Kendrick Lamar just won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for music for his album DAMN. and made history in the process.
Announcing the prize, the Pulitzer board called DAMN. “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”
The Pulitzer for music, which was first awarded in 1943, generally goes to contemporary classical music; a quick scan through the list of previous winners reveals a lot of operas and symphonies. Lamar, however, is a hip-hop artist, and DAMN. is a hip-hop album. Lamar is now not only the first person to win a Pulitzer for a hip-hop album but the first person to win a Pulitzer for any music that’s not classical or jazz.
And even jazz, it’s worth noting, is a late addition to the Pulitzers. The Pulitzer jury once recommended giving the award to Duke Ellington in 1965, but the board declined to honor anyone that year. The first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer, Wynton Marsalis, didn’t take home his prize until 1997.
The Pulitzer for music is overwhelmingly homogeneous not only in the genres it recognizes but also in the race and gender of the musicians it honors. No woman won the award until 1983, and no African American won until 1996.
Lamar’s win is in some ways a vindication of a series of reforms that the Pulitzer Prize Board enacted between 1996 and 2004 that allowed it to gradually open up eligibility to music outside of the so-called “larger forms” — i.e., music beyond contemporary classical music.
But Lamar’s win is also just a recognition that while DAMN. may not have taken home the Grammy for Album of the Year, it’s still an iconic damn album.