It was always me vs. the world
Until I found it’s me vs. me

—Kendrick Lamar, “DUCKWORTH.”

The church historian Jaroslav Pelikan once observed, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”[1] This quote came to mind when I recently heard about a patron of the arts who is using his immense wealth to sponsor the “recovery” of a more classical style. Disgusted by what he perceives as the current decadence among contemporary artists, this man wants to buy back some coveted past where a less self-conscious aesthetic prevails.

Most of us are aware that nostalgia is often the child of disgust. Age can and often does bring a growing disaffection with the world around us. Equal parts weariness and unease, we lose patience with the incessant repackaging of old ideas, as well as the intractable velocity of the times in which we live. It’s an uneasy dynamic, blending the static and the mobile, the timeless and the ephemeral.

I’m in my early 30s and I can already feel this sense of unease encroaching in small ways. Regarding that first challenge, I now find that listening to new music is less fun and more of a discipline because so much of what passes for novelty simply sounds stale and recycled to me. I fully recognize that the fault often lies with my own ears, but it’s getting harder to hear above my aging sensibilities.

As for the changing cultural tide, I have a sneaking suspicion that the same look of frazzled bewilderment I used to see on my parents’ faces during certain news segments is now etched onto my own features as I scan the latest headlines. It’s not that I’m angry or disgusted, it’s just that the world I knew seems more remote. The experience is lonely and surreal, a brief glimpse through ancient eyes. Is this the city, the country, the world as I once knew it (and at least understood it to be)? The temptation is to think that the past was simpler, better, more glorious—a time when human ingenuity gave us the Sistine Chapel, Doric columns, and the statue of David. My list of wistful examples would include jazz, Ivan Tarkovsky, and Flannery O’Connor. In response to such sentimental pining, Starflyer 59’s Jason Martin offers a number of searching questions: “Was it really better back then/Were there really less problems?/Or was it really that because then/You weren’t so numb?”

Speaking of disruption in venerable traditions, here’s a description from this year’s Pulitzer Prize committee about Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, DAMN., the surprise winner in the “best musical composition by an American” category: “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” Kendrick Lamar may have been snubbed by the Grammys, but he just became the first rapper to win a Pulitzer—no small feat considering this is an institution that tends to balk at change. For example, despite a nod to Duke Ellington in 1965, it would take until 1997 for a jazz musician to beat out the list of more conventional nominees.

Lamar’s victory has met with its share of handwringing, of course, but the support from some of his fellow nominees has been refreshing. For instance, Ted Hearnes, whose “Sound From the Bench” was also nominated, argued, “The work that’s on [DAMN.] is every bit as sophisticated and experimental as any music. The idea that that’s not classical music, or that’s not experimental music, or that’s not art music is completely unfounded.” Hearnes’ generosity notwithstanding, the notion that DAMN. is classical music will strike many of us as odd.

Not that the vibrancy of hip-hop is dependent on such a milestone, of course, but it is fascinating to think about some date in the near future when this relatively new genre will be considered one particular strand of classical music. As bizarre as that may sound, think about the fact that jazz—that unwieldy style that is now shorthand for sophistication and high culture—was once seen as degenerate and hopelessly avant-garde. Today, most of us are receptive to the musical virtuosity on display in jazz; few of us will hear it as dangerous.

With DAMN. and its accompanying Pulitzer, Lamar has crossed a milestone, has set a precedent—has established a fresh tradition; hip-hop has entered a new phase.

The odyssey of jazz gives us an entry point into a tension that comes along with major forms of cultural validation. Cultural prestige has a way of simultaneously conferring greater levels of legitimacy and domestication,[2] and greater respect and acceptance may well come at the cost of artistic edge. It’s roughly what happened to my estimation of Metallica when I heard them on a “Classic Rock” station for the first time. Was this really the band that used to scare parents with rapid-fire artillery guitar riffs and songs about electric chairs and “creeping death”? Think about how aging punks must have felt the first time they heard The Clash on an “Oldies” station.

