If Kendrick Lamar keeps this up, he may just be this generation’s Duke Ellington.
Kendrick Lamar’s recent award of the Pulitzer Prize for his 2017 album Damn. is as much of a cultural watershed moment as Duke Ellington’s infamous Carnegie Hall debut in 1943. At this pivotal point in Ellington’s career, he had already cemented his status as one of the most accomplished and prolific musicians of his generation. With hits such as “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Mood Indigo,” “It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing),” “Take the A Train,” and many others, Ellington was sonically redefining black music while serving as one of the central sirens of a burgeoning, modern black subjectivity. However, Ellington’s performance of his groundbreaking jazz symphony Black, Brown and Beige in Carnegie Hall, the bastion of American high culture, took the predominately white, elitist classical music community by storm with an unapologetically black display of virtuosity and social consciousness. A product of Ellington’s rigorous exploration of the black experience in America, Black, Brown, and Beige was, in Ellington’s words, “a parallel of the history of the American Negro.” The performance signaled the long overdue recognition that black music was, in fact, an art form and worthy of respect.
Similar to Ellington, Lamar’s popularity and status has grown to the extent that few members of the jazz and classical community can ignore neither his unquestionable talent nor his growing catalog of boundary shattering musical contributions. Of course, Damn. is not the first Hip-Hop album deserving of a Pulitzer Prize, however Hip-Hop fans have been crying in the wilderness that Lamar’s seemingly prophetic presence has forever altered the Hip-Hop soundscape, especially following the debut of his second album Good Kid Mad City in 2012. Further solidifying his stature, Lamar’s rhizomatic 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly seemed to capture the zeitgeist of a black community confronting astonishing acts of police brutality and discrimination in the Post-Obama era. Combining piercing, lyrical velocity, jazz, funk, protest, and a haunting recording of an interview of Tupac Shakur, Lamar offered a multifaceted, sonic expression of the African diaspora as the proverbial balm in Gilead for a music industry increasingly inundated with overly formulaic production tactics and dumbed down lyrical content.
Lamar’s release of Damn. continues his streak of remarkable craftsmanship, offering a rich tableau of self-interrogation, social critique, an unflinching exploration of the contradictions of black life, and his personal experiences of fame and success. The structure of the album is itself an achievement, a distinguishing trait that would draw even the most ardent classical musician’s interest. From broken melodies, to unpredictable shifts in tempos, timbre, and vocal registers, the album’s ability to mesh Afro-surrealism with the classic, bass-heavy rhythms of 90s-era rap is a testament to dexterous arranging and production from A-list composers, including Sounwave, Mike WiLL Made-It, and 9th Wonder. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Lamar’s craft is that he has found a way to create albums that offer something for everyone without duplicating the distinguishing qualities of his projects, switching effortlessly between radio friendly tunes, such as “Loyalty” featuring Rihanna, to the combative feel of “Element.”
Chief among Lamar’s appeal is his mastery of the African-American rhetorical tradition of storytelling. “Duckworth” features Lamar’s harrowing tale of an encounter between his father, “Ducky,” and “Anthony” (a.k.a. Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith, who would later sign Lamar to his label) during a robbery of a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Lamar states, “Once upon a time inside the Nickerson Garden projects / The object was to process and digest poverty’s dialect” before launching into a suspenseful and cinematic depiction of Anthony’s entry into the perilous terrain of the West Coast drug trade and his desperate decision to rob the very establishment where Lamar’s father is employed. Similar to his previous work on songs, such as “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” Lamar offers regal, uncompromising portrayals of violence, fear, pain, and crises of faith in ways that offer vulnerability and authenticity, while managing to avoid profligacy. Embedded within these narratives lie vexing philosophical and moral examinations (“So many relatives tellin’ us, sellin’ us devilish works / Killin’ us, crime, intelligent, felonious / Prevalent proposition with 9’s) coupled with constant mixtures of the sacred and profane (“Oh Lamar, Hail Mary and marijuana, times is hard / Pray with the hooligans, shadows all in the dark”). Old heads, schooled to the game of black folklore and literary traditions, will hear not only flashes of Ice Cube, Slick Rick, and Scarface but also the tall tales of Shine, Mumbo Jumbo, Song of Solomon, Native Son, and Invisible Man.
Lamar’s constant self-reflexivity always seems to outshine even his most explicit moments of masculine braggadocio, and his oeuvre brims with subtle critiques of toxic black masculinity. For example, on the song “Fear,” Lamar interrogates what appears to be the cyclical force of terror in his life, which includes everything from his mother’s physical threats (“Seven years old, think you run this house by yourself? / Nigga, you gon’ fear me if you don’t fear no one else) to the danger involved in being a 17-year-old black male in America (I’ll prolly die anonymous, I’ll prolly die with promises / I’ll prolly die walkin’ back home from the candy house) to his lingering sense of survivor’s guilt and imposter syndrome (“… is God playin’ a joke me? / Is it for the moment, and will he see me as Job? Take it from me and leave me worse than I was before?”). Additionally, Lamar has excelled in his celebration and exploration of women in his music (for example, “Tammy’s Song” and “If These Walls Could Talk”). This may be why the feminist critique of a line from his song “Humble” (“I'm so fuckin' sick and tired of the Photoshop / Show me somethin' natural like afro on Richard Pryor / Show me somethin' natural like ass with some stretchmarks”) was received as constructive criticism rather than an outright rebuke. More importantly, such criticism suggested feminists were taking his music seriously, signaling that he could, and would, be held to a much higher standard than his counterparts.
Although Ellington’s performance was celebrated as a major victory for black music in America, criticism that he was either abandoning the true tenants of jazz or that he was corrupting American music abounded. Even some of the most laudatory commentary could not resist detracting from his accomplishments with pathetic, time-honored dismissals amounting to “pretty good for a negro.” However, the recognition of Damn. feels right on time for Lamar. Further, it suggests that Hip-Hop has become such an undeniable cultural force in America that there is simply no escaping its influence. Lamar may have a few more decades of productivity before he catches up to Ellington, but, at his current breakneck pace, he is well on his way.