Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Styles of DAMN

When news broke yesterday about Kendrick Lamar winning a Pulitzer for his album DAMN, social media (not surprisingly) responded with Strong Opinions. Equally unsurprisingly, much of my Twitter felt it was about time. A few lone voices (which I saw only through retweets) balked at the fact that hip hop was now being elevated to the status of classical music or jazz, which many seem to think are the only repertoires that have won Pulitzers in the past--my guess is that Hank Williams, who won posthumously in 2010, might not feel at home in either of those categorizations. One of the recurring discussions from my friends on Twitter was the fact that while they liked DAMN, and it was great and everything, it was no To Pimp A Butterfly, Lamar's 2015 acclaimed album that, infamously, did not win the Grammy Album of the Year. As I have processed this flurry of discussion around DAMN, I have realized that I agree with the committee in this case: this is Lamar's strongest album to date and most worthy of this award.

On Style

Ken Ueno and Du Yun performing at MATA, April 2018
One of the most prominent names, Pulitzer-wise, to celebrate Lamar's victory was the previous Pulitzer winner, Du Yun. Last year was also historic, as it marked the first time all of the finalists were women. Du Yun won for her opera Angel's Bone, which ostensibly fits into the category of 'classical' music, but her works do not all easily belong here. Her 2011 album Shark in You was released as her 'pop diva alter ego duYun' and would more likely be heard in a club than a concert hall (if you're curious, my favorite track is 'Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye Remake').

What do we gain by forcing Du Yun and her contemporaries into the narrow category of 'classical' composers? She is classically trained, but her music ranges far beyond this style. These rigid divides create artificial barriers, barriers that the artists themselves may be working to dismantle.

On Styles

When I say that Lamar's DAMN is his best album to date, I hope we can generally agree that this is not meant as a criticism of his previous albums. On the contrary! I am a huge fan of To Pimp A Butterfly (and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City as well, for that matter). All of them deserve immense accolades, success, and, minimally, a Grammy for Album of the Year over, say, to name an artist at random, Macklemore. But DAMN contains a universe: virtuoso performance, complex interwoven themes, and a remarkable ability to range from the deeply personal to the broadly theological. The opening and final tracks (along with some of the tracks in between, particularly 'FEAR') root this album in the tradition of hip hop that foregrounds the anxiety of living as a black man in America--precisely why Notorious B.I.G was Ready to Die. At the same time, it addresses Trump's America, a world governed by 'PRIDE,' 'LUST,' and the FOX-News-styled announcers that lead off 'DNA'.

DAMN is easy to listen to while being very hard to understand; the tracks often flow easily, making the lyrics easier to gloss. One of my theories about why so many people are invoking To Pimp A Butterfly is that this listening experience is on the whole, more germane--as an example, who among us has not spent most of a car ride or an afternoon listening to 'King Kunte' endlessly on repeat? The album contains, essentially, a history of black music in its tracks, ranging from funk ('King Kunte') to jazz (the stunningly languid opening to 'How Much A Dollar Cost') to scat (For Free). Even though these tracks are often subject to interruption, there are many points where album is so engaging musically that it becomes easy to lose the lyrics in the sound, despite the fact that the words are crafted so beautifully.

But even at his finest on To Pimp A Butterfly, I am not sure that these examples top the sheer virtuosity and power of what Lamar unleashes in the final minute of 'DNA'. While there are narrative structures on his previous albums, I continue to spend more time contemplating the themes in 'PRIDE' and particularly how to reinterpret them in light of the next track, 'HUMBLE.' Echoes of Lamar's previous albums abound--'FEAR' is essentially a gloss on the narratives that tied together Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and To Pimp A Butterfly. Truly, this is a remarkable work of art and one that does not yield its meaning easily. If you are the type of person who is more likely to throw on his earlier albums (and I think that most of us are this type of person) because they are catchier and easier to listen to, then it is worth taking the time to remember that often the most meaningful works of art are the ones that pose the most formidable challenges for us to understand them.

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