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Music

Kendrick Lamar becomes first rapper to win a Pulitzer Prize for his ‘virtuosic’ album ‘DAMN.’

Lamar’s victory overshadowed other winners, including fiction awardee Andrew Sean Greer

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 8:56am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 9:03pm

Pulitzer judges upended decades of tradition by awarding its music prize Monday to Kendrick Lamar for his rap album DAMN., a sharp departure from the classical and jazz works the body have consistently favoured.

The Pulitzers were once so restrictive that an advisory board rejected giving a prize to Duke Ellington. The closest precedent to Lamar’s win came in 2008 when Bob Dylan received an honorary Pulitzer.

The group’s board called Lamar’s album a “virtuosic song collection” and said it captures “the modern African American life.” Classical composers were named as finalists: Michael Gilberton for Quartet and Ted Hearne for Sound from the Bench.

Humble, from the album DAMN. Warning: lyrics may offend

Lamar has been lauded for his deep lyrical content, politically charged live performances, and his profound mix of hip-hop, spoken word, jazz, soul, funk, poetry and African sounds. Since emerging on the music scene with the 2011 album Section. 80, he has achieved the perfect mix of commercial appeal and critical respect.

The Pulitzer board has awarded special honours to Dylan, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Hank Williams, but a popular figure like Lamar has never won the prize for music. In 1997, Wynton Marsalis became the first jazz act to win the Pulitzer Prize for music.

That makes Lamar’s win that much more important: His platinum-selling major-label albums – good kid, m.A.A.d city, To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN. – became works of art, with Lamar writing songs about blackness, street life, police brutality, perseverance, survival and self-worth. His piercing and sharp raps helped him become the voice of the generation, and easily ascend as the leader in hip-hop and cross over to audiences outside of rap, from rock to pop to jazz. He’s also been a dominator on the charts, having achieved two dozen Top 40 hits, including a No 1 success with Humble, and he has collaborated with the likes of U2, Taylor Swift, Imagine Dragons, Rihanna and Beyoncé.

Lamar’s musical success helped him win 12 Grammy Awards, though all three of his major-label albums have lost in the top category – album of the year. Each loss has been criticised by the music community, launching the conversation about how the Recording Academy might be out of touch. DAMN. lost album of the year to Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic in January.

The rapper, born in Compton, California, was hand-picked by Black Panther director Ryan Coogler to curate an album to accompany the ubiquitously successful film, giving Lamar yet again another No 1 effort and highly praised project.

DAMN., released on April 14, 2017, won five Grammys, including best rap album, and the album topped several year-end lists by critics, including NPR, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, BBC News, Complex and Vulture.

The decision to award a Pulitzer to Lamar, which drew praise and surprise online, quickly overshadowed other arts winners, including Andrew Sean Greer’s win in the fiction category.

Greer’s novel Less tells the comic story about the misbegotten adventures of a middle-aged novelist. It didn’t receive the same attention as Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, winner of the National Book Award, or George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. But it was widely praised as poignant and funny and was ranked among the year’s best by The Washington Post, which called it an “elegantly” told story of a man who “loses everything: his lover, his suitcase, his beard, his dignity.”

The drama prize went to Martyna Majok Cost of Living, a drama featuring four characters, two of them disabled. Caroline Fraser’s work on author Laura Ingalls Wilder, Prairie Fires, won for biography. Jack E. Davis’ The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea won for history, while the general nonfiction prize went to James Forman Jr’s Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.

Frank Bidart’s Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016, winner of a National Book Award last fall, received the Pulitzer for poetry. Bidart, who turns 80 next month, is one of the country’s most acclaimed poets and has been a Pulitzer finalist before.

“Everything I’ve done is in that book, so it really does mean a lot,” Bidart said Monday. “It means more than any of the times I’ve been a finalist in the past.”

Lamar hardly needed the help, but Pulitzers often boost sales for winning authors, playwrights and musicians and ensure attention for future works. They can serve as the summation of a long career, such as Bidart’s, or help establish a younger artist.

In the journalism categories, The New York Times and The New Yorker won the Pulitzer Prize for public service on Monday for explosive reporting that brought down Harvey Weinstein and spawned a cultural watershed on the issue of sexual harassment.

Ryan Kelly, a photographer who captured the moment a car struck several people protesting against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville on his last day of work for a Virginia newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography.

The New York Times and The Washington Post won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for illuminating the ongoing investigation into possible contacts between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian officials.