Of course, it’s a slippery slope to argue that Lamar’s Pulitzer runs the risk of taming hip-hop, but, as we’ve seen, the anxiety that the genre may soften a bit with age is certainly not misplaced. Though we don’t know the full consequences of Lamar’s meteoric rise to fame[3], I don’t think I’m jumping the gun by saying that DAMN. is largely immune to the kind of domestication I’ve been describing. In the wake of Lamar’s achievement, will the verbiage on the ubiquitous “Parental Advisory”[4] now read: “[explicit] vernacular authenticity”? Do we describe the album’s expert deployment of killer beats as “rhythmic dynamism”?

To say that DAMN. “offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life” is, among other things, to summarize a very unsparing album in language we might encounter in a graduate thesis. You can throw around “vernacular authenticity” as much as you like, but the phrase isn’t going to empty songs like “ELEMENT.” and “XXX.” of their volatility. And that’s as it should be. As has been noted on this site, DAMN. is a deeply conflicted album—one that resists the kinds of soothing theories and redemptive arcs that are meant to mitigate its implacable barrage of contradictions: forgiveness and vengeance, humility and pride, love and lust, grace and retribution, salvation and damnation. The album is a spiritual wrestling match of titanic proportions. Is it any wonder that Lamar looks so tired on the cover?

This disparity between the Pulitzer’s formal aspects and the album’s rough edges is a testament to the power of Lamar’s artistry, and it’s one of the reasons that I’m glad that this album has garnered so much praise. There’s a very legitimate argument to be made for the superiority of both good kid m.A.A.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly. DAMN. lacks the dense layering and narrative scope of both those albums, but its unhinged intensity, undeniable rage, and principled lack of resolution make it perhaps Lamar’s most uncompromising statement to date. As such, there’s a ragged purity here that insulates it from the withering effects of critical adulation, as well as some of the anemic uses we often make of the art that’s been christened by the critical establishment.

Tellingly, most jazz doesn’t feature much in the way of vocals, and, while I’d love to believe that individual notes speak for themselves, it does seem to be a general rule that music that doesn’t talk is more easily conscripted in some foreign agenda. How else do we account for jazz’s migration from the smoky clubs of poets and bohemians to Five Star restaurants and hotel elevators? Fortunately, Lamar’s brash lyrical delivery resists such appropriation. Suffice it to say, I don’t think there’s any danger of hearing “DNA.’s” blistering closing litany in a J.W. Marriott while you nibble on Waldorf salad.

And yet, with DAMN. and its accompanying Pulitzer, Lamar has crossed a milestone, has set a precedent—has established a fresh tradition; hip-hop has entered a new phase. Perhaps the anxieties that come along with such an achievement will inspire some rich new lyrical meditations. My own hope is that Lamar simply manages to keep his head down and continue doing great work, but, if his anxieties regarding fame do prevail, the book of Ecclesiastes might prove especially helpful.

In this timeless book, we are confronted by two stark statements: “There’s nothing new under the sun,” and “God has set eternity in the hearts of men.” To say that there’s immense tension between these two verses is an understatement. No age, no culture, no achievement, no work of art can ever appease the human heart. If traditionalism tries to stubbornly cling to the dust of a former age, healthy tradition constitutes the delicate art of discerning and embracing the traces of the timeless within a particular culture that is always passing away. We can and must hold eternity and nothing new under the sun in tension. The great hope is that the pilgrims following these timeless clues will have the honesty to ascend the steps of the church and finally kneel at the foot of the cross. I don’t want Lamar to lose his edge, but I’m also hoping he looks less tired on his next album cover.

[1] I came across this quote in the opening chapter of Cameron J. Anderson’s The Faithful Artist.

[2] There’s an obvious parallel here in the concerns about how commercial success often flat-lines a given songwriter’s vitality.

[3] Lamar wrestles with the challenges of fame and fortune masterfully on To Pimp a Butterfly.

[4] With all due deference to Tipper Gore, the label was a warning to parents, and a badge of honor to their impressionable offspring.