What were they thinking?
That’s my question, often enough, when I get the news of prizes awarded to works of music. The Oscar for Best Original Song this year went to “Remember Me,” written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez for the Pixar/Disney animated film Coco. But why that piece of trite sentimental pastiche instead of, say, “Mystery of Love,” the subversively lyrical valentine of same-sex love written by Sufjan Stevens for Call Me by Your Name? The Grammy for Album of the Year went to 24K Magic by Bruno Mars. But why that slick, numbingly predictable confection instead of, say, DAMN., a blunt and ravaging statement in hip-hop by Kendrick Lamar?
With the announcement that DAMN. has won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, Lamar has clearly gotten a kind of validation that makes the Grammy loss seem a distant inconsequence. At the same time, quite a few people seem to be wondering, “What were they thinking?” How could a piece of popular music of any kind, let alone a hip-hop album, qualify for an honor awarded in the past to composers of symphonies, operas, and works of intellectually ambitious avant-garde jazz? What has Kendrick Lamar done to put him in a class with Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, and Ornette Coleman?
I can try to answer, having served on the jury for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music, along with the violinist Regina Carter, the Metropolitan Opera executive Paul Crema, the scholar and author Farah Jasmine Griffin, and the composer David Lang (a past winner of the Music Prize). A tradition of circumspection regarding the closed-door deliberations prevents me from discussing the process in its particulars. But, as a critic as well as a juror in ardent support of DAMN., I can tell you exactly what I was thinking.
Our charge as a jury was pretty much the same as my job as a critic for The Nation: to listen carefully, with open ears and an equally open mind, to the music under consideration—more than 180 pieces in all, as the director of the Pulitzers, Dana Canedy, has acknowledged. The focus was on the work itself and its effect when it is heard. Considerations of genre, style, authorship, performance history, critical reputation, or commercial success had little or no bearing. The only clerical matter considered was when a piece had been performed or recorded. After all, the Pulitzer is a prize for new music, not an award for a body of work or lifetime achievement.
I supported DAMN. for its high quality, not to make a political statement—and, most certainly, not to reposition the Pulitzers as a popularity prize. That said, I see no logic in punishing DAMN. or any other work for its success in the marketplace, much as a smash Broadway musical such as Hamilton had not been disqualified for a Pulitzer for Drama in 2016, and a hit novel such as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad* had not been rejected for being a best seller. Popularity is in itself neither proof nor disproof of aesthetic value.
DAMN. is a fearsome work of hip-hop that stands soundly, unapologetically on the virtues of its art form. It’s proudly unpretentious but nuanced musically and rhythmically, and lyrically multilayered. If Lamar’s previous album, To Pimp a Butterfly, was more overtly artful—arty even, with a textural complexity that is, at points, nearly symphonic—DAMN. derives its greatness not from its suggestions of Western classical music and jazz, but through its assertion of pride in its own genre’s identity, one grounded in contemporary African-American life and potently communicative to anyone listening without prejudice. Unlike Hamilton, which employed hip-hop virtuosically to redefine the art of musical theater, DAMN. does not represent hip-hop as a resource, but hip-hop as hip-hop—hip-hop as a kind of music.
Some of the tongue-flapping over the selection of DAMN. for a Pulitzer casts it as an incursion into the terrains of classical music and jazz, forms of music widely recognized by established institutions as serious arts today. This is demeaning to vernacular and commercial forms of music. To say that disreputable or popular forms are not qualified for a serious honor is to say they are unserious as arts, and that is simply untrue, in a great many instances, and unfair.
Another problem with this argument is a basic one of misunderstanding the purpose of the Pulitzer Prize. It is not a prize for classical or jazz but a prize for music—music, with no restrictions of genre or style. Some critics of the choice of DAMN. have wondered if an award for hip-hop has now blasted down the doors to the Pulitzer Prizes, opening them to countless other styles of music—rock and pop and, my God, even country. If so, I see no hazard other than the processing burden for the prize administrators. The challenge for future juries will be to maintain the mission of honoring high standards of excellence in an expanding sphere of music, and there lie both a sizable burden and huge new opportunity.
*Correction: An earlier version of this essay misstated the title of Jennifer Egan’s novel. It has been corrected.