In 1996, a relatively unknown rapper referenced Pablo Picasso on his confrontational track “Friend or Foe.” Sounding like the prologue to a bloody standoff from Reservoir Dogs, Jay Z baited his opponent to “draw” his weapon, but if he did, “it better be Picasso, y’know the best.” Seventeen years on, and the blood-soaked project stairs of the Marcy seem a million miles away from the coke-white walls of New York City’s Pace Gallery, set of Jay Z’s latest promo, Picasso Baby. Described as a “performance art film,” which recently debuted on HBO.
If you were to chart Jay Z’s ascension to the world of art and culture, then 2013 would be the pinnacle. Performing a song called “Picasso Baby” — which name-drops Mark Rothko, Jeff Koons, Francis Bacon, Jean Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Leonardo Da Vinci and, yes, Picasso — in a gallery for 540 minutes and dancing with Marina Abramovic is Jay Z’s coming out art party. The nervous toe-dipping moment would be somewhere around the time Jay Z met Kanye West, who was wide-jawed and even wider-eyed, obsessed with Japanese sneakers, high-end book bags, pink polos and other things that, at the time, rappers weren’t supposed to be into. But as Kanye’s popularity and love for all things “non-rap” grew, so did his influence on the rap community. So now we have 16-year-old rap fans struggling to pronounce Givenchy and wrap their heads around why a man is wearing a Riccardo Tisci leather skirt.
Slowly but surely, rap fans are being conditioned to be “more cultured.” Much like the scene in A Clockwork Orange, our eyes are being forced open to see the shiny, expensive, important things. Jay Z and Kanye’s collaborative album Watch the Throne was the catalyst for “luxury rap.” It was the deafening sound of two wealthy juggernauts running into each other at breakneck speeds, crushing any buildings, banks and low-end clothing stores that stood in their way. If you can’t pronounce what they’re wearing, then this isn’t for you, young rap fan. They’re in Paris, looking at art, eating speedily served croissants on the Eiffel Tower. C’est la vie!
Elitist? Probably. But no other genre is more obsessed with one-upmanship than rap. If your peers have the best cars, then you’ll just have to get a bigger boat (and fill it with bigger and better girls). It’s rock, paper, scissors with stacks, diamonds and mansions. But when you already have all the clothes and the cars and the holidays in the south of France, then what?
Picasso’s most expensive painting sold for $106 million in 2011. The bragging rights on owning one of his pieces easily shits on waking up in a brand new Bugatti — and Jay Z has co-signed that. The progression from worshiping basic monetary possessions, like jewellery and automobiles, to possessing invaluable art was inevitable — from the block to the Basel, baby.
But, along the way, you have to wonder: Have the two alienated their core audiences? We took three avid Jay Z and Kanye fans who have followed both from the beginning of their careers to London’s Tate gallery to ask them what they thought about the two rappers new found fascination with art.
“I want a Rothko, no, I want a brothel” — Jay Z, “Picasso Baby”
Sarone, 29, has all of Jay Z's albums and downloaded Magna Carta... Holy Grail the morning it was released. At Tate, we entered a large, dimly lit room with a series of paintings on each wall. Rothko saw these six paintings as objects of contemplation, demanding the viewer's complete absorption.
Dolapo Ladeinde: What did you think of this series?
Sarone: I thought it was quite bold, quite dark in places.
How did it make you feel?
Intense. It made me feel quite moody. The lighting really added to the atmosphere. The colors were deep, so it was quite hard to get a positive feeling from it. I like my art to be light and fluffy.
Did it make you wanna cry?
No, I wouldn't go that far, but it was definitely a mood piece.
Did it make you want to punch someone?
… It wasn't really aggressive, just depressing.
What music came to mind when you saw the art?
Definitely something dark and deep. It reminded me of Yeezus, more so than Jay Z's work. Kanye is more introverted.
Yeah, he used to be a lot more chirpy.
Yeah, maybe Kim Kardashian’s had an effect on him.
He's been pretty dark since his mum died, ever since he released 808s.
And you can just see from his persona he really doesn't want to engage with anybody.
You think Jay Z and Kanye’s fans will dig this art?
I think anybody can relate to art, especially Kanye's fans, but it's whether the individual actually wants to. I think Kanye is an artist in all aspects — not saying Jay isn't, but Kanye is definitely more in touch with his artistic side.
How did you feel when Jay was name dropping all these artists?
I'd like to think that I've got quite a good grasp of art, so when he was throwing them out there, I wanted to know if there was anything behind it — or was he just doing it for the sake of it, to make it seem like he's interested in art?
I definitely got that vibe.
Jay's a showboater, so it wouldn't surprise me. He may just be trying to portray himself as something that he isn't.
You think he wants to sound more cultured?
Probably. He wants to commercialise himself and sound intelligent, so it wouldn't surprise me.
So it's almost part of his marketing strategy? You think he made a conscious decision to do this?
One-hundred percent. But fair play to him, that’s probably how he's built his career so far. He's a marketing man, he knows exactly what he's doing.
Will you look at the music differently after today?
