It’s rare to listen to an album in its entirety and think “Wow this should really win a Pulitzer!” Most of the time music fails to reach the certain level of artistry and craftsmanship we equate to actual journalism. Usually, with musicians, we’re thinking in terms of Grammy’s or how many Maserati’s they have parked outside their crib. But when Kendrick Lamar lost the Grammy for both Best Album of the Year and Best Record of the Year to Bruno Mars, little did he know what was in store for his sonically earth shattering album. Despite taking home the lot of wins for the rap category at the 2018 Grammy’s, the award waiting for him far surpassed any ‘prestigious’ superlative chosen from a small committee of the modern day bourgeois.
An award usually reserved for world-changing journalists, writers, and creators, Lamar’s work for his 2017 double platinum album “DAMN.” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in April 2018. As the 41st African American man to receive the award, 3rd African American to win in music, and 1st in the rap category, you can practically hear the tiny fortuitous cracks snap as the glass ceiling comes crashing down.
Regarded as the best rapper alive by Rolling Stone, the Pulitzer board expressed in a statement that Lamar’s album was “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” Rap legends like Tupac, Biggie, Jay-Z and even Queen Bey have never seen this type of honor bestowed upon their music.
Lamar, an Angelino from the neighborhood of Compton in South Central Los Angeles digs into the grittiness of life as an African American, delving into everyday fears, reputation for his race, his unchangeable and un-chosen DNA, police brutality, and the perils of life in the hood.
However, it was not just the difficult subject matter that got Lamar to where he is today, but rather the combination between his masterful wordsmith abilities and the execution of majestic melodies that transpired relatability across the world. With numerous double meanings, and latent signifiers through both verse and video, it’s no wonder this album leaves you with a sea of emotions to muddle through as you ponder, press rewind, and then repeat.
For those who have disregarded rap as having no artistic merit I encourage you to listen to “DAMN.” with an open mind. In “FEAR.” you experience the different phases of fear and what that portrayal has meant though multiple critical stages in Lamar’s life. The transportation through this age-related matter displays an intense level of maturity as he questions God in a direct, poetic, and at times existential manner. From childhood fears to teenage fears he questions how he’ll die in verses not uncommon for African Americans in South Central.
“I’ll prolly die walkin’ back from the candy house/ I’ll prolly die ‘cause these colors are standin’ out/ I’ll prolly die because I ain’t know Demarcus was snitchin’/ I’ll prolly die thinkin’ that me and your hood was cool.” As the song lengthens Lamar advances through to his current state of age and fears rapping: “At 27 years old, my biggest fear was bein’ judged/ How they look at me reflect on myself, my family, my city/ I’m talkin’ fear, fear that my humbleness is gone/ I’m talkin’ fear, fear that love ain’t livin’ here no more/ I’m talkin’ fear, fear that its’ wickedness or weakness/ Fear, whatever it is, both is distinctive/ Fear, what happens on Earth stays on Earth/ And I can’t take these feelings.”
In an interview with Zach Lowe, he elaborates on this intense internal reflection, “What’s going now, we focusing on self. You see different nationalities and cultures are coming together and actually standing up for themselves, you get what I’m saying? And I think that’s a pure reflection of this record prior to it even happening. Prior to it even coming out. We say ‘Okay we can’t control what’s going on out there.’ There’s a whole ‘nother power that be, so what we can do now is we can start coming together and figuring out our own problems and our own solutions and I think that’s — I believe, I know — that this is what this album reflects.”
Throughout the entire album, the questions he asks of himself and the audience permeate through his psychologically genius level of anecdotes, complex verses, and lines in his narratives paired with unrivaled beats and melodies. In “LUST.”, a song depicting the mundanity of life, at first you think he’s retelling the same story until the nuances seep in.
Each verse begins with “Wake up in the mornin’ thinkin’ ’bout money/ Kick your feet up” before splitting off into a male or female version of daily life. Lamar ties all the various characters’ stories together towards the end through the use of ‘we’ rather than ‘you’ — and lets those looming thoughts on everyone’s minds about our political environment interrupt the routine: “We all woke up, tryna tune to the daily news/ Lookin’ for confirmation, hopin’ election wasn’t true.”
But they don’t stay for long as the emotions fade back to everyday life, “Still and sad, distraught and mad, tell the neighbor ’bout it/ Bet they agree, parade the streets with your voice proudly/ Time passin’, things change/ Revertin’ back to our daily programs/ Stuck in our ways, lust.” He then goes on to challenge his own lust: “Lately, I feel like I been lusting over the fame/ Lately, we lust on the same routine of shame,” and gives a nod to other songs on his album as he continues with “Lust turns into fear.” Here, is where you begin to see how the songs bleed together through the message.
The album is comprised of 12 songs: “BLOOD.”, “DNA.”, “YAH.”, “ELEMENT.”, “FEEL.”, “LOYALTY.”, “PRIDE.”, “HUMBLE.”, “LUST.”, “LOVE.”, “XXX.”, and “FEAR.”. “DAMN.” is a truly emotional and riveting journey, one that journalist, Clinton Yates summed up in his The Undefeated article as: “The rubric that Kenny has created is sophisticated, elegant, rugged, whimsical, scary, fun, dark, and joyous all at once.”
It is an album that not only reaches beyond the accolade of a ‘must listen’, but an album that has been cemented into our cultural hall of fame as an important piece of introspective journalism about the emotions and stages of life as an African American in today’s society.
Perhaps nothing and no one has deserved the Pulitzer more than Kendrick Lamar, and personally, we can’t wait to see where Kung Fu Kenny and his rap will take us next.
Photo by Paola Kudacki for GQ.