Jay Z: The Modern-Day Picasso

Jay Z: The Modern-Day Picasso

For six straight hours one Wednesday afternoon, Shaun “Jay Z” Carter performed the track “Picasso Baby” from his latest album Magna Carta Holy Grail in a New York art gallery. Although the ulterior motive was to shoot a music video for the song, the entire project completely transcends this idea. It’s brilliant. It’s effective. And it’s art.

Titled “A Performance Art Film,” it is one of the most inspiring videos to have graced the likes of mainstream YouTube in a very long time. Check it out. Not only will you have a meaningful art and music experience, it will give you a bit more faith in humanity.

People crowded against the walls of the pristinely white gallery space cheer as Jay Z walks into the room and onto the makeshift stage. He puts his finger to his lips in response. (Art galleries are renowned for their deathly silence after all.) However, the silence abruptly broken when the heavy bass beginning of “Picasso Baby” starts emanating from the speakers and the rapper himself asks, “can you turn it up a little more?”

The concept of the work is inspired by Marina Abramovic – one of the most powerful performance artists of our time – and her 2010 work “The Artist is Present,” in which she spent 736 hours in MoMa engaging one-on-one with visitors. She now features in Jay Z’s own “installation”; foreheads touching and with a small smile on Abramovic’s lips, the two create a crazy, intimate dynamic.

Pitchfork describes it as “amazing” – and it was. In fusing hip-hop and “pure” art it promotes a greater understanding and appreciation of both, which is exactly what Jay Z is trying to achieve. At the beginning of the video, he explains that his goal is to bring the two worlds – music and art – back together. Both art and hip-hop, he argues, involve an element of “performance,” an exchange of energy between the performer/ artist and the audience/ viewer.

Jay Z reunites the two not only by performing in a gallery with other artists and interacting directly with the audience, but by filling his lyrics with references to art. Art Basel, Rothko, Jeff Koons, Christies, the MoMa – all are invoked in what simultaneously pays homage to the art world while questioning its pretentiousness. This has been a goal of Jay Z’s for a long time. In his earlier album Watch the Throne you find the lines: “graduated to the MoMA, and I did all of this without a diploma. Graduated from the corner, y’all can play me for a muthafuckin’ fool if you wanna.”

Challenging the separation between art and music isn’t a new idea. Ai Weiwei and Anish Kappor have performed “Gangnam Style” and Yoko Ono has her own band. However, although these artists are infamous in the “art world,” they aren’t mainstream. Jay Z is. Many people find art intimidating, but Jay Z’s incredible fame and influence as a mainstream rapper makes the art he is working with instantly more accessible. In this music video you see every type of person possible. Some lucky young kids rap back and forth with the rapper’s arms around their shoulders. There are old men with beards. Every skin colour and every age group is represented, and every person watching Jay Z, whether from the edges or performing right there on stage with him, looks so incredibly alive. It is an amazing thing to watch. Skip to 2:30 minutes in the video; it is a particularly beautifully diverse moment.

There is a commercial side to (almost) every story. The rap “king” negotiated a multi-million dollar deal with Samsung, whereby in exchange for their funding he would pre-release his album Holy Grail to Samsung users through an android app. You could see this as undermining the entire project’s authenticity by making it feel a little fake. However, give Jay Z the benefit of the doubt, and just appreciate the way he has exploited an opportunity to market music in a completely innovative way.

So in conclusion, I respect Mr Shaun Carter. He may just be the “modern day Pablo,” as he so claims.
This article first appeared in Issue 19, 2013.
Posted 2:29pm Sunday 11th August 2013 by Charlotte Doyle.