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Courtesy of Top Dawg Entertainment

April 29, 2018

SWAN | This Should Be a Given

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Last week, Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music. This was the first time that a non-classical, non-jazz work was awarded the prize. I love Kendrick Lamar and I thoroughly enjoy Damn., but nevertheless, my reactions to this decision are mixed.

Not, of course, about whether Kendrick Lamar’s work is deserving of such acclaim; indeed, the musical complexity and poetic mastery present on Damn., as well as earlier albums like To Pimp a Butterfly, warrant the utmost critical respect. This recognition of Damn. feels like the subtle righting of a wrong — the Grammy’s pass on awarding it Album of the Year (which went to 24K Magic, a fun yet most tranquil piece of music). Could it be this former Grammy gaffe that is the cause of my reluctance to extol the virtues of the 2017-2018 Pulitzer Board? Probably not, because I don’t really care that much about the Grammys.

My advisor in the music department has a Ph.D. in musicology, but since rap culture and aesthetics form a significant focal point of her research, she has joked before about having actually obtained a doctoral degree in hip-hop. As the academic consideration of hip-hop seems to be forming the arch of my undergraduate music career, I like to think that in some ways I am obtaining a bachelor’s degree in hip-hop studies. In several classes, I have read the same few articles from the early and mid 1990s by authors like Robert Walser, that debate the musical merits of hip-hop. At this time, the genre had existed in the mainstream musical culture for nearly 15 years, assuming that hip-hop’s commercial debut was the 1979 “Rapper’s Delight.” This was a few years after groups like Public Enemy and N.W.A. revolutionized the genre, writing lyrics that were highly political and employing new musical techniques, like sampling, in their works. I suppose it was the rash brilliance of these artists that prompted scholars to begin the process of historicizing hip-hop. Many of these arguments revolved around the central question of whether hip-hop should even be considered musical, let alone possessive of any artistic stature. On the one hand, there were those individuals who could not fathom how this genre, so violent, so raucous, and so seemingly unoriginal, could be music. A rather drastic point from this side of the debate was that hip-hop is merely the inevitable result of the mass production that defines an advanced capitalist society. This argument stems from the fact that hip-hop is repetitive, both within the individual beat of a song but also in the way that sampling borrows from previously released works. These academics, of course, were perhaps hardly aware of the cultural disenfranchisement that forced the cultural bricolage through which turntabling and, eventually, sampling were discovered. Many of these points are, perhaps unbeknownst to their authors, racist in nature as they ignore the blatant poetic profundity of rap as well as the mind-boggling intricacy of hip-hop’s musical tracks. Frankly, however, the other side of the hip-hop aisle, the one that argued in favor its musicality, produced laughable attempts of transcribing rap music as it forced the genre into a purely Western, theoretical framework. I believed that as I was considering these debates 20 years later in an Ivy League course about music studies, so there must have been a general consensus reached that hip-hop is, undoubtedly, music. Right?

Perhaps only so in the insulated world of hip-hop studies. When Damn.’s recognition was announced, I was not particularly swayed and merely regarded it with a nod. It simply feels to have come so entirely late after the invention of hip-hop. Of course Kendrick Lamar deserves a Pulitzer Prize, but the profundity his music speaks for itself. Who cares about the actions of an institution that ignored the genre for so many years? Nevertheless, when I began perusing the comments section of the New York Times’ Facebook post on the award, I was quite awestruck by the lack of support among, well, almost everybody. Many individuals liked to point out the most trivial lyrics of Lamar’s works and lament how artistic standards have fallen. These comments often possessed blatant Western biases that blindly favor Western European ideals of music. At this point, I felt rather naive in thinking that the hip-hop debate ended years ago. And when I thought about it, considering Cornell’s music department — a progressive one — I have witnessed the construction of many aggressive divides between classical enthusiasts and those more receptive to other forms of music.

Maybe the Pulitzer Board’s recognition of Lamar’s achievements is necessary after all. But, maybe antiquated institutions like the Pulitzer Board need to pass into irrelevance in order for the hip-hop debate and other forms of artistic marginalization to end.

Nick Swan is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nswan@cornell.edu. His column Swan’s Song runs alternate Thursdays this semester.