RC: Hi. I'm the Rap Critic
KK: And I'm Kyle Kallgren
RC: …So you are…
KK: Remember that time you randomly interrupted my show?
KK: Well, you're latest episode involves performance art and Marina Abramovic, and that's MY particular area of expertise
RC: Wait, you know about Jay-Z shooting a music video?
KK: It was shot at the Pace Gallery and sold as a performance art piece. Yeah, I know about it
RC: Right. Well, as long as you’re here, I need you to explain a few things for me, because we all know who Jay-Z is on my show, but at the risk of making this episode sound like an A&E special, what exactly IS the definition of performance art?
KK: Well, Performance Art is difficult to define, but generally it is something performed by the artist themselves in a space for an audience. It’s not like in theater, the performer plays themselves and not a role. It’s not pretending, but DOING. Often performance art tests the limits of the human body, the limits of society’s taboos, and the limits of the relationship between artist and audience. Sometimes it’s political, like Punk Prayer by Pussy Riot where members of the band broke into the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow and began shouting, singing, and playing protest music. Or it could be personal like the 1975 piece Interior Scroll by Carolee Schneeman, where the artist stood on a table, naked, and read aloud from a feminist discourse extracted from her vagina, and Seedbed by Vico Acconci, in 1972, in which the artist hid under a false floor of an art gallery, wired up to a microphone allowing his voice to be projected into the room, as he vigorously masturbated.So… it takes a lot of guts to pull it off
RC: Oh, wow. Well, in that case, I dare say that honestly, Jay-Z's too normal for performance art. I mean, the stuff you're describing is pretty crazy and challenging. Jay-Z has too much of a reputation to dare do anything challenging. He's a business man who's rich beyond his wildest dreams. The only reason I can see that he would do something like this is simply because he can. I mean, the guys been on the Forbes list for at least the last 5 years, so, you know, who's going to stop him? But, before we get into the music, I also have to ask, who is this "Marina Abramovic"?
KK: Ah yes, Marina Abramovic: the Serbian self-proclaimed “grandmother of performance art”. Her body of work is as much art as it is a decades-long game of suicidal truth or dare. She is the definition of “pushing the limit.” Some career highlights include1977’s Imponderabilia, in which Abramovic and her romantic and artistic partner Ulay stood naked on opposite sides of a narrow doorway. The audience, trying to get through the doorway, would have to turn sideways and squeeze past them both, touching nude male and female flesh
KK: That was practically G-rated. Compare it to Rhythm 2. In that one she took a pill used to treat catatonia, causing her to go into seizures as the audience watched. When that drug wore off, she took a pill used to treat aggression in depressive people, causing her body to be completely immobile
RC: Holy crap
KK: Then her most famous performance: 1974’s Rhythm 0. In that famous display, she stood before a small audience, perfectly still. Around her were 72 objects, including a rose, a feather, honey, a whip, scissors, a scalpel, and a gun with a single bullet. The audience was allowed to do whatever they wanted with the objects and her body. At first the audience was gentle, but as time passed they became more aggressive. Her clothes were cut. Blood was drawn. One person in the audience tried to pull the gun on her, before another audience member pushed the gun away. At the end of the performance, running for a total of 6 hours, she stood up and simply walked towards the audience. They scattered, afraid to confront her
KK: Now, before we get into…
RC: Hey, dude, this art lesson is very endearing stuff, but I have to ask if this leading up to something, because I feel like we need to get to the music eventually…
KK: I'm getting there. In 2010 Abramovic did a piece at the Museum of Modern Art called “The Artist is Present.” There was a documentary made of it – check it out. The setup was quite simple - Abramovic would sit motionless in a chair for hours upon hours as museum visitors, one by one, sat across from her as she stared at them. The results were shocking - many visitors began to cry in her presence, deeply affected by her intense personal energy and silent charisma. One young woman tried to strip naked while sitting across from Abramovic before being escorted out by security
RC: Damn. She got a chick to strip for her without even saying a word. That's some charisma for your ass
KK: Think that’s impressive? Some people tried to propose. She convinced them that she had fallen in love with them on the spot
RC: Cool. So, how does this relate to "Picasso Baby"'s video?
