“My left stroke just went viral”—a Pulitzer Prize winner. Monday afternoon, Kendrick Lamar’s world-conquering 2017 album Damn. was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music, making him the first rapper thus honored, and for that matter the first pop artist in any genre thus honored. (Free-jazz deity Ornette Coleman’s 2007 win was viewed as a rare stretch for an award that generally confines itself to the opera and classical realms; Bob Dylan’s much-debated 2008 Pulitzer nod was a special citation.) In bestowing the honor, the committee hailed 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.” All of that plus Rihanna! This song has never been less appropriate.
No rapper has ever been nominated for this award, nor regarded publicly as a serious candidate: It’s a genuine shock for Lamar to have infiltrated one of the last bastions of high-cultural authority not yet infiltrated and dominated by hip-hop. From the Pulitzers’ perspective, this decision has a refreshingly crowd-pleasing air: Lamar’s fellow victors this year, from the joint nods to The New York Times and The New Yorker for their Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo coverage to New York art critic Jerry Saltz to freelance GQ reporter Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, are likewise richly deserving and pointedly forward-thinking. But Damn. stands alone for its pure surprise. This song just won a Pulitzer! It beat out a string quartet and “a five-movement cantata for chamber choir, electric guitar and percussion”!
There is a not-unwelcome element of Twitter pandering to this, and Twitter responded, as per usual, with an outburst of joy undercut by the fact that almost everyone made the same two jokes. The first: Lamar now only needs an Emmy, an Oscar, and a Tony to become the first rapper to win a PEGOT. The second: How in blazes did Damn. lose the Album of the Year Grammy to Bruno Mars? “Versace on the Floor” beat a Pulitzer Prize winner! Taylor Swift beat a Pulitzer Prize winner! Macklemore beat a Pulitzer Prize winner! In January, watching Lamar endure yet another Grammy snub, it was easy to fear that rap music had hit a cultural-institution ceiling, too blunt and vibrant to receive awards that fancied themselves bastions of refinement. But this song just won a Pulitzer!
It’s additionally heartening that the Pulitzers tapped a rapper at the top of his game: Lamar is not a teenager or a SoundCloud renegade, but he’s likewise far from an elder statesman on the gentle but noticeable downslope of his career. (Pressed earlier this year to pick the first rapper who might conceivably vie for a Pulitzer, you might’ve come up with Jay-Z, who is still capable of excellent work, but no longer presents himself as the genre’s youth leader and biggest innovator.) This is a gigantic, rousing leap for the Pulitzers, and opens up myriad and even more delightful possibilities in the years to come. At this rate, by this time next year, Kendrick might get to hand the baton directly to Cardi B.