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What Does Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize Mean for Rap?

Illustration by Grace O’Keefe

He could have won it for Good Kid M.A.A.D. City. He should have won it for to Pimp a Butterfly. Now, in 2018 Kendrick Lamar, who is unquestionably the most important rapper alive today, is getting recognized on a national stage for his album, DAMN, released in 2017, after winning the Pulitzer Prize. How can I say he’s the most important rapper alive? Because he does things in his music that no one else is doing, breathing new life to hip hop that have never been there before. It helps to destigmatize a genre of music that our generation loves, but the generation before us thinks is dirty, rude, and angry.

In a world that continues to undervalue  the artistic accomplishments of black people, everything counts. This award shows that Lamar is doing things to make this happen. It shows he’s changed the perception of hip hop today. Some people feel that the Pulitzer Prize was only awarded to him because of societal pressure to recognize rap as a major genre of music as it now is, instead of things like jazz, that aren’t as relevant anymore. This might be true, but if the societal pressures are that intense to rightfully recognize him for his work, then it shouldn’t matter the intentions with which the award was given to him.

Some feel that this award is outdated and irrelevant to the generation we live in, but that’s the whole point. By winning this award Lamar becomes relevant to older generations opening the door for recognition. Don’t think this is true? After winning the Pulitzer Prize, which is an award that recognizes achievements in forms of media and arts, sales of Lamar’s album DAMN. increased by 236 percent, and those purchases are not being made by our generation, the people who have been listening to the album for over a year.

He is a catalyst for hip hop. Whether he should or shouldn’t be, whether you agree or disagree, in winning the Pulitzer Prize, there is no one more relevant in hip hop on a national level then Kendrick Lamar today. But is this a good thing? As mentioned before, any recognition for black people in the arts today is extremely important, but part of what makes hip hop cool is the underground aspect of it. 

Artists who just want to make music on Soundcloud about drugs, their lives, and their experiences are relatable and understandable and it’s part of what we love about hip hop. Whether they blow up or not, this is how a lot of artists try to gain notoriety early in their career nowadays. By winning this award, Lamar puts hip hop on a pedestal that maybe hip hop doesn’t want to be on. The scholarly music critics, the curious parents, or the wealthy and simple minded might hear Lamar and think “wow this is great”, and want to expand their interest in hip hop, holding it to the standard of Kendrick Lamar. They will be sorely disappointed, as Lamar is kind of in a class of his own. This is not to say he is the best hip hop artist today, by any stretch of imagination, but there aren’t many artists today doing what he’s doing in the way that he’s doing it. His style is so unique that maybe he’s not the right person to be the catalyst for this genre. This award could put hip hop in an unwanted spotlight where it feels pressure to change. Or it might not. It’s hard to say at this point, because there are so many different ways it could go. One thing is for sure, however, hip hop won’t be the same.

Regardless of where this takes hip hop, if it’s good for it or not, we have to give credit where credit is due. Think of all the rappers today, no, think of all the musicians today. Now compare what they do to what Kendrick Lamar does. There is no other artist who combines social and political relevance with lyrically and musically ingenious work the way that Lamar does, constantly challenging the status quo through his music and redefining the current field of hip hop with each release.

The lethal combination rubs people the wrong way. In fact, it turns some people off from his music all together. “His flow is awkward and inconsistent, his songs are weird and unrelatable, he just isn’t enjoyable to listen to.” These are opinions that we hear with some regularity by people not to fond of Lamar, and I’m not here to say that those opinions are wrong. But regardless of how it sounds or how you feel about Kendrick, be amazed by what his message, be amazed by the picture he’s able to paint, be amazed by how he puts his albums together, and most of all, be amazed by what his music means.