KK: Well apparently Jay-Z saw that documentary too. And he was so moved by Abramovic’s stamina and charisma and habit of putting herself into incredible, unthinkable danger that he decided to honor her artwork by… rapping. Rapping over a long period of time, to regular people. Well, if by "regular people" you mean art world insiders ranging from Abramovic herself to Diana Widmeier Picasso. As in Picasso’s actual “baby.”
RC: Wait, so this artistic performance wasn't actually available to the public, just a select few people?
KK: Yeah. Like, some fans got in, but mostly it was artists and art dealers
RC: That seems very… un-Hip-Hop of him. Wouldn't someone who rose from the streets want to allow any common man the ability to see Rap music recognized and treated with the same respect as artists of other mediums?
KK: Who cares? Photo op with Jim Jarmusch! Plus, he cheated! He rapped for 6 hours PLUS water breaks! Abramovic didn’t even get up to go to the bathroom!
RC: Yeah, but why does it ultimately matter, though? He just did all of this as a grand way to set up a music video
KK: Because “The Artist is Present” is about the role of the artist in relation to the audience, an ego driven exercise demonstrating the role charisma plays in the dynamic - the banality of seeing the artwork set against the strangeness of confronting the artist themselves. How many common visitors to MoMA could have sat next to Warhol? Or Van Gogh? Jay-Z seems to understand this relationship only superficially, so he recreates it by doing his own art - rapping - over a long period of time to a group of rich people he knows that he'd look good next to RC: So, you're saying this whole music video is a set-up for someone who wants to let you know about his awareness of an art form without actually demonstrating that they really understand the point of it?
KK: In short, yes
RC: That does not bode well for this song
"I just want a Picasso, in my casa"
RC: So, at the very start of the song, he proclaims,: I just want a painting from a famous artist in my house… what did I say Jay-Z was again?
KK: "someone who wants you to know about his awareness of an art form without actually demonstrating that they understand the point of it?"
RC: Oh yeah, but I think there's a shorter way to say that, though
"I'm an asshole"
RC: Well, I was gonna say "pretentious", but okay
"I'm never satisfied, can't knock my hustle I wanna Rothko, no I wanna brothel"
RC: First, your line of thinking leads you to want a painting, then, it leads you to want to visit a whorehouse? I don't think "never satisfied" is the same thing as "supremely indecisive"
Let's make love on a million, in a dirty hotel With the fan on the ceiling
KK: I see he went with the "brothel" option
"All for the love of drug dealing"
RC: All for the "love" of drug-dealing? I'm sorry, what ever happened to showing drug-dealing as a means to an end that your ashamed about, like in "Regrets" where you talking about selling crack in third person because you didn't want to face the reality of what your customers were going through? Or, on all of your songs since your first album, when you were obviously NOT selling drugs anymore, where you said you're not "glorifying" drugs, but merely "reminiscing" and "looking back" on your drug dealing days for the purpose of giving voice to those still stuck in that grind. Now, you claim that it wasn't for the profit that eventually gave you access to a less dangerous career choice, but that you sold drugs all for the "LOVE" of drug-dealing, like it's a some sport that you REALLY have to have your heart in in order to succeed? That's stupid
"Oh what a feeling - fuck it I want a billion"
RC: I'm pretty sure this is supposed to be the "oh snap!" moment of the song, with the music dropping out and everything, but he didn't really say anything profound or clever. Maybe this is the line everybody's supposed to shout when he points the mic to the crowd, but all I can think of when I hear this is some fat cat CEO at McDonald's giving himself a pay-raise
KK: *imitating CEO* Well, since we are one of the richest companies in the world, I COULD either give myself more money or give a raise to the thousands of people who work for me on minimum wage. *song plays: FUCK IT, I WANT A BILLION!* Yeah, screw those guys
"Jeff Koons balloons, I just wanna blow up"
KK: Oh hey, a reference to an artist's work! But since Jeff Koons' balloons aren't actual balloons, but stainless steel statues, the wordplay referring to them "blowing up" doesn't… really work
"Bacons and turkey bacons, smell the aroma"
KK: …Is this Jay-Z's version of being clever? Because this isn't a play on words as much as just acknowledging that, yes, Francis Bacon is an artist and yes, he also shares his last name with strips of meat
"It ain't hard to tell I'm the new Jean Michel"
KK: Okay, now here's a good comparison. Jean-Michel Basquiat is another African American New York Native who struggled from nothing to fame using a form of expression popular in inner cities
RC: Really, now? Huh. Makes me wonder why he didn't name the song after him
KK: Not as popular as Picasso
RC: Oh yeah...
