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Jeff Miers: On Kendrick Lamar, Pulitzers and the future of 'noncommercial' art

It's about damn time.

The 2018 Pulitzer Prizes were announced this week, and a win in one category in particular turned some heads and encouraged the wagging of some tongues. The music prize went to hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar and his album "DAMN." This is the first time a hip-hop artist has won a music Pulitzer, which seems absurd on the face of it, but becomes more understandable when we acknowledge the prize has historically been awarded to classical composers, with the occasional jazz artist making a showing.

In fact, commercially successful music has never really been acknowledged by the Pulitzer music prize. The award is one of the last bastions for noncommercial artists, who otherwise scrape by largely on the kindness of commissions. These are folks who never see the upper echelons of the Billboard charts, where Lamar's "DAMN" claimed the top spot shortly following its April 2017 release, and where all 14 of the album's songs eventually took up residence.

Without a whole lot of effort, one can easily cast this as a battle between the "art for art's sake" and "art for money's sake" armies. Doing so is disingenuous, though.

Few things are truly that simple. Though it is understandable a barely scraping-by classical composer or jazz musician might be scratching their head and wondering why pop music needs to infiltrate the small-but-rarefied world of the Pulitzers when it already has all the spoils any musician might ever reasonably dream of – and then some – the truth demands a more nuanced examination to unearth.

Because when you peel away the popularity, it's not hard to see that "DAMN" is in fact noncommercial art. It's dense, it's daring, it's weird, it's off-putting, it's demanding, and it is wholly redolent of the age within which it was produced. That it is also incredibly popular seems more like a fluke than an inevitability.

From the beginning, hip-hop has been outsider art, a form of rhythmic journalism that found largely disadvantaged and wildly creative people – the vast majority of them African-Americans – employing the limited tools at their disposal in order to mark their passage through time and space.

It was a collage art, mostly by necessity – if poor urban dwellers couldn’t afford expensive instruments or studio technology, they'd find a way to redeploy what already existed in service of a bold new mission.  They'd cut, they'd paste, they'd copy, they'd sample, both randomly and with surgical precision. They'd keep it funky, and equally importantly, they'd keep it honest.

In its beginnings, and in its heart of hearts, hip-hop music was anti-establishment precisely because it had no way to gain entry into the establishment. Its success was a result of a genuine grassroots movement, which was then capitalized upon by the corporate music establishment, once it could no longer safely ignore it. None of this is to suggest there hasn’t been some terrible, cynical, poorly constructed hip-hop made by artists who offered every indication they were about the money more than the art. But it is indisputably true that hip-hop completely changed the game for popular music – linguistically, rhythmically, production-wise – and like its rock music analogs (punk, alternative, indie) forced a DIY ethic and a ribald, rabid individualism into the mainstream conversation.

Rather than lament hip-hop's infringement into the hallowed halls of noncommercial art, those hard-working composers and musicians who looked to the Pulitzers as one of the only spotlights they were ever likely to bask beneath should both celebrate and emulate. For Lamar's win is a win for outsider art that managed to break down walls and earn commercial success without compromising its values. This is surely what every artist desires, secretly or otherwise. Being poor and slaving away in obscurity may build character, but it isn’t fun and it's tough to sustain.

My only quibble with the Lamar Pulitzer? They should've given it to him in 2015, for "To Pimp a Butterfly." It's an even better album than "DAMN."

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