Kendrick Lamar, on Monday, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his 2017 DAMN. It is but rather the first nonclassical or jazz work to win the award. The Pulitzer board’s reasoning? DAMN., they said, “captured the complexity of African-American life.” History, made.
Since 2012, with the release of his good kid, m.A.A.d city — and even before then, with a series of acclaimed mixtapes — Lamar has cemented himself as rap’s foremost cultural critic. His music is a palette of relevant topics such as gang violence, police brutality, systemic inequality, mental health and depression, women’s rights and survivor’s remorse. DAMN.’s running theme is Kendrick lamenting upon the idea that no one prayed for him, and that he, a young black man from Compton, California, was left to fend for himself in a world that yielded no other result but early death. We can’t know which songs in particular pushed the Pulitzer judges, but “FEAR.” likely played a part.
If I could smoke fear away I’d roll that m—–f—– up / And then I’d take two puffs, he says on the record (co-written by The Alchemist). Focusing on the specific ages of 7, 17 and 27, Lamar deeply explores the concept of fear and how it dictates decision-making processes. The terror of upsetting his strict mother is the first verse. The second verse takes on the terror of possibly losing his life via gang violence, or at the hands of police. And the third verse delves into self-doubt — the fear of losing the reputation he’s built for himself. The song’s calling card is hopelessness.
I’m talkin’ fear, fear that humbleness is gone/ I’m talkin’ fear, fear that love ain’t livin’ here no more, he opines with a tidal wave of anguish pouring out. I’m talkin’ fear, fear that it’s wickedness or weakness/ Fear, whatever it is, both is distinctive. “FEAR.” is Kendrick’s finest song, according to the Pulitzer winner and 2018 Summer Jam headliner himself: “These verses are completely honest.”
Pulitzer cited “vernacular authenticity” as a determining factor in awarding a Pulitzer to DAMN. That’s simply another way of saying, “Damn, I didn’t know it was like that?” Lamar’s music — much like James Baldwin’s words, Marvin Gaye’s harmonies, Angela Davis’ valor, Maya Angelou’s poems, or Muhammad Ali’s swagger — is representative of the generation in which he is a leader. Speaking of Baldwin, he of course said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” That rage in Lamar was certainly too much for the Pulitzer board to overlook.