The album is fascinating, and so are the discussions about what it means.
Mercifully, rock has been displaced by hip-hop, with its daring formal innovations, its blistering polemics and its vital role as a sounding board for powerful social movements. A genre aggressively committed to singles, as opposed to the creaky album-and-tour model that rock stubbornly insists upon even at the indie level, hip-hop provides a running commentary on the culture as it happens — a musical newsfeed in real time.
There’s a practical reason for this: While other musicians were whining about their paltry Spotify royalty checks and trying to monetize their fading careers, hip-hop artists gamed the Web in the 2010s and made it their bullhorn and promotional tool. For them, the Internet isn’t a distribution system, or worse, an evil force siphoning money from musicians; it’s their primary medium for artistic expression.
Hip-hop has cornered the market on innovation. No present-day rock musician can compete with Lamar’s astonishing verbal dexterity or his ability to articulate the inchoate rage of his listeners in tracks that take in the full sweep of vernacular music. But superstars such as Lamar don’t really drive hip-hop culture anyway, not when obscure and iconic artists are posting mind-blowing tracks online at a rate that makes rock seem sclerotic by comparison. To take the measure of forward thinking in popular music, you have to pay attention to every culvert and tributary of hip-hop.
Some music historians might be surprised to learn which compositions earned the prize in the years that birthed Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (John LaMontaine’s “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra”), or Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska (Bobby Sessions’ “Concerto for Orchestra”), or Joni Mitchell’s Blue (Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No. 6), or John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (nothing!).
Most glaringly, it sets the stage for the argument that the prize of the intelligentsia, which has been disinterested in the flow of popular music, may have a shrewder grasp on cultural impact than the Grammys, which for its top honor, Album of the Year, has snubbed not only Lamar—this year and in the past—but every other black hip-hop artist other than Lauryn Hill and OutKast. I certainly did not expect the Pulitzers to be what finally proved the Grammys irrelevant.