Albums2010 Musings: On Pulitzers
So. Kendrick Lamar's album DAMN. won the Pulitzer Prize last week and there was the predictable out pouring of the usual mixture of 'yassssss' and 'why?' I was surprised because well, I didn't know there was a Pulitzer Prize for Music and because honestly, I hadn't realized that it had taken this long for a hip-hop album to win it.
Looking back at the Albums2010 archives, I was kind of surprised to see some hip-hop pop up here and there. In general, it's not really a genre I connect with, but in many ways, I treat it the same way as I do country. When I hear something I like, I like it. That's lead me to discover groups like Atmosphere, Eyedea, Talib Kweli and Hieroglyphics along the way, but I still wouldn't consider myself an expert enough to talk about hip-hop in any sensible way. I had looked at DAMN. before, toying with the idea of reviewing it, but it's an important album and I'm a white dude who's not that good at writing about music anyway, so I didn't want to attempt it and end up showing the world my ass in the process.
In the frothy wake of the hot takes following Mr. Lamar's win, this Slate article landed in front of me: 'Classical Music Needs Kendrick Lamar More Than It Needs The Pulitzer.' Now this perked me up a bit and having read the article, I spent the afternoon listening first to DAMN. and then to the Black Panther soundtrack, trying to figure out if there was anything to this assertion. And you know what? I think the article might have a point. DAMN. surprised me. It surprised me because of how intricate and detailed the craftsmanship was throughout the album. There's subtlety in the composition of the music and versatility in Lamar's lyrics that honestly made me stand up and pay attention at points.
I liked listening to it as well... that sort of kind of took me aback a little bit, because if I go into an album blind, having never even heard any of it before, normally it takes me a listen or two to really get into an album, you know? But as I was listening to it, I realized that it wasn't too loud or obnoxious, it had waves, you know- like the tide ebbing and flowing and managed to give off a really chill vibe without undermining the gravity of some of the topics that Lamar delves into on the album.
When I followed that up with the Black Panther Soundtrack (I still haven't seen the movie yet... something I really need to fix at some point soonish) I got more of the same. The choices, the music, the craftsmanship... I can see why the original article drew the line between Classical Music and hip-hop, because if Kendrick Lamar composed a symphony or a concierto, I would listen to it.
Here's the thing, though: if he does (and it'd be pretty cool if he did) we shouldn't be that surprised about it. After all, if hip-hop can take a doorstop of a biography about Alexander Hamilton and turn it into a musical that manages to entertain, inform and breathe new life into a figure of the American Revolution we tend to forget about, there's really not a lot it can't do it.
Seriously though: Chernow's biography of Hamilton is 832 pages and just listening to the Hamilton Soundtrack (no, I haven't scored tickets to go and see the damn thing yet- another item amongst many that I'm planning on getting too) it's amazing how the medium can translate what to many would be dry and dusty history into something that's vibrant and alive. It's a stroke of absolute genius to imagine Cabinet Battles between the founding fathers as rap battles, but that's what Lin Manuel Miranda did and while that seems like an idea you'd see in a Schoolhouse Rock somewhere, in Hamilton, it actually works on a level you don't expect. (I loved every second of the Hamilton soundtrack and I can't wait to figure out when we can go and see it in person.)
The underlying point to all the hot takes is this: there's not a lot that hip-hop can't do, it seems. We shouldn't be surprised when an album like DAMN. wins the Pulitzer any more than we should be surprised that someone can take dry and dusty history and turn it into a hip-hop musical that's a smash success. A lot of the classical musical giants will endure for a very long time indeed, but the question we must confront today is this: what music from our century will endure for a very long time indeed? I don't think it matters what the genre is, people notice quality. They notice artistry. They notice craftsmanship. DAMN. has all of that and more- will Kendrick Lamar be in the same orbit as Mozart or Bizet two centuries from now? I don't know. But I wouldn't bet against it.