Here’s one among the many provocative questions raised by Kendrick Lamar’s Damn winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music: Is Damn the best work of rap or pop ever made? The Pulitzers, whose only stated criteria is “for distinguished musical composition by an American” in the eligible timeframe, have previously only awarded classical and jazz artists. By making an exception for Lamar, the Pulitzers could be seen as saying that he is, well, the exception. That only Lamar’s blazingly intricate 14-track reckoning with vice and Geraldo Rivera can compete with rarefied types like Caroline Shaw (winner in 2013), Wynton Marsalis (1997), or Aaron Copland (1945). That the rest of pop—not to mention the rest of hip-hop—remains of an unmentionable tier, except maybe for Bob Dylan, who won a special citation from the Pulitzers in 2008.
This is a dubious and snobbish thought, yes—but it’s a result of the inevitably thorny logic that always goes along with artistic awards-giving. That it took until 2018 for the Pulitzers to award a work of rap or pop might say something about the evolution of those genres, and Damn really is a work of staggering, arguably historic, sophistication. I look forward to reading the sure-to-come articles positioning it as the greatest pop work ever (even above Migos, who are Better Than the Beatles™). But that discussion will be a sideshow. The rapper’s win is probably more significant to the reputation of the prize itself than to the prizewinner; it almost feels as though the Pulitzers won a Kendrick Lamar, and not the other way around.
After all, the Lamar news will be, no doubt, the means through which lots of people learn that the Pulitzers have a music category at all. Its favored genres, classical or jazz, have long been on the commercial wane, and their practitioners can frequently be found defending their relevance to the wider world. In that sense, there’s an argument against Lamar’s inclusion, and for the previous pseudo-ban on pop, on purely altruistic grounds. The attention and prize money the Pulitzers can provide would be, relatively, of greater impact to the careers of Michael Gilbertson and Ted Hearne, the composers who are runners-up this year, than to the platinum-certified Lamar. But to decide a prize based on who “needs” it more would undermine its credibility, which is to say, its worth.