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Saturday, April 21, 2018


The announcement of the Pulitzer Prizes usually generates no controversy, but this year the Music Prize did--it went to Kendrick Lamar, for his album DAMN. It's the first time the prize went to a music form other than classical or jazz (and the first jazz prize only goes back twenty years).

There was some blowback. The first was among the classical world, who didn't necessarily criticize Lamar, but felt that the Pulitzer was the last place for modern classical composers, who operate in a very small vacuum, get recognized. But this argument basically says, "Even if we don't have the best music, we want a prize anyway." To their credit, both of the other finalists, who are classical composers, championed Lamar's selection.

The other argument is more complicated. The Pulitzer organization, in their award, cited that Damn. is "a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life." Some voices from the African American community were dismayed that a singer who commonly uses the word "nigga" and refers to women as "bitches" is representative of black American life.

I have a tremendous hole in my brain when it comes to hip-hop. I've tried to listen to it a few times. I bought the greatest hits of Tupac Shakur and only got to the second or third song. I think my resistance is two-fold: one, it does not speak to me on a cultural level. I have no experience with what rappers live through, and it's like listening to something in a foreign language. Two, the music is off-putting to me. I need a melody. Some hip-hop does have melody, but not enough, and it seems repetitious and hard on the ear.

That being said, I did listen to DAMN. (it was free with my Amazon Prime membership) and I didn't hate it. I managed to listen to the whole thing, and some parts were musically brilliant. The album is full of songs with one word titles that are bedrocks in anyone's life, like "Loyalty," "Fear," "Love," and "God." Some of the songs are catchy, like "Element," but unfortunately the lyrics contain some epithets that are not exactly forward-thinking when it comes to women:

"If I gotta slap a pussy-ass nigga, I'mma make it look sexy
If I gotta go hard on a bitch, I'mma make it look sexy"

But as a lyricist Lamar can't be dismissed. I think lyrics are the greatest contribution the rap and hip-hop movement has made--these guys are poets. I think this passage from "Humble" is dizzying in its expression:

"Aye, I remember syrup sandwiches and crime allowances
Finesse a nigga with some counterfeits
But now I'm counting this Parmesan where my accountant lives
in fact I'm down at this D'usśe with my boo bae,
tastes like kool aid for the analysts
Girl, I can buy your ass the world with my paystub
Ooh that pussy good, won't you sit it on my taste bloods
I get way too petty once you let me do the extras
Pull up on your block, then break it down we playing Tetris
A.M. to the P.M., P.M. to the A.M. funk
Piss out your per diem you just gotta hate em, funk
If I quit your BM I still ride Mercedes, funk
If I quit this season I still be the greatest, funk
My left stroke just went viral
Right stroke put lil baby in a spiral
Soprano C, we like to keep it on a high note
It's levels to it, you and I know, bitch be humble"

One thing the award has inspired is a bit of a parlor game as to what albums from the past, if the board had awarded pop albums, might have won. Surely something by Bob Dylan--Blood on the Tracks? Born in the U.S.A by Bruce Springsteen? Something by Joni Mitchell (even though she's Canadian)? Cast your mind back to sixty years worth of American popular music and pick your favorites.

I would imagine the Pulitzers will go back to classical music next year, with a pop album breaking through every once in a while, to set tongues wagging anew.

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