Kendrick Lamar has won the Pulitzer for Music for his album DAMN. and we should all take a moment to understand the historical implication of this moment.
You often hear people talk about modern musicians as the Mozart or Beethoven of our era. I’ve personally had these discussions about artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Trent Reznor and there are arguments to be made that these musicians are just as lyrical and melodic as the classical music canonical composers.
However, discussions between music-lovers about the significance of their favorite artists in the broader history of music is a far cry from an institution such as the Pulitzer for Music consecrating one of them alongside Aaron Copland, George Crumb, Wynton Marsalis, John Adam, and Jennifer Higdon.
I mention Wynton Marsalis because he was the first jazz artist to win the prize in 1997. He was only able to do so because the previous year the board of the Pulitzer Prize had decided to change its rules.
From 1996 onwards the “musical composition” could be music that wasn’t necessarily composed in what we consider the classical-music framework. After Wynton, there was an honorable, posthumous prize for Thelonious Monk in 2006, and Ornette Coleman won the prize in 2007 for his Sound Grammar album.
Within this expansion of musical compositions to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music over the past 20 or so years, it actually makes sense for Kendrick Lamar to be the first winner operating outside of the world of jazz and classical music. Both of these genres have been going through a reinvention within this period. (For example, there’s Indie Classical, where a Juilliard-trained composer such as Nico Muhly works together with artists such as Björk.)
More importantly to the Kendrick Lamar story, there’s been some heavy crossover between jazz and hip-hop. In the UK, the jazz scene, nurtured by bands such as Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland, and with Shabaka Hutchings as the spider-in-the-web has morphed into a funky, danceable hip-hop-influenced music. The musical pinnacle being the album Black Focus by Yussef Kamaal and the recognition coming the way of the Sons of Kemet’s new album getting a major label release on Sony.
A similar melting of styles has happened in Los Angeles, where Flying Lotus has given jazz an electronic edge and where Kamasi Washington has become the standard-bearer for what is already referred to as the new West Coast jazz sound.
Furthermore, Kendrick Lamar himself sits within that West Coast jazz scene. Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, and Flying Lotus contributing to the 2015 masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly. And it’s not just Kendrick Lamar embracing jazz in his music, this is something that hip-hop itself is founded on.
But there’s more to it than that. Hip-hop and DAMN., in particular, is also a work of pop music. And with that, the real sense of history comes with awarding the Pulitzer to Kendrick Lamar. That “distinguished musical composition of significant dimension” can now describe any music.
Getting back to those discussions on which artists are like other great artists of the past. I recently heard Gilles Peterson say that he got to interview Kamasi Washington and Shabaka Hutchings in the same week. This had given him the feeling that Kamasi is our modern day John Coltrane, exploring the cosmic immenseness of our music. Shabaka, on the other hand, is our modern day Miles Davis continuously pushing the boundaries of what “jazz” is. I wonder where that leaves Kendrick Lamar?