When Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize for Music last month, it seemed doubly appropriate that the victorious work was his fourth album, Damn, a sumptuous, furious achievement by an artist at the height of his powers.
Lamar’s quicksilver rapping, dizzying fusion of musical styles and meandering stories shuttle between the confessional, comic and political, sometimes within a single couplet.
Has there been a sharper portrait of fame's ambiguities than DNA's incantation: "I got millions, I got riches buildin' in my DNA/I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA"?
Lamar's title also offers a neat summary of the widespread approval that greeted this most surprising announcement. Damn: Lamar is the first artist from the worlds of rock, pop or hip-hop to win a Pulitzer in its 60-year history. No wonder The Guardian's Alexis Petridis asked: 'What took you so long?'
Smashing through the 'high culture' glass ceiling
The Pulitzer may just be another of Lamar's many accolades, but it feels more than usually important. A "Big Moment for Hip-Hop" trumpeted The New York Times. But what was this "moment" exactly? And why was it so "big"? It fell to The Guardian's music editor Ben Beaumont to tweet, "as a marker for rap's standing in US high culture, it's a big one".
It's that reference to "high culture" that identifies the particular glass ceiling that Damn has smashed to smithereens. The Pulitzer's long-standing tradition is a stamp of approval – Kendrick Lamar should be taken as seriously as Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and John Adams, whether any of them like it or not.
You might have thought these culture wars between so-called low and high forms were over. Was it when Bob Dylan's 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature ended those pesky comparisons with the English poet John Keats? Or was it when Lamar's hero, Eminem, was lauded by Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney? "[This guy] Eminem ... has created a sense of what is possible. He has sent a voltage around his generation … he has done this not just through his subversive attitude but also his verbal energy."
As Heaney's awkward, if heartfelt praise exemplifies, these elite tributes risk sounding pompous and patronising, however sincere. The most famous is William Mann's review of the Beatles' album, With the Beatles (December 1963), that exalted "the Aeolian cadence at the end of Not a Second Time (the chord progression that ends Mahler's Song of the Earth)". In retrospect, Mann's florid praise simply feels prophetic: hundreds of Manns now investigate The Beatles' varied contribution to music, lyrics, fashion and culture. At the time, however, he was mocked, not least by John Lennon: "To this day I don't have any idea what [Aeolian cadences] are. They sound like exotic birds."
'The complexity of modern African-American life'
The Pulitzer provided their own Mann moment when they acclaimed Damn as a "virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-
The contrast extends beyond mere competing prose styles. In the "high" corner, the Pulitzer: de facto bastion of modern and predominantly white, male American classical music.
Despite recent reforms to broaden its musical scope, the Pulitzer has rewarded only one non-classical work since 1943: Sound Grammar by Avant Garde free jazz composer and performer Ornette Coleman.
True, acclaimed trumpeter Wynton Marsalis won in 1997, but Blood on the Fields was dogged by controversy about whether a "jazz oratorio" met the Pulitzer's strict guidelines. Those with long memories recalled the Pulitzer's refusal to award Duke Ellington a Special Citation in 1965, despite recommendations from its own musical committee. Ellington would eventually be granted a posthumous Pulitzer in 1999.
Hip hop: Just 'people yelling' to some, but classical music is moving further toward the periphery
In the other corner is Lamar: raised on welfare in Compton, Los Angeles, where he dodged violence and drugs to discover hip-hop through Tupac Shakur, Dr Dre and later Eminem. If the Pulitzer bridled at jazz, what would they make of hip-hop, whose reputation for misogyny and violence prompted C Delores Tucker, once the highest-ranking African-American woman in Pennsylvania, to brand
rap as filth?
Just as many detractors deny that hip-hop is music at all. “What rap did that was impressive was to show there are so many tone-deaf people out there. All they need is a drum beat and somebody yelling over it and they’re happy. There’s an enormous market for people who can’t tell one note from another.” So said the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, speaking as recently as 2015.
Few artists have done more to establish hip-hop's intellectual credibility than Lamar. His extraordinary purple patch of albums – Good Kid, MAAD City, To Pimp a Butterfly and now Damn – all won Best Album of the Year on the respected review website Pitchfork and established Lamar at the head of a musical revolution. It seems 2017 was the year hip-hop, helped by its offshoot R&B, outsold rock music: the combined genres produced eight of last year's 10 bestselling records, including Damn.
Lamar's Pulitzer has dragged the argument towards the broader culture, joining dots between race, politics, class and artistic value. The dissent about Lamar's award can be divided into three occasionally interlinked categories: downright racism; inveterate scepticism about hip-hop's musical validity; and, most reasonably, anxiety about classical music's increasingly peripheral stature. The New York Times claimed Damn had "sent a jolt through the classical music world, where living composers often struggle to be heard – competing not only against those who work in more popular genres, but also the long-dead greats who make up the classical canon. Some pooh-poohed Mr Lamar's win – one classical composer called it 'insulting' on his Facebook page – but many others embraced it".
When Stephen King won
Perhaps the closest analogy came from the literary world, no stranger to snobbery itself. In 2003, Stephen King was granted The Lifetime Medal for Distinguished Contribution by America's bastion of letters, the National Book Awards. King was the first writer of genuinely populist fiction (horror, mysteries, science fiction) to be so honoured: the medal had hitherto been reserved for serious authors such as Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, or Arthur Miller.
The upper echelons of the literary world balked at bestowing such credibility upon a writer of “penny dreadfuls” as Yale Professor Harold Bloom spluttered: “That they could believe that there is any literary value there or any aesthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony to their own idiocy.”
This sounds eerily similar to Richards' earlier cloth-eared assessment of hip-hop. Lest it be forgotten, the Rolling Stones' now-classic Exile on Main Street was once itself called "ragged" and "impenetrable". And how different, really, are the Rolling Stones from Lamar's own fusion of African-American vernacular and musical heritage (blues, jazz, soul, gospel) married to driving if complex rhythms?
Those already outraged by hip-hop will doubtless be outraged by Damn, Pulitzer or no Pulitzer: Lamar's lyrics are designed to provoke, making plentiful use of explicit sexist and racial epithets, and employ the very rhythmic technological trickery that will doubtless drive Richards mad.
Such dismissals dismiss the bravura wit of Lamar's rhymes and the virtuoso verve with which he delivers them. Sceptics should listen to the tongue-twisting desolation of Feel, or the anti-Trump broadside Lust which tries to turn despair into a rallying call: "We all woke up, tryna tune to the daily news/Lookin' for confirmation, hopin' election wasn't true/All of us worried, all of us buried, and our feeling's deep/None of us married to his proposal, make us feel cheap/Still and sad, distraught and mad, tell the neighbour 'bout it."
What is beyond doubt is that Lamar is elevating hip-hop to new levels. Audiences are already paying attention: sales of Damn rose 236 per cent after the win. Who knows what's next? Today the Pulitzer. Tomorrow the Nobel? It doesn't sound quite so outlandish any more.