I think so. It will definitely make me look at Kanye differently. The whole way he's been acting in the press — I heard he didn't appreciate someone saying his album was just “nice,” he wanted an extreme reaction. That’s exactly what an artist wants.
Do you think Jay has changed too much?
He has changed a lot. I love him now, but I loved him when Reasonable Doubt came out. He's a lot more commercial now. He's moved on from the woman-hating days of “Big Pimpin’.” The whole bitches and video ho days are over. He's married and has a daughter now.
“Bacons and turkey bacons, smell the aroma.” — Jay Z, “Picasso Baby”
Lalya, 28, has been listening to rap since she was seven. Once asked on a date by Masta Killa from Wu Tang during an interview for a style magazine, she hates Trinidad James and hip hop’s “non-lyricists.”
What music pops into your head when you see this?
Layla: The Who.
It’s dark and realistic, a fusion of illusion and reality. Very rock n’ roll.
Do you see any hip hop in this piece?
Would you put this in your house?
No, it's too dark and it doesn’t have a strong enough stance. It’s too fluid, it doesn't stand for anything. I think you have to be quite twisted to get anything out of this.
What about this piece?
Layla: To me, it looks like a Turkey being hung.
Does it evoke any kind of emotion?
No, it just looks like an animal that's in pain.
So you wouldn't hang this in your house?
Definitely not. I wouldn't even put this in my garage.
What music comes to mind when you look at it?
Hmmm ... I'd say Radiohead or Talib Kweli.
Because I can see struggle in it. He talks about that a lot: poverty in the hood and growing up with society restricting you. The painting looks like somebody different who's trying to fight against society.
So this one is more hip hop to you than the other one?
Yeah, this one reminds me of struggle and fighting against the system, which is what hip hop initially stood for. The main subject is dark, but the colours around it are bright, and that's what hip hop is: something against the grain. It reminds me of lynching, too.
Does any particular Jay Z or Kanye song come to mind when you see this?
Yeah, “Crack Music” by Kanye.
Why that track?
Because in that song he's talks about society force feeding us something that we're fighting against. It also reminds me of Public Enemy's “Fight the Power.”
Do you think the average drug dealer/hustler who grew up listening to Jay Z's music could appreciate this?
An intelligent one could, someone like Iceberg Slim. I guess someone that's going through stress could relate to it. It's quite blatant. You don't have to think too much to see where the artist was going.
How did you feel when Jay Z was name dropping all these artists on his album?
I was intrigued. Jay's a complex artist, so I wanted to know who he was talking about.
Do you think you'll listen to the music differently after this?
No, because I have my own mind. I don't have to listen to what someone says and follow it. The emotions you get from music are subjective, so it won’t make a difference. Maybe from a reference point, but it won’t make me appreciate the music more.
Do you think Jay Z and Kanye might be alienating their core audience?
I think they're expanding people’s views and opening up their minds to different cultures and art. They're educating people who might never experience art.
“I just want a Picasso in my casa, no, my castle” — Jay Z, “Picasso Baby”
Sam loved the three-piece suit, mafioso glamour of early ‘90s New York rap and thinks Jay Z is a musical genius/business mastermind.
What comes to mind when you look at this piece?
Sam: Roman times.
Is this your first time seeing a Picasso?
I knew of him before, but yeah, this is my first time seeing one.
Do you think the average rap fan could appreciate it?
Yeah, but they have to be introduced to the art world. If they know who the artist is and what they're about, then they might be interested. It's all about the backstory, what the artist is bringing to the table and how they came up. Picasso's work doesn't move me, but his contribution to art is interesting.
Did this piece evoke any emotion at all?
Not really. Not like when I went to see the Mona Lisa.
What did you think of all the name dropping on Magna Carta... Holy Grail?
I thought he was a cultured dude. It shows how much he's developed. He has nothing to prove.
You think you might listen to the album differently after seeing this?
Not really. Maybe after this interview, but the art hasn't really affected me.
Did it make you think of any Jay Z songs?
Not really, but one lyric did come to mind, when he said, “Sleeping every night next to Mona Lisa, the modern version with better features.” That's a big fucking statement.
It's hard to tell who even buys music nowadays, but I doubt either Jay Z or Kanye really knows or even cares. With phone companies helping Jay Z reach platinum status before his album drops and clothing labels turning consumers into “New Slaves,” eagerly camping out in the rain to get a pair of Yeezys, both rappers’ personal brands are at an all-time high. Art is just the latest chapter in pre-packaged, marketable rap commodity — this year’s must have product, like a white T, platinum jewellery or Cristal champagne.
There's no harm in embracing opulence and culture, but the public fell in love with these rappers because of their struggles. From Jay Z's drug dealer problems to Kanye being pissed off because his manager at The Gap wouldn’t cut him any slack, being vulnerable shows you're more than just a rapping robot. And you can still be that real, even while staring at your million-dollar paintings in a custom-made leather skirt.
Dolapo Ladeinde is a London-based journalist and screenwriter who has contributed to NME, Vice and I-D, and is currently working on a series of short films about teen tribes and sexual awakening.