Regan: “DAMN.” Good Music

Kendrick Lamar’s music deserves more than praise.

by Joseph Regan | 4/19/18 2:00am

The Pulitzer Prize Board describes Kendrick Lamar’s album “DAMN.” as “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”

This description is fitting, but it is not enough. N. Scott Momaday’s novel “House Made of Dawn,” presents a Native American on trial who realizes that “word by word by word these men were disposing of him in language....” The Pulitzer Prize Board did its most significant work by awarding a deserving artist a Pulitzer, but now it is in the hands of other publications to engage with the elements of this album that make it deserving of a Pulitzer. It is passively dismissive to read so much about the implications of Lamar’s achievement and almost nothing about the music itself.

My personal experience does not allow me to intimately understand “DAMN.,” but truly great art raises the personal to the universal. When I listen to the beginning bars of “DNA.” — “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA” — goosebumps pepper my flesh, because although the man is totally different from me, I love the truth he speaks through a hypnotic flow alongside the thrum of the drums.

Of his Pulitzer, the New Yorker wrote that “calling Lamar simply a relevant choice comes too close to diminishing his deep expertise.” The New Yorker misses the point. It focuses on criticism that pontificates instead of thoroughly engaging with the album or the artist. This problem is best encapsulated by a National Review article from 2017 that stated, “Most conservatives do not like hip-hop.” The article goes on to argue, “The conservative mind ought to rethink hip-hop, a sometimes-great and always uniquely American art form.” These statements are written by people who do not seem to have actually listened to what they believe they are “rehabilitating.”

Kendrick Lamar does not need rehabilitation or appreciation; he needs real people to listen to the real stuff he is saying. He would probably appreciate his music, rather than its origins, being the subject of more writing. Publications are derelict in their duty to the public if they do not accurately reflect the subject of their reports. When reporters write about traumatic events, there is a catharsis in the way the writing becomes like fiction, in that it seeks to show instead of tell. Anton Chekhov wrote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” This is the kind of writing that is needed, and so far it is not apparent in the places where it should be.

Dialogue invites awareness, but the Pulitzer Prize Board accomplished this by awarding the prize to Kendrick Lamar. A productive discussion that does not implicitly lower hip-hop below the past winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, by focusing on music’s social impact rather than its technical merits, would have been fantastic, but it does not occur. In the New York Times article entitled “Kendrick Lamar Shakes Up The Pulitzer Game: Let’s Discuss,” the title is wrong in itself. While the writers have good intentions, the discussion devolves into what social media commenters like and dislike, similar to discussions that were had after Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The problem then, and the problem now, is a seeming inability to shake up the national conversation around the actual feeling of “DAMN.”

The feeling of “DAMN.” is violent, profane, urgent, profound and addictive. The first sound any human being hears is the beat of a heart in the dark. Often, artists manipulate people’s natural human preference for this, and many listen to idiotic lyrics paired to a beat so massive they can’t help but bop their heads. What Kendrick Lamar does, along with many other past and present hip-hop artists, is find a way to tell the truth by pairing lyrics to beat to flow to rhyme to the overall theme of the album in a way that creates a hermetically sealed bomb of human emotion. As Chuck D said in “He Got Game,” “It might feel good/It might sound a lil sumthin’/But damn the game if it don’t mean nuthin’/What is game?/Who got game?/Where’s the game?”

Kendrick Lamar has game, and it means a whole lot.

Articles of the kind I am calling for may be forthcoming, and some did proliferate after the release of “DAMN.” For something as monumental as Kendrick Lamar winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music in the same nation that Trump won the presidency not too long before the release of “DAMN.,” the subject of the conversation needs to pivot to the art of the artist.