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Kendrick Lamar becomes first pop musician to win Pulitzer Prize for music

In this July 7, 2017, file photo, Kendrick Lamar performs during the Festival d'ete de Quebec in Quebec City.

Amy Harris/The Associated Press

Kendrick Lamar has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music, the first pop artist to win the august honour. Mr. Lamar won for his 2017 album DAMN, an eloquent, artful and fiercely soulful album of hip hop and modern R&B.

With its 2018 prize, Pulitzer is telling the rest of world what many already know to be true: That Mr. Lamar, at 30 years old, is the greatest rapper alive, with a lyrical wizardry that is at turns poignant and knife-blade sharp – always fearless and often socially relevant.

Moreover, in honouring Mr. Lamar, the first non-classical or jazz artist to win the award, Pulitzer places hip hop on par with works by the greatest composers of the world. The other finalists for the prize were Quartet, by Michael Gilbertson and Sound from the Bench, by Ted Hearne.

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Read more: Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN: If it makes you uneasy, it has done its job

The win for Mr. Lamar, announced Monday, follows three days which saw the dramatic soprano Jessye Norman win the $100,000 Glenn Gould Prize, rock-music pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe enshrined into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and singer Beyoncé dominate the Coachella Music and Arts Festival with a history-making performance.

These are significant African-American accomplishments in the worlds where podiums and backrooms are dominated by white people. It is glaring that they all happened around the same time the most viral online video involved two black men getting arrested for being black in a Starbucks coffee shop in Philadelphia.

In giving its prize, the Pulitzer jury praised DAMN – which was nominated but did not win the best-album Grammy earlier this year – as a “virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”

Granted, that is not the snazziest pop review ever written. Better is Pitchfork’s assessment, in which Matthew Trammell wrote that DAMN was a “widescreen masterpiece of rap, full of expensive beats, furious rhymes, and peerless storytelling about Kendrick’s destiny in America.”

Awards, however, are like destinies, in that they are often delayed. Mr. Lamar’s epochal 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly is probably as Pulitzer-worthy as DAMN. Then again, it was Mr. Lamar’s excellent exploits after the release of To Pimp a Butterfly that may have put the hip-hop visionary in the minds of the Pulitzer people in the first place.

One of Butterfly’s songs, Alright, was embraced by the Black Lives Matter movement as an unofficial anthem. “We been hurt, been down before,” Mr. Lamar rapped, echoing the promises and struggles of the civil-rights era and Martin Luther King Jr. “We gon’ be alright.” At the 2016 Grammys, Mr. Lamar began his dramatic presentation of Alright and The Blacker the Berry dressed as part of a chain gang.

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In addition to Ms. Tharpe (and Dire Straits, Moody Blues, Bon Jovi and the Cars) gaining entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this past weekend, the civil-rights era soul-jazz siren Nina Simone also made it past the gatekeepers. The late Ms. Simone is known for her recordings of Strange Fruit (about the lynching of African Americans), Mississippi Goddam and Young, Gifted and Black.

“Oh but my joy of today, is that we can all be proud to say,” sang Ms. Simone, “To be young, gifted and black, is where it’s at.”

In the desert at Coachella – where Beyoncé integrated vocal snippets of Malcolm X and referenced Ms. Simone’s Lilac Wine – and among the chin-scratching Pulitzer crowd, heads nod in agreement.

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