If, like me, you were unhappy at Kendrick Lamar losing all three major Grammy categories to Bruno Mars in February, news of his Pulitzer Prize win must have made you happy.
And yet, many rap fans can name at least one person who should have gotten such a prize before Lamar. I expect a recurrent name should a list be made would be Nas. Far as I know he is the only mainstream rapper to have name-dropped the word “Pulitzer” in a radio single. (Big Pun dropped a line with the word on a non-single track off 1998’s Capital Punishment.)
That came back in 1999 on the single ‘Hate Me Now’, off the album I Am… The line goes: “Most critically acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winner / Best storyteller, thug narrator, my style’s greater.”
It’s a brag, de rigueur for hip-hop stars. But look again. A rapper has just won the Pulitzer for Music in 2018, but back in 1999, Nas was saying he writes as well as the writers who have won the Pulitzer. It is not so much a brag about his musical gifts as it is a brag about his literary assets. In that sense, not only did Nas forecast Lamar’s Pulitzer, his verse also prefigures the ridiculous Nobel prize given to Bob Dylan. First Nas’s words came true as travesty, then it came true as legitimate triumph.
But is it ever enough to serve as forerunner — especially when you are yourself a great in the field?
This is perhaps the question Nas and his fans will struggle with. He had literary dreams that have now been fulfilled. But was he unworthy of the accolade himself?
Now that he no longer makes music at the centre of the culture, some might have forgotten that even at his peak, Nas never received quite the acclaim that his work deserved. 17 years ago when Nas rapped about how after releasing his debut he was “crowned the best lyricist”, that was something given by the streets. Source magazine, the hip-hop Bible at the time, gave 5 Mics to two Nas albums but the Grammys has remained unconvinced.
In fact, it wasn’t until 2003, that a solo Nas song got a Grammy nomination (before then a song with future Grammy fave Lauryn Hill, had been nominated). The song was the all-round remarkable ‘One Mic’. The category? Best Music Video.
In more words: On One Mic, Nas produces three excellent verses on African American life, the first two going from low to high tempo and the last going from high to low, and the guys at the Grammys looked past not only the cultural importance of the lyrics but also the technical and poetic mastery required to pull that off and instead said: Why don’t we ignore this great song and instead reward its music video with a nomination? It was a great foolishness then. Looking back, it acquires a weight of ignorance, prejudice, and malice.
As if it was further commentary on the racial politics of the Grammys, Eminem duly won that category with the music video for ‘Without Me’. And except for a few instances, one involving Kanye West, before and since then, Eminem would win against every black rapper he is up against at the Grammys. But while Eminem is indisputably a great rapper, his work since 2002’s The Eminem Show has not deserved the heavy number of trophies he has carted over his competitors.
Even so, Eminem is one of the rappers that have brought about Kendrick Lamar’s culture triumph. Academics and critics have hailed his work, going so far as reviewing three books by and about him in maybe the most elite of literary journals the New York Review of Books in 2003. Those three Eminem books were reviewed by future Booker Prize nominee Andrew O’Hagan in an edition than contained essays and reviews by eminent novelist-critics Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike and John Banville. (Between them: one Booker win, two Pulitzer wins, and several nominations.)
Whiteness had brought Eminem up for consideration in such a prestigious publication. But even if race was the major reason for this elevation, hip-hop had at least entered into the conversation.
The only problem was American gate-keeping is used to taking what it wants from black culture and discarding the rest. So while Eminem got reviewed in the NYRB in 2003, Jay-Z’s 2010 memoir Decoded got no such consideration by the august paper. To drive home the point, a year after Decoded, a book called The Anthology of Rap got reviewed by the NYRB. The title of the piece, ‘Rude Ludicrous Lucrative Rap’, was taken from an Eminem line from Jay-Z’s ‘Renegade’. The writing was on the wall — as was its colour.
Eminem’s colour might have made the more elite gatekeepers of America pay attention but something else had to happen for hip-hop to take the next step. That thing was the #OscarSoWhite controversy. After that, many culture arbiters began to take a closer look at the racial colouring of the people crowned by these old American institutions. That controversy remains relevant, and has created the context for the Kendrick Lamar conquest. Let it be enough to say great as Lamar’s DAMN. is, it would have been hailed as rap classic if it was released in 1994, the year Nas’s classic Illmatic dropped, but would never have gotten a Grammy. If only, because at the time the Grammys didn’t even have a Best Rap Album category (the first one was awarded to Naughty by Nature in 1996).
As that bit of history shows, a major part of the problem with being Nas — and what everybody working with an overdeveloped talent must dread — is that he was ahead of his time. If by some temporal magic, his Illmatic came out anytime in the last half-decade, Nas would surely be a shoo-in for several Grammy nominations. But by showing up early the best he could he do was contribute to the success of the culture not reap the dividends himself. It must rankle.
As though there is a god in love with irony working these things, Nas, a rapper reaching for the literary, is rap music’s equivalent of that most unwanted literary compliment: a writer’s writer. Like the novelist James Salter, perhaps the most famous bearer of that tag, everyone says he’s great, but major awards and massive sales figures elude him.
This is not to take away from the savviness of Kendrick Lamar, who has also benefited from the production work of his Top Dawg Entertainment label. Unlike Nas, who only occasionally flirted with great beats, and like Jay-Z who understood the connection between hit records and great production, Kendrick has paired his verses with some wonderful beats and catchy melodies. If you do not hear one word of the verses on ‘Loyalty’, you can follow Rihanna’s hook or say “loyalty” three times. Ditto the words “Sit down, be humble” from ‘Humble’.
One can hardly feel sorry for an artist of Nas’s stature. He has sold millions of records and has earned a reputation. Above all, he is alive. Perhaps before his leaves this mortal coil, he gets a direct reward for his work. No doubt there will be posthumous praise, but how nice it would be to have the man climb the stage for a major award and remind us that he is the man who foretold hip-hop’s Pulitzer triumph, the rapper who claimed to be that strange hybrid: “half man, half amazing”.