Kendrick Lamar's Pulitzer is a groundbreaking moment for hip-hop.
In 2015, when Kendrick Lamar was nominated eleven times in nine Grammy categories for To Pimp A Butterfly, he voiced his hope that hip hop would be recognized. “Ultimately, for the hip-hop community, I would love for us to win them all,” he said in an interview with the New York Times. “Because we deserve that.” Unfortunately, it was not to be, as To Pimp A Butterfly lost to Taylor Swift’s 1989 for album of the year. At the 60th annual Grammy Awards in February, Lamar once again found himself up for nomination, this time for his fourth studio album DAMN.. As before, he was denied the preeminent award. It was Lamar’s third consecutive snub from the Recording Academy, with each loss sparking sharp criticism from all corners of the internet that the institution is out of touch and lagging behind the times. Only twice has the coveted trophy gone to a hip hop album: Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill won in 1999, and Outkast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below won in 2004.
Hip hop is the most significant music of our time. Firmly rooted in the black experience in America, it's an art form that now reaches a global audience in a way that the genre’s forefathers never could have anticipated. And while the industry continues to profit off of black artists, it remains reluctant to celebrate the work of such individuals. It is for this reason that Lamar’s unprecedented Pulitzer Prize for DAMN. is so sweet. On Monday, Lamar officially became the first non-classical or jazz artist to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. According to The Ringer, in the 75 years that the Pulitzer Prize for music has existed, not one hip hop album has been nominated. Of course, the genre is still very much in its infancy, having only been around for roughly forty years. But this deserved victory is more than just a standalone acknowledgement of a brilliant album; it’s a dramatic breakthrough, a paradigm shifting moment for hip hop and the music industry as a whole. For “one of the last bastions of high-cultural authority” to validate Lamar’s music is a watershed cultural phenomenon, and yet another instance of an older, iconic institution slowly adjusting to a quickly changing landscape.
This highest of honors isn’t so much an accreditation of DAMN. as it is a recognition of Lamar and his body of work. He’s one of the most consequential artists of our time, achieving what no other musician has before. The three landmark albums that he has released within the past five years have been critically acclaimed and commercially successful. Each album has shown a remarkable musical progression from the one that came before. And each one has subsequently changed hip hop’s standards, proving that Lamar remains at the top of his game. The historical significance of his work is unparalleled in contemporary music: good kid, m.A.A.d city, To Pimp A Butterfly and DAMN. are works of art, with Lamar standing as the voice of a generation. He’s an innovative storyteller and a social commentator, an old soul whose music reflects the ongoing struggles of the disenfranchised and oppressed.
DAMN. is not Lamar’s career-defining masterpiece, his magnum opus if you will; that honor unequivocally lies with To Pimp A Butterfly. Although DAMN. is more of a return to conventional hip hop, it is still of tremendous cultural relevance. It’s a politically charged and timely release on which Lamar ponders his relationships with his loved ones and his community, as he grapples with his success amidst America’s political and cultural turmoil. The Pulitzer board describes the 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."
The flowery description, while accurate, does not even begin to scratch the surface of the importance of Lamar’s work. His Pulitzer is hip hop’s triumph; though it’s a long overdue victory, it proves that hip hop belongs in the cultural canon. Hip hop has become the mainstream, and it’s finally being accepted as more than just a moment in music history. The increasing openness toward a genre that continues to break artistic ground is historic; it validates pop culture as valuable, living art. Kendrick Lamar is helping hip hop garner the rightful credit that it deserves, and one can only hope that future creatives will see this as an opportunity to fervently push the boundaries of music at a high level. It’s a monumental, praise-worthy moment for the Pulitzers and Lamar that opens up a door of boundless possibilities for the artists of tomorrow.