV and says his name out loud.

“Damned if I do, if I don’t.” “ELEMENT.” is one of DAMN.’s best tracks, the one that slinks with the refrain about making it look sexy over complex piano chords. But the hinge between that song and the next, “FEEL.,” is the line that “ain’t nobody praying for” Kendrick. This idea recurs in several tracks, a feeling of losing family and loyalty even while Kendrick’s confidence and understanding of the world grows. In the song “FEAR.,” Kendrick samples a voicemail from a cousin. “I know you feel like people ain’t been praying for you,” it goes.

“FEEL.” is structured by anaphora, lines that begin over again with I feel like. That rhetorical technique is mirrored in the epistrophe of the later track “LOVE.,” the one that’ll make you cry. In that song, Kendrick will start a sentence only to have it completed over and over again by the sung answer of love me. Perhaps the album’s most beautiful lyric is to Kendrick’s beloved: “Keep it a hundred, I’d rather you trust me than to (love me).”

On “LOYALTY.” we hear Kendrick’s voice at its sweetest, slurry and high and sugary. “HUMBLE.” is the epitome of the sour and electrifying note that also runs through DAMN. But Kendrick’s confidence is in himself and his loved ones. On “XXX.”—the one where Bono sings, weirdly, against an eerie mix of gunshots and seagulls—he turns that bitterness on imagined foes. “Let somebody touch my momma / Touch my sister, touch my woman / Touch my daddy, touch my niece / Touch my nephew, touch my brother.” Loyalty and anger are always intertwined and the hot nexus they form radiates out through DAMN., a perfect album.

I asked Hajdu, who is a music critic at The Nation, how he feels about the way rap falls in and outside the boundaries of the Pulitzer’s prize for music. He sees the album as “essentially a work of music that employs language in the same way that an opera has a libretto,” he said. Even a listener who didn’t understand English, Hajdu said, would “come away with a rich aesthetic experience.” With that said, he explained that the Columbia English professor Farah Jasmine Griffin, one of the other jurors, had helped some of the panel to understand the depth of Kendrick’s lyricism. “This is language that works at two or three levels at the same time,” he said. “This is dramatic language, with text and subtext, its expressive on one level, at the same time it functions as critique.” A text of such complexity demands close attention. “You have to be a pretty sophisticated listener to get everything out of this work that’s in it,” Hajdu said. “Could it have been submitted in another category? Maybe.”

I put to Hajdu the argument made by some classical enthusiasts, that opening up the Pulitzer in music to blockbuster albums will take the spotlight away from the more obscure stuff that slogs by on grants. He pointed to bestselling novels that have won for fiction (such as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad) and Hamilton’s win for best drama last year. “The idea that it somehow muddies the water for nonclassical work to be considered is an argument that I just don’t buy,” Hajdu said, “because the only awards available to nonclassical and jazz styles of music are industry prizes like the Grammys. For a serious prize like the Pulitzer not to consider music that is popular is to say that that music is not serious, which is just not true and it’s not fair.”

Kendrick’s earnings don’t take away from the seriousness of his work, nor does rap’s extra access to poetic beauty. For once we have a winner whose work sings back to the prize itself.