After 60 years, Kendrick Lamar has brilliantly brought pop to the Pulitzer | Alexis Petridis

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By becoming the first non-classical or jazz winner of the Pulitzer prize for music, the rapper has created US history

Perhaps the most obvious question provoked by the news that Kendrick Lamar has been awarded the Pulitzer prize for music for his 2017 album Damn is not why? but rather what took you so long?

It has been 60 years since the birth of modern pop music, a period of time during which said modern pop music has established itself, in its multifarious configurations, as being an unquestionably important art form. Clearly no one expected an august institution like the Pulitzer to start handing out gongs to the Backstreet Boys or Mtley Cre, but the notion that not a single work by any American pop artist over the last seven decades has been thought worthy is mind-boggling. They gave an additional citation to Bob Dylan in 2008, and to Hank Williams in 2010 a mere 57 years after the latters death but the prize itself has remained almost exclusively the domain of classical music. In its history, there have only been three jazz winners: Wynton Marsalis in 1997, Ornette Coleman in 2006, and Henry Threadgill in 2016.

Ornette Coleman, the only previous non-classical winner. Photograph: Photoshot/Getty Images

Then again, the Pulitzer has a longstanding reputation for being quite extraordinarily stuffy. The most celebrated example of its snobbery may have come in 1965, when the jury decided that no current music was worthy of an award, and attempted instead to give a special citation to Duke Ellington, in recognition of the groundbreaking body of work he had amassed over the preceding 50 years. Not, one would have imagined, a particularly controversial decision: by 1965, Ellington was rightly regarded as a straight-up, no-further-questions genius who had elevated jazz to an orchestral art form worthy of comparison with more respectable musical genres decades before. But the Pulitzer board refused to give out the award. Indeed, it wasnt until 1996 that an African American, George Walker, won the prize itself.

In 2004, then Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler said they would be broadening the prize a bit so it could be awarded to music not from the European classical tradition; it no longer became obligatory for entrants to submit a score. Even so, there was no mention of pop music in their idea of what constituted distinguished American musical compositions. The official announcement of the new policy involved everything but: The contemporary classical symphony to jazz, opera, choral, musical theatre, movie scores and other forms of musical excellence.

Lamar has proved its possible to make a huge mainstream impact with music that never panders to the lowest common denominator. Photograph: Joseph Okpako/WireImage

This clearly makes Kendrick Lamars achievement all the more striking in its break with the prizes dusty traditions. This years award hasnt gone to some rarefied piece of electronica with classical pretensions, but to a double platinum-selling hip-hop album by an artist who packs out arena venues. Still, if you were going to pick a contemporary pop artist to storm the Pulitzers barricades, Lamar is an obvious choice.

Theyve chosen someone both at the top of his game and at the forefront of a post-Ferguson renaissance in righteously angry, politically engaged black music that genuinely bears comparison to soul musics revered early 1970s golden era. Furthermore, hes proved that it is possible to make a huge mainstream impact with music that never panders to the lowest common denominator and never underestimates its audiences intelligence. It is frequently complex, knotty, contradictory, claustrophobic and disjointed; it regularly nods towards black musics history referencing everything from the lusciously soft soul of the Chi-Lites to Outkasts psychedelic take on rap but never feels comfortingly familiar.

Perhaps the commercial success of such ostensibly uncommercial material is down to the fact Lamar makes music that perfectly reflects its era. He may have claimed that Damn represented a step back from the sociopolitical fury of its predecessor To Pimp a Butterfly, an album that ended up being lauded by the outgoing president of the United States it even contained a backwards message complaining of the pain in my heart carrying the burden for the struggle but Damn never shies away from addressing serious issues: black empowerment, protest, the Trump presidency, violence, inflammatory right-wing punditry. Anxious, scattered and disquieting, the musical backing sounds like living through 2017 frequently felt.

You could argue long into the night about whether or not the approval of an institution like the Pulitzer prize is antithetical to the messages contained in Damn, but an award thats frequently courted accusations of rarefied, snooty irrelevance could hardly have picked a more relevant and impactful album to give its approval to.

This article was amended on Tuesday 17 April, to add Wynton Marsalis and Henry Threadgill to the list of jazz winners of the Pulitzer prize for music.

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