Kendrick Lamar deserves the Pulitzer Prize for Music more than Bob Dylan deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Lamar won the 2018 Pulitzer Monday for last year's album "Damn," making the Los Angeles MC one of just a handful of non-classical musicians to receive the prize since it was first awarded in 1943. It goes without saying that he's the first rapper to win it. It couldn't have gone to a more deserving candidate.
The Pulitzer committee isn't a total stranger to social relevance: Wynton Marsalis won the prize in 1997 for "Blood on the Fields," a 2 1/2-hour jazz oratorio about a couple in slavery who escape to freedom. For sheer impact, though, Marsalis is a distant runner-up to Lamar. "Damn" has already been certified double-platinum with the equivalent of 2 million in sales, and the album entered the Billboard 200 albums chart at No. 1, a position it held for four weeks. Commercial success certainly isn't the only measure of impact, though in this case, it's by far the most high-profile album to win the Pulitzer. The prize is awarded to "a distinguished musical composition of significant dimension," and "Damn" qualifies there, too. From a review in The Nation by Marcus J. Moore, who's writing a biography of Lamar:
As a storyteller and craftsman of highly conceptualized albums, Lamar frequently uses the first-person voice as a literary (or listening) device. He wants us to hear how various individual American types—the posturing media pundit, the unconcerned celebrity, the bombastic hustler, the impoverished and fearful mother — have, each in their own way, lost touch with the common good. Or, as Lamar would have it, with God.
Now, about that Dylan contrast. We can debate all day about whether Dylan's lyrics qualify as literature. He's definitely among the most influential writers of the 20th century, and he's a hell of a writer, but is it "literature?" Even if we think so, you get the feeling sometimes that the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel for literature, likes to be contrarian, if not full-on controversial: passing over Borges, for example (or Tolstoy, or James Joyce, or Arthur Miller), or awarding the 1997 prize to the performance artist Dario Fo, probably because he pissed off the Catholic Church. Selecting Dylan in 2016 seems like one of those things the Academy did to avoid being predictable.
Lamar winning the Pulitzer was also decidedly unpredictable. But that's largely because the prize has generally gone to works that have reached a small and specialized audience. Lamar is the first mass-market winner, for an album that feels like an essential part of the national zeitgeist. Dylan's music, too, helped define the idea America — or at least presented one vision of it — and he would have made a first-rate Pulitzer winner, especially for some of his albums in the '60s. Lamar's win this year, though, emphasizes that black voices matter, especially at a historical moment when they're too likely to be shouted down. "Damn" is a powerful album, and the fact that it won a Pulitzer makes a powerful statement.