2017, Music

DAMN. (2017) by Kendrick Lamar

From the moment I heard this had won the Pulitzer, it was inevitable that, when I eventually got to it, I would have expectations, expectations that were not satisfiable. It’s not that the Pulitzer really is much of anything, but it carries a lot of cache with it even though, as with so many awards, it’s just just a represetnation of a small group of people’s preferences and what they think other people will think they should celebrate.

I’ve actually heard very little of Pulitzer-winning music in my life. That I’ve heard ranges from great to pretty run-of-the-mill, with no obvious rhyme or reason as to why it is prize worthy. (This institution has awarded the prize to both Samuel Barber and Elliott Carter within years of each other so go figure.) Looking through the list of winners, I’m struck by a couple of things. First of all, how rarely the winning music has become part of the greater cannon, or at least that I am aware of. For a while, I was a pretty voracious consumer of jazz and “contemporary classical” and I know so few of these works. It’s easy to imagine how irrelevant the jury was starting to feel. Maybe they saw selecting something like this – without precedent in this history of the prize and not because it’s hip hop – as a way of staying relevant.

It’s interesting too that fans feel like this is a step back. Obviously the jury of the Pulitzer are out of touch with popular music – they basically always have been, this is not a popular music prize – but it’s notable how out of touch they are that they selected a Kendrick Lamar album his fans like less than his previous two records. It does seem like critics are also on the Pulitzer side of the divide so maybe the jury took the critics’ word for it.

Lamar benefits from a distinct voice and delivery that makes him stand out to my ears. I certainly recognize his voice much more easily than a number of other rappers. For someone like me, who does not actively listen to hip hop, that is useful. I have no opinion on whether or not he’s currently one of the best rappers in the world. I assume he is but I haven’t the faintest idea.

I’d heard “Humble” a few times when it came out but I don’t think I’d heard anything else at the time. There’s some stuff here that stands out as much as that track but some other stuff that doesn’t really stand out to me.

The production is reasonably invented, certainly integrating some of the samples directly into the raps stands out. (Though I’m sure I’ve heard people do that before and I doubt it’s anywhere as unique as it might sound to me.) I will say that I have heard hip hop albums I find far more interesting from a production standpoint but this does feel like there a pretty consistent aesthetic across everything despite all the producers.

Knowing what I know about the music Pulitzer, it’s stupid that I assume that something that won a Pulitzer would be self-evidently great. But I can’t help it, I still had the expectation when I started listening to it. And… I mean, I think it’s good but I am also very wary of all the fans saying this isn’t as good as the last two. And I take their words much more seriously than the Pulitzer jury’s.


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