Kendrick Lamar, intimate storyteller, social commentator, avant-jazz artist, and popular rapper, can add an unexpected accolade to his résumé. His album DAMN. has won the 2018 Pulitzer prize for music. That marks the first time in the prize’s 75-year history that it was awarded to a musical work that is not jazz or classical.
Lamar’s fourth studio album has been nearly universally lauded. “DAMN. is a widescreen masterpiece of rap, full of expensive beats, furious rhymes, and peerless storytelling about Kendrick’s destiny in America,” writes Pitchfork in its 9.2-score review. According to a Quartz analysis, Lamar’s albums are the best rated of the 21st century, of any genre.
But even for an artist so widely respected, this is a surprise. Throughout the history of the Pulitzer’s music prize it’s generally been given to classical music, and in more recent years, highly abstract opera or orchestra music, with some jazz recordings sprinkled in between. Last year’s winner was the opera Angel’s Bone, by composer Du Yun.
The competition this year was similar: DAMN. beat out two other finalists, a string quartet performed at Carnegie Hall and a cantata written for chamber choir, guitar, and percussion.
Dana Caney, the prize’s administrator, tells Billboard the choice came about this way: “[The jurors] were considering a piece of music they felt had hip-hop influences and said, ‘Well if we’re considering a piece of music that has hip-hop influences, why aren’t we considering hip-hop?’ And someone said, ‘That’s exactly what we should do.’ And then someone said, ‘We should be considering Kendrick Lamar’ and the group said “absolutely.”