Kendrick Lamar’s content curation is more telling than his Pulitzer Prize for Music
On Monday, April 16, the Pulitzer Prize committee announced that they voted unanimously to award the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music to Kendrick Lamar, rapper/lyricist/composer/genius from Compton by way of Chicago. Frankly, that album should have won any award it was nominated for. His 2017 album DAMN. was a behemoth, striking, relentless documentation of a shocking reality, articulated with celestial prescience.
In their announcement, the Pulitzer voting committee briefly described DAMN. 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.” This is, in effect, a very pedantic way of applauding the use of slang and sick beats to tell the story of a deeply difficult existence for many in the United States—but hey, at least he won for a truly deserved work of art, right?
As many publications have been happy to applaud in the wake of the announcement, Lamar is the first artist to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music for content outside the realm of classical or jazz. Since the Pulitzer was first awarded—in 1943. But most of the articles discussing this “major win for hip-hop,” not to mention a win for the artist himself (not long after he lost Album of the Year to Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic at the 2018 Grammy Awards, the third time he’d been nominated in the category), tend to stop at this revelation.
But one dissenting consensus that has been forming in the days since the jubilant announcement is this: this award may turn out to have done more for the value of the Pulitzer itself than for the value of Lamar’s work. Because it wasn’t the Pulitzer Prize, nor any formal award, that crowned Lamar king of his genre; public opinion, and the opinion of his contemporaries across genres and media, did that a long time ago. The lyrical and harmonic gravity of Lamar’s body of work have carried his impact to the masses, past the self-congratulatory circles of “highbrow” art as they looked in on themselves.
Committees for awards in music, like the Pulitzers or even the Grammys, are less often being considered the gatekeepers of quality content. There are other ways in which artists are being recognized for their achievement and accessibility—in particular, through content curation on a global scale. One project that assigned immense creative control an equally immense release was Lamar’s role as curator for Black Panther: The Album.
In the soundtrack released a week before Marvel Studios’ Black Panther film earlier this year, Lamar does what he does best: describe his experience with intimate, harrowing honesty. As a listed writer and producer on each album track, he delved deep into the film’s storyline and brought on artists who, without fail, enhanced the final product as contributors on an album ultimately attributed to him. But he goes above and beyond his Pulitzer-quality best—by internalizing the motivations in the Black Panther story, and making them parallel to the very tangible, real-world context he is so good at depicting. Just like the world he creates and illustrates in the world of DAMN., he is able to imbue life into the world of Wakanda through musical curation.
Lamar’s ability to tell stories through multiple, conflicting narratives is apparent on both albums—from multiples facets of the gun debate in “XXX.” on DAMN., to T’Challa vs Killmonger in “King’s Dead” on Black Panther: The Album. Beyond that, the musical motifs and structures used in both albums create a ubiquitous environment in which to immerse the listener, without mercy. The sonic landscape created just before the three-minute mark in DAMN.’s “FEEL.” mimics that just before the two-minute mark in “DNA.” “Nobody prayin’ for me” is a frequently-referenced line throughout the album, found in “FEEL.,” “HUMBLE.,” and “ELEMENT.” In Black Panther: The Album, Lamar incorporates West African talking drums at the end of “X,” on the untethered “Bloody Waters” and on the more radio-ready “Big Shot;” he also employs recurring vocal samples as segues throughout the album.
But beyond the self-referential aspects of these albums, Lamar uses similar themes across the two albums. Both show a careful attention to harmonic, lyrical, and technology-reliant motifs; sonic and lyrical album cohesion is paramount. The gating technique used in “FEEL.,” for example, is frequently used in Black Panther: The Album. The album’s “Pray For Me” single takes the concept so pervasive in DAMN., and applies it to a superhero context. This cohesion makes sense; many producers like Sounwave, BadBadNotGood, and Mike Will Made It get producer credits on both albums alongside Lamar.
The role of “musical curator” isn’t entirely new; it has been toyed with before, in varying capacities. The soundtrack to Spike Lee’s He Got Game, for example, featured songs created by Public Enemy for the 1998 film; Tron Legacy, released in 2010, featured a score written entirely by Daft Punk. 2014’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 soundtrack saw one of the first contemporary musical curator assignments, with artist Lorde employed to help craft the arc of the album through an original single and through tracks written by over a dozen other artists.
Black Panther: The Album was different. It was researched and curated in such a way that created cultural cohesion across tracks, through language, artists, and instrumentation. “Redemption,” for example, features artist South African singer Babes Wodumo; “Seasons” features South African artist Sjava singing in Xhosa, one of the country’s native languages. Although Wakanda is a fictional country (spoiler alert), Lamar commits to a cohesive soundscape as concrete as that of director Ryan Coogler’s landscape for the film itself. No small feat, considering that it required a leap of faith from the entire creative team of an absolutely enormous project—you didn’t see Lorde, for example, given carte blanche to write or be featured on every track on the Hunger Games soundtrack.
Black Panther: The Album was important not just because it showed an epically large studio’s commitment to one artist’s vision—it also showed the studio’s trust in him to do justice to a story not entirely his own. Lamar’s ability to adapt across media, across storylines, and across markets has left an indelible mark on his portfolio of work and catapulted him onto an even broader platform. Although it’s a depressing reality to grapple with, it’s true that many people truly listened to Lamar’s work for the first time because of the soundtrack he created; Marvel Studios effectively gave him an outlet through which to share his art with a different audience.
As some have argued that his Pulitzer will catapult him even further, will make his music accessible to even more people, it’s worth thinking about who those “even more people” are. And as many suggest that Lamar may now be legitimized as an artist beyond popular culture with this award, it’s worth thinking about who consider themselves to be the gatekeepers of legitimacy.