I hesitated before writing about DAMN., and its historic Pulitzer win. I’m no music expert, much less a critic, and I know even less about musical evaluation than the complex history of rap itself — a varied amalgam of musicology and cultural expression, neither of which I’m really qualified to evaluate. But there’s always been another dimension to the art, emerging out of the ’80s and ’90s and finding itself so purely expressed in the sizzling poetry of DAMN. — political visibility, and historical witness. These are my arenas. They’re also the reason DAMN. unequivocally deserved its Pulitzer win, and why the rest of us could only hope to be able to express our truths and our fears as succinctly, artfully and authentically as Compton’s Kendrick Duckworth, DAMN.’s “Kung-Fu Kenny,” America’s Kendrick Lamar.
It would seem remiss of me to not begin with the musical legitimacy of the album, part of the reason it not only deserves its recent accolade but is also eligible at all to be considered, its salient messages aside. The Pulitzer music jury selected it by unanimous decision, calling its collection of 14 dynamic tracks “virtuosic” in nature. The choice to honor a popular, profitable idiom — one that is abrasively, outspokenly so — is a significant one, though not necessarily new. Music critics have previously lamented the jury’s failure to recognize jazz when it was avant-garde, to recognize minimalism in its heyday — perhaps it is a sign of necessary evolution that they are not making the same mistake with hip-hop, an art in its zenith.
The board’s administrator Dana Cadey stated, “It shines a light on hip-hop in a completely different way. This is a big moment of hip-hop music, and a big moment for the Pulitzers.” This year’s selection is somewhat of a sociopolitical statement in and of itself. In other words, are the distinguished institutions beginning to legitimize rap? And does rap really need or care to receive this sort of affirmation? From this perspective, it seems the institutions are reaching to catch up with rap phenomenon, rather than the other way around.
More importantly, though, the album’s considerable musical chops pale in significance to its complex array of political and cultural messages. DAMN. is not just another example of the palpable self-awareness of rap, but of Kendrick’s considerable talent in building testaments to his own modern black experience in America, and those of his community. The album is a piece of historical witness; a snapshot of a culture whose ability to weave the personal and the general, sexual and devotional, the joyous and violent, cannot possibly be overlooked. Somehow in its poetry and interwoven nature, DAMN. surpasses the political messages of its contemporaries to challenge a white-dominant industry to publish, publicize and celebrate the experiences of forgotten populations.
In this manner, Lamar doesn’t just push musical boundaries — he certainly does innovate within a rapidly dynamic genre; but he also has created in this album a vibrant act of political journalism. He recognizes the backlash from white-dominant narratives against rap and its nature, an art largely expressive of certain pieces of black culture — “DNA.” is a particularly poignant track, and includes a sample from FOX News’ Geraldo Rivera accusing rap of “doing more damage to the African American community than racism” — and seems to offer a pithy, subversive answer: Fine. We will not discuss jewelry, women, parties — instead we will pull back the veil on the America left behind in a racialized power structure, the framework Rivera and others perpetuate. Thus, DAMN. is an audacious counter-offer: Let’s see if they enjoy that any better.
Common might be clever; Jay-Z is often palpably blunt (re: “The Story of OJ”). But Kendrick’s political expression is poetic — and truly, artfully personal and general, balancing both the testament of his own life and times as well as the injustices still pervasive in what he synthesizes as a general black experience. “FEEL.,” “DNA.” and especially “DUCKWORTH.,” were painful self-examinations, finding a personal narrative within a system and an experience so naturally political, and so often politicized — often by opponents to movements of justice or advancement. By contrast, tracks like “HUMBLE.” and “BLOOD.” explore a dramatic, often philosophical, occasionally Biblical struggle to satisfy both morality and survival. These are a collection of pieces that artistically explore the effects of actions of others, the silence and negligence of stakeholders in an unequal society — those who are, often, his listeners. Lamar stands out especially because his witness is nuanced; there is a conflict and a divide within himself, expressed equally as raw as the divide he observes in American society. As journalist Julia Craven so adeptly noted, “‘DAMN.’ is a comprehensive explanation of the black struggle today that deserves its spot in the history books … Lamar is documenting the reality we live in. ‘DAMN.’ is really an oral history.”
To bear witness is a political act, as necessary as campaigning, voting and volunteering; to act politically through art is a part of our civil discourse, and an integral part of the manner in which American democracy has always operated. Recognition of Lamar’s work exists dually as recognition of his struggle; it is hard to imagine that the young artist of “Swimming Pools,” could have ever been mentioned in the same breath as Zora Neale Hurston or Maya Angelou, but his poetry also counts. Gritty and street-wise, biting and unafraid, Lamar made the direction of his bars clear to all as early as his Grammy performance in 2016 — standing in handcuffs in front of a white silhouette of the African continent, labeled “Compton.” He performed before millions of American — and white — eyes.
The power of the human narrative expressed within oppressive institutions is not always written in the thinkpieces of national newspapers or the chapters of nonfiction novels or testified in letters read aloud to Congress — sometimes it hides in plain sight, in mainstream commercialized products. But Lamar is not hiding; in his case, this power shines.
Lily Vaughan is a junior majoring in history and political science. Her column,“Playing Politics,” ran Fridays.