Arts and Entertainment

DAMN. A 2018 Controversy.

Kendrick Lamar’s recent accolade may seem unexpected, but it also introduces things previously left unsaid that need to be addressed.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Over the years, the Pulitzer Prize in Music, awarded to an American artist for meritorious work that has been performed first in the United States, has been given to composers from the classical or jazz genres. However, the 2018 prize was awarded to Kendrick Lamar for his album “DAMN.” provoking controversy about the prize’s direction and purpose. Granted, it is human nature to ostracize or even be repulsed by a break in tradition. But that is a naive reason to ignore the background issues brought to the table in “DAMN.” that are being exposed in the discord.

The fact that there was outrage in the first place underlines hip-hop music’s struggle to be recognized as a “real” genre, even though it has existed for nearly half a century. Despite having surpassed rock as the most popular genre of music in America, it continues to be slammed even by its supporters as nothing more than a speaker’s voice with instrumentals, lacking the musical complexity necessary to win a Pulitzer. This narrow-minded stereotype prevents individuals from acknowledging that rap is capable of being more than some sort of accompaniment to movement on the dance floor. In fact, it is capable of highlighting and illustrating various themes through its own rhythms and poetry.

But perhaps it is the evocative narratives of Lamar’s artistry that leave his critics in discomfort and guilt-induced rage. “DAMN.” is a muckraker of tracks that expose social corruption within American society. The first track alone covers racially charged themes: police brutality, the unfairness of the justice system against African Americans, and how African Americans are perceived as menaces to society. These themes are often brushed over because race elicits awkwardness (for white people in power), and people choose to evade this awkwardness even if it’s at the expense of human life. “DAMN.” not only addresses the elephant in the room, but pulls it by the ears and causes it to scream and cry for everyone to hear, even those trying to plug their ears. Call it a disruption, call it an outcry, but these are themes that are real and raw, and the occasional 10-second headline on the news just can’t substitute Lamar’s messages in that same time interval.

Those who criticize the Pulitzer judges for not choosing a piece that is more “traditional” fail to realize that “traditional” is a label that doesn’t exist. Have they forgotten that even within the classical music community, iconoclasts have existed? Take Igor Stravinsky, for instance: his infamous ballet, The Rite of Spring, was so unorthodox upon its release that a riot took place in the theater. But as the decades passed, he came to be known as one of the musical geniuses of the 20th century with other famous composers enabling his influence to weave its way into their own work. Likewise, Lamar is experiencing that same phenomenon. He is an innovator in his own respect, and it is not far-fetched to believe that in the years to come he will be regarded as a pioneer, opening the doors for future rap/hip-hop artists whose works are worthy of the Pulitzer Prize.

The genre of a musical work does not affect its level of “goodness.” It does not affect how worthy it is of praise. “DAMN.” possesses the integrity and musical ingenuity that used to define the Pulitzer Prize. The novelty of its tracks and themes should not provoke doubt in the future of music. It is an innovative reminder of how change is inevitable and provocative. Perhaps Lamar himself was aware of this prior to even having won the award, for in the track “ELEMENT.,” he exclaims, “I don’t give a/I don’t give a/I don’t give a f***/I’m willin’ to die for this s***… They won’t take me out of my element,” suggesting that he is devoted to his craft and dedicates his entire being to it. And that in itself is worthy of its own accolade.