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That’s Right, No. 1 With a Pulitzer

Lamar’s Shocking Win and Rap’s Overdue Recognition

NEW YORK--The Pulitzer Prizes startled a lot of people this year with an award that’s usually greeted as an afterthought: the music prize, which went to Kendrick Lamar’s album “DAMN.” It was not only the first time a music Pulitzer was given to a hip-hop album, but also to any work outside the more rarefied precincts of classical and, occasionally, jazz composition--indeed, to an album that reached No. 1 on the pop chart. And while it has been reported that “DAMN.” was the unanimous choice of the Pulitzer music jury, the award was met in other quarters with disgruntlement and even outrage. Here, Zachary Woolfe, the classical music editor of The New York Times, and Jon Pareles, the chief pop music critic, discuss the choice.

Jon Pareles

To me, this prize is as overdue as it was unexpected. When I look at the Pulitzers across the board, what I overwhelmingly see rewarded are journalistic virtues: fact-gathering, vivid detail, storytelling, topicality, verbal dexterity and, often, real-world impact after publication. It’s an award for hard-won persuasiveness. Well hello, hip-hop.

Zachary Woolee

One comment I read on Facebook, from a gifted young composer and pianist, was “I have complicated feelings about this, but also, I mean, about damn time.” Yes, and yes. There seems to be broad agreement, which I join, about the quality of “DAMN.”--its complexity and sensitivity, its seductive confidence and unity, its dense weaving of the personal and political, the religious and sexual. But there is also wariness, which I join, about an opening of the prize--not to hip-hop, per se, but to music that has achieved blockbuster commercial success. This is now officially one fewer guaranteed platform--which, yes, should be open to many genres--for noncommercial work, which scrapes by on grants, fellowships, commissions and, yes, awards.


That response is similar to many publishing-world reactions when Bob Dylan got the Nobel Prize in Literature--that a promotional opportunity was being lost for something worthy but more obscure, preferably between hard covers. A literary figure who had changed the way an entire generation looked at words and ideas was supposed to forgo the award because, well, he’d reached too many people? Do we really want to put a sales ceiling on what should get an award? The New York Times and The New Yorker already have a lot of subscribers … uh-oh. ..To read more, subscribe to the blackchronicle newspaper