"Sleeping every night next to Mona Lisa The modern day version With better features"
KK: You know, the Mona Lisa woman in the painting wasn't really known for the beauty of the model in it. In fact, she was pretty plain, even for 16th Century standards. WHat's important about the work is how she's set against a beautiful but geographically impossible background, how her famously indecipherable smile suggests so much about the subject’s personality! If you wanted to compare your woman to something beautiful, why not go with "My lady's the Venus", every night, sleeping with a Botticelli?
RC: Because he doesn't seem to study the pieces as much as he blindly collects them like Pokemon cards. I mean, from what I can tell, he doesn't give a crap about the actual preservation of the art itself. Look at lines like this:
Yellow Basquiat in my kitchen corner Go ahead lean on that shit Blue You own it
RC: Yes, Blue Ivy, Jay-'Z's daughter, lean on these paintings daddy just paid a fortune for, go ahead, nibble and drool on them as well! People now know that I have the millions of dollars that it took me to get these intricate models of inner city angst and turmoil, so now, they no longer serve a purpose *peeing sound* Aw! *cutesy* Who's adding some more yellow to that Basquiat painting! Who's adding more yellow to that Basquiat painting!
KK: (laughing) It’s funny because Andres Serrano is in the crowd.... Someone's gonna get that... someone HAS to get that...
"I never stuck my cock in the fox's box But Damned if I didn't open Pandora's box"
RC: I… I THINK he's referring to Foxy Brown, his protege from the late 90's, and maybe he's alluding to the fact that he never had sex with her… but i'll be damned if I could tell you what that has to do with this song, or why he felt this was the best way to start the third verse
"They try to slander your man On CNN and Fox My Miranda don't stand a chance, with cops"
RC: Talking about problems with the law and how the media doesn't know about your struggle? This just sounds like a lost verse from 99 Problems… The elongated guitar note doesn't help, either
"Even my old fans like old man just stop"
RC: Well, that's because your old fans have noticed you've pretty much said everything you had to say after the FIRST time you claimed you were going to retire… after your first album, Reasonable doubt. Of course, then there was that SECOND time you claimed you were going to retire… after your THIRD album, Vol. 2 Hard Knock Life. Oh, and then there was the THIRD time you said you were going to retire with the Black Album. In fact, now that I look at it, YOU'RE the one who kept telling yourself to stop!
"I'm still the man to watch, Hublot On my left hand or not"
RC: Seeing that this is the THIRD time I've heard you mentioned Hublot watches in a song, this is just sounding like product placement
KK: Well, don't rappers mention product placement a lot nowadays?
RC: Yeah, but he's talking about a watch. People may not buy TRu REligion jeans, but at the very least, they buy jeans. NOBODY buys watches, so this name drop just sounds blatantly paid for
"Soon I step out the booth The cameras pops niggas is cool with it Till the canons pop"
RC: I think this is the first clever play on words, mixing cameras flashing with cannons shooting, which is indeed the name of a camera company and a hyperbolic representation of a powerful gun
KK: That's nice, but… didn't this song start off talking about art or something?
