On April 16, 2018, the Pulitzer Prize Board awards the Pulitzer Prize for Music to rapper Kendrick Lamar for his 2017 album, DAMN. It was the first time the award had gone to a musical work outside the genres of classical music and jazz, a watershed moment for the Pulitzers and Lamar and a sign of the American cultural elite’s recognition of hip-hop as a legitimate artistic medium.
Born and raised in Compton, California, Lamar grew up in a community with a singular connection to the genre, and even witnessed two idols of 90s rap, Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre, filming the video for their legendary single “California Love” in his neighborhood as a child. Even as rap took over the American music scene, many music and art critics refused to take it seriously, an attitude that only began to change in the 2000s as artists like Kanye West—whose 2013 tour featured Lamar as an opener—pushed it to new heights of musical complexity and social relevance. Lamar became known for the social commentary in his music, which Pitchfork has called “radio-friendly but overtly political,” as well as the breadth of his influences, which range from the West Coast rappers of his youth to jazz and spoken word. Plenty of Lamar’s lyrics referenced police brutality, systemic racism and other political topics, but many critics have praised his albums, DAMN. in particular, for placing personal stories within this context of societal conflict.
The Pulitzer committee called DAMN. “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” Administrator Dana Canedy said that the decision to give the award to Lamar was unanimous, adding that it was “a big moment for hip-hop music and a big moment for the Pulitzers.” Lamar’s win was widely seen as a deserved recognition of his talent as well as an overdue acknowledgement of hip-hop’s contributions to American culture. Although some in the classical music community criticized the selection, former winners and nominees praised it. Ted Hearne, a composer who was nominated alongside Lamar, called him “one of the greatest living American composers, for sure.”