The longest month in rap history was already shimmering with possibility around Day 6 when Cardi B dropped a radioactive debut album overflowing with wild words. Suddenly, rap music felt a little bit bigger, and a woman was standing at its center.
Obviously, that didn’t last. It couldn’t have. Rap remains as fast, impatient, cruel and unusual as the nation that birthed it. How big is this music right now? Not just in terms of its prominence and reach, but in its aesthetic capaciousness? The critic Kodwo Eshun once called rap an “omni-genre,” an art form that allows human beings to say anything they could imagine over any sound that can be sampled. The month of April felt like a test of that idea’s tensile strength — a 30-day trial to find out if rap was big enough to hold a Pulitzer, a MAGA hat and two more Drake singles going No. 1.
On April 16, Kendrick Lamar probably became the most highly regarded rapper of all time by winning the Pulitzer Prize for music. Did you read the citation? The Pulitzer board called “DAMN.,” Lamar’s 2017 album, “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”
Here was one way of looking at that: They had just described albums by Nas, 2Pac, Ice Cube, Lil Wayne and maybe 200 others, which means that their rap literacy probably needs a brush-up. Here was another way of looking at it: The prize wasn’t a recognition of Kendrick, but of rap music itself.
We all know that Kanye West abandoned the idea of institutional prestige years ago, and as if predicting Lamar’s surprise win, he returned to the fetid swamplands of Twitter on April 13 after a long break, sharing puddle-deep tips for personal transcendence, then threatening to collate them into a book of philosophy. Why did everyone care? Because these aphoristic little tweets were forming a jelly bean trail leading toward new music, and everyone likes jelly beans, even if they don’t like Kanye West. Surely nothing could go wrong.
And while “Surely Nothing Could Go Wrong” sounds like a plausible title for the upcoming Drake album, instead, Drake announced on April 16 that the next entry in his discography would, in fact, be called “Scorpion.” That same afternoon, his newest single, “Nice for What,” replaced his second-newest single, “God’s Plan,” at the summit of the Hot 100. He makes it look so easy, right? To maintain dominance, all he has to do sleepwalk to a Lauryn Hill sample, then sit courtside for the duration of the NBA playoffs. Drake is Waldo, always in the picture, even when the picture is a total mess.
West is the guy who makes it look so hard, the guy who makes everything messier, the guy who, on April 25, called President Trump “my brother,” then tweeted a MAGA hat selfie, sending fans, friends and peers into death spirals of grief. What was happening to Kanye? And how well did he know his new brother? Did he know anything about the Central Park Five, or what ICE has been up to, or what those “very fine people” down in Charlottesville were marching for? How could someone who makes music that sounds like the mood of our world be so blind to what’s been happening in our world?
“I haven’t done enough research on conservatives to call myself or be called one,” he tweeted that same day. “I’m just refusing to be enslaved by monolithic thought.” But West also called his fans a “mob,” and accused them of encroaching on his “free” thinking, failing to reinforce his ideas with any kind of critical thinking, failing to realize that his fame was already being weaponized by Republican fundraisers, Fox News pundits and alt-right trolls.
So as West drifted off the face of the earth, a few loyal apostles followed him into oblivion. On April 25, Chance the Rapper tweeted, “Black people don’t have to be democrats,” only to walk back his statement on April 27, shortly after Trump publicly thanked him for supporting his agenda. As the mounting surrealism chewed up our bandwidth, other news simply got buried — including an interview that surfaced on April 26 in which the singer Kelis accused her ex-husband Nas of physically and mentally abusing her during their five-year marriage. On any other day, this would have triggered a catastrophic fall from grace, but it barely blipped. Maybe the discussion has been tabled until Nas drops his new album, (produced by Kanye West, no joke), in June.
April ended on Monday with West talking about how “love is infinite,” and how the Republican Party freed the slaves. Was he lost or oblivious? (Did getting lost make him oblivious, or did being oblivious get him lost?) The answers didn’t really matter because West had two new songs to sell, and later that afternoon, his publicist dropped a news release into the digital breeze. ‘“LIFT YOURSELF” & “YE vs THE PEOPLE” AVAILABLE FOR STREAMING AND DOWNLOAD NOW!”’
It had only been two weeks since rap had won a Pulitzer, but it felt as if the great American omni-genre had begun to lose its shape, accelerating toward a conclusion that hurts to think about: Once this music finally grows large enough to contain everything, it will mean nothing at all.