"My hairpin Piece skin rupture spleens Cracks rips go through cribs and other things"
RC: Yes, more of these lyrics that are only detailing your drug dealing past and TOTALLY not glorifying it
"No sympathy for the king huh Niggas even talk about your baby crazy"
KK: …Seriously, are we still talking about art? Because it seems like you've given up on the art puns a little soon, don'tcha think? Like, Bacon and eating bacon, then Condos in my condos and… that’s it?
RC: Yeah, Jay-Z, if you're gonna do this, go all out like your verse in "Back In the Days" when you made a whole bunch of hit or miss references to Hip Hop artists. Screw, it, let's do it for him!
"Douchebags, Baby": "Sleeping with my own little Venus But the modern version, with better fee-chuhs" Yeah, that's my Botticelli You must be making a sandwich, cause I know you're getting' jelly! She's my canvas, and the easel is my wallet So when I'm splashin money on her, call me Jackson Pollock! I'm all about my chedda and art, though! So it's Monet, Cash, and Jo… sé Orozco! With my rothkos and brothels I'm surrounded by fair faces Cause I got more than TWO nudes descending my staircase So don't disrespect, you think you're richer, you wanna bet? Well, that's a bet you're going to (to lose) Toulouse… Latrec!
RC: Now, let's stop pretending to be hardcore gangsters and let Jay-Z do it for us
"Come through with 'Ye mask on Spray everything like SAMO"
Rc: Really, Jay-Z? You're gonna personally kick the doors off the hinges and go on a shooting spree, while your music video takes place in a safe, comfy art museum while you get chummy with the likes of Alan Cumming and Judd Apatow? As a great man once said:
*Takeover quote*: "Well, we don't believe you, you need more people"
"What's it gonna to take For me to go"
As in, for you to leave? That would require retiring... and then NOT coming back
"For y'all to see I'm the modern day Pablo Picasso baby"
RC: Oh wait, what you're saying is, "what would it take to make people see you as the modern day Picasso, but one who paints pictures with his words"? Well, a good way to do that would have been using this song to point to your past works like Reasonable Doubt, or the Black album to talk of how you've given us classic rap albums that will stand the test of time as artistic depictions of your psyche in that period or your life. However, as this song stands, it does nothing of the sort! So, for a pretty nice beat, but lackluster lyrics, I'd give it a 3 out of 5. And as for this video that we just watched: honestly, was that IT?! All the build up for a classy high art video for nothing more than Jay-Z in a white room, rapping one song to his rich friends? And now that I think about it, these people basically just sat through a 6 hour concert in which they've only heard one song. I don't care if it IS at a museum, that still sounds like a rip-off!
KK: You know, it bothers me that this performance was done specifically for the music video. Sure, there’s nothing against performance art being documented; the photographs of early Abramovic performances are invaluable. However it’s fully understood that the photographs, and the video, are not the performance. “The Artist is Present” may have commented on that - sure, there was a documentary and it captured many different reactions to the performance, but it’s tangential to the act itself. Jay-Z is making and selling a product. His work is also ego-driven, but in the more self-serving sense. Abramovic has had critics accuse her of much the same - selling her work on the Abramovic “brand”. Hell, just look at what she’s been doing with Lady Gaga lately. But here Jay-Z’s ego and ambitions are hardly different from the ambitions of his earlier works - money, cash, hoes. Only here his hoes are Picasso, Koons, Rothko, and Basquiat. He’s not rapping about their art or what they aimed to do with their art, he’s rapping about owning their art, and being seen owning their art. This rap is the dictionary definition of “pretentious.”
RC: So, we just spent this whole video to relay the message that Jay-Z is an unabashed pretentious asshole?
RC: …I'm cool with that