I was blessed with the strange experience of being raised by artists. Through them, I came to know a little about the art world around the same time I fell in love with hip-hop. We got Artforum, Art in America, The Village Voice, and other arty publications delivered to the house. I didn't read them. I was busy buying bootleg DJ Clue mixtapes at Midtown Clothing on 4th Street in Downtown Troy, New York. Hip-hop was mine. Art was part of the world I wanted to escape.
Fast-forward 11 Jay Z albums later and he's at Pace Gallery, a blue chip art purveyor in Chelsea, taking a shot at conceptual performance art in the form of a six-hour rendition of his song "Picasso Baby" to an audience that includes several famous artists (Marina Abramovich among them) and the art critic Jerry Saltz, a middle-aged white guy not unlike the middle-aged white guy who raised me.
How did this happen?
The days when a little bit of bling was enough to claim your spot among hip-hop's upper crust are past us. Yachts, Hublots, Bugattis—all too basic for the new breed of rapper-CEOs. There had to be a new symbol...
Visual art is an inherent aspect of hip-hop—from graffiti to album art and music videos, there's no shortage of brilliant works of art made within hip-hop for the hip-hop community. For that reason, many great artists, Jean-Michelle Basquiat included, have touched the culture in the handful of decades that its been around. Yet only recently have we seen so many references to fine art in rap music, and so many rap artists rubbing shoulders in the fine art world.
Anyone paying attention over the last decade or so has seen hip-hop come to dominate pop culture. Obviously, this development has led to tremendous wealth and power for those at the top. Diddy is worth $580 million, thanks mostly to a huge deal with Ciroc, and my old friend Jay Z is worth $475 million. Not bad for a couple of autodidacts who were raised with just about every disadvantage life can throw at you. Kanye West, who debuted his most recent music video on Ellen, a quirky talk show for white stay-at-home spouses, is collaborating on a performance art piece today at Art Basel Miami Beach with Vanessa Beecroft, who led the art direction for his short film, Runaway.
Meanwhile, last month another round of headlines about recording breaking art auction sales flooded the media. Christie's Contemporary Art Auction net $691.6 million. Among the record setting works were a 12-foot-tall polished orange stainless steel Balloondog by Jeff Koons ($58 million), a Francis Bacon triptych depicting Lucien Freud sitting in a wood chair ($142.4 million), and Warhol's "Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)," an 8 x 13 foot silkscreen diptych of a plain silver canvas and a much enlarged photograph of an old-timey car wreck ($105 million). No economic downturn, Superstorm Sandy, or European financial collapse can seem to stop the skyrocketing of high-end fine art prices. Jeff Koons employs 130 people to make his work. He's worth over 100 million, and recent additions to his CV include the album art for Lady Gaga's Art Pop and a BMW M3 GT2 Art Car, which he's showing at Art Basel this week.
As the art market expands beyond the New York bankers, Russian oligarchs, and Saudi sheiks; it adds chart-topping rap stars to its client lists, allowing hip-hop artists access to new signifiers of power. The days when a little bit of bling was enough to claim your spot among hip-hop's upper crust are past us. Yachts, Hublots, Bugattis—all too basic for the new breed of rapper-CEOs. There had to be a new symbol, and contemporary art offers more than any material good can. It's a symbol of not only wealth, but of class, education, and cultural access, as well.
Reasonable Doubt is a great album, in part, because of Jay Z's vivid depictions of hustling and accumulating wealth on the street. The same night that Sotheby's sold that $105 million Warhol, Jay Z allegedly added a $4.5 million Basquiat painting to his collection.
Rap's mainstream success has earned the top rappers unlimited access to the public, to large sums of money, and to the kind of power that was once limited to only the biggest pop stars, championship-winning athletes, and politicians. As a result, rap is expanding into parts of culture that were once restricted. Jay Z's at the White House. Nicki Minaj has a clothing collection with Kmart. A$AP Rocky sits front row at Paris Fashion Week. The list of rappers browsing the booths at Art Basel this week is a long one.
Extreme commercialization has brought them together, regardless of its relationship to the anti-establishment ethos on which both were built.
The art world and the rap world do have some things in common. At the elite level, both are extremely difficult to penetrate, yet they're eager to please both the mainstream and their core customers. Meanwhile, they pretend not to give a shit about bourgeois values. For that reason, this union is a match made in Scrooge-McDuck-piles-of-gold-swimming heaven.
It's easy to question the dedication or authenticity of love from both sides. It can look very much like a business transaction, like two movie stars set up for a date by their respective agents, having little to do with any real mutual appreciation of art. Yes, it's a little sleazy to see Rick Ross buddying up to Simon de Pury in the Hamptons, or Pharrell doing private gigs at Larry Gagosian's Holmby Hills mansion, but, hey, that's business.
There are reasons to be skeptical. We could ask rappers to stop putting stacks of cash in the pockets of rich white art dealers, and for the art world to be more wary of rap's extremely high hot-today-gone-tomorrow turnover rate. But at their core, both rap and art are disruptive endeavors. Extreme commercialization has brought them together, regardless of its relationship to the anti-establishment ethos on which both were built. Pop success is the new "fuck you" and revolutionary art is whatever fetches the highest bid.
14-year-old me would have hated a Jay Z album about Picasso. What drew me to his music was the rebellious narratives in his songs—selling drugs, racking up on expensive shit with the money, and creating a new breed of upper class luxury living for white America to fear. A middle-finger to the power structure. Would I have wanted to hear a grimy rap album about conventional means of accumulating wealth and investing it wisely? No. Fuck Picasso. Fuck Jeff Koons. Let the establishment have them.
But Jay Z is 20 years older now. And so am I, and so is rap music. My father's 20 years older now, too. He doesn't love rap, but it's part very much a part of his world. Perhaps that's a revolution of a different sort.