Kendrick Lamar and the Pulitzer Prize: Here’s why he’s the best songwriter alive

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 28:  Recording artist Kendrick Lamar performs onstage at the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018 in New York City.  (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 28: Recording artist Kendrick Lamar performs onstage at the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS)
Published May 15
Updated May 17

He won. He actually won.

It’s still hard to believe a month later, still a mouthful of joy to say aloud: "Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar."

After three Album of the Year Grammy losses in five years, most recently to Bruno Mars in February, here was an unexpected, unprecedented victory that no one can take from King Kendrick.

This wasn’t like Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize or Time naming Bono its Person of the Year. Nor was it some lame lifetime achievement award bestowed a generation too late. This was one of the most popular rappers alive winning one of the most prestigious prizes in American arts and letters — a prize no pop artist had ever won — in direct response to one of his most vital works.

"A virtuosic song collection," the Pulitzer board called Lamar’s 2017 album DAMN., "unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life."

Damn, indeed.

Your mileage may vary on whether Lamar’s latest LP is his greatest — 2012’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City and 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly are also modern rap classics. But on the eve of his second Tampa concert in nine months, on May 22 at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, K-Dot’s game-changing Pulitzer win invites deeper scrutiny — and not just from fans who have been listening for years.

Because, honestly, there are people out there who still don’t get it. (Of course there are — how else could this decade’s most acclaimed artist be 0-for-3 in the Grammys’ top race?) Some might spin DAMN. and feel bludgeoned by its vulgarity, its f-words and b-words and coarse talk of blood and sex. Others might note Lamar didn’t write DAMN. in a vacuum — there are nearly three dozen writers, producers and beatmakers listed in the credits, including the co-writer of Adele’s Hello and all four members of U2. That’s three times as many as on Taylor Swift’s Reputation.

None of this should discredit Lamar’s handiwork on DAMN., or mean the man ought to hand back his Pulitzer. It just means we, like the cognoscenti who gave Lamar the prize, should delve deeper into Lamar’s "vernacular authenticity," his "rhythmic dynamism," his "affecting vignettes," to explore why he’s the premier songwriter of his time.

So to anyone who still doubts it, sit down, be humble and listen up. Here are three examples of the specific lyrical genius Lamar splayed across DAMN. If you want to boil down exactly why he won a Pulitzer, start here.

DNA.

Sample lyric: "I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA / I got hustle, though, ambition flow inside my DNA ... I know murder, conviction, burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption / scholars, fathers dead with kids / and I wish I was fed forgiveness."

DAMN. dished up the biggest hit of Lamar’s career in HUMBLE., but the thundering DNA. is just as good. It’s so irresistibly catchy that it’s easy to overlook its unconventional structure — a three-minute pop song with no hooks and no choruses, just two long verses in two distinct cadences over two different beats. Lamar here samples Geraldo Rivera’s Fox News critique of his lyrics, and also boasts about "sleeping in a villa, sipping from a Grammy" — typical hip-hop defiance and braggadocio, right? Except he is at the same time addressing the opposite end of his listenership, fans who believe he has gone soft, gone Hollywood, who believe "you ain’t s--- without a body on your belt." He describes himself as an "antisocial extrovert," and as proud as DNA. seems on the surface, the state of mind he’s describing actually sounds pretty lonely: "Watching all the snakes, curving all the fakes / phone never on, I don’t conversate."

FEAR.

Sample lyric: "I can’t take these feelings with me, so hopefully they disperse / within 14 tracks, carried out over wax / wondering if I’m living through fear or living through rap."

DAMN. tackles weighty issues (God, guns, race, love, money) in a deeply autobiographical way — never more so than on FEAR., an eight-minute confessional about Lamar’s greatest fears at three stages of his life, set to a hypnotic soul sample. At first he is 7, rapping from the perspective of his aggrieved mother, who threatens to whip him over wasted food and dirty clothes and unfinished homework: "You know my patience running thin / I got beaucoup payments to make / county building’s on my ass, trying to take my food stamps away." Then he is 17, pondering all the ways a black man might die young in America: "Walking back from the candy store ... because these colors are standing out ... from one of these bats and blue badges, body-slammed on black and white paint, my bones snapping." Finally, he is 27 and a superstar, fearing he’ll lose his creativity or humility or connection to the real world, or simply that an accountant will scam him out of everything he has earned. "My newfound life made all of me magnified / How many accolades do I need to block denial?" In an interview with Vice, Lamar called FEAR. the best rhyme he has ever written: "It’s completely honest."

DUCKWORTH.

Sample lyric: "You take two strangers and put them in random predicaments / give them a soul so they can make their own choices and live with it."

Here Lamar shares a tale so unlikely it sounds apocryphal, but he swears it actually happened. When he was a child, his father, Kenneth "Ducky" Duckworth, was working the counter at a KFC in Compton. Ducky knew the place had been robbed before, and there was a tough guy named Anthony who seemed like he might do it again — so Ducky gave him extra chicken and biscuits to keep him happy: "Anthony liked him and then let him slide / They didn’t kill him; in fact, it look like they’re the last to survive." Turns out the tough guy was Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith, a future record producer who in the early 2000s would discover and sign a teenage rapper named ... Kendrick Lamar. In the story of his life Lamar finds a universal parable of patience and mercy and karma: "Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence? / Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg could be serving life / while I grow up without a father and die in a gunfight."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336.
Follow @JayCridlin.

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