Lyrical Breakdown: Jay Z, Picasso Baby

American readers will be lucky enough to see an art film by Jay Z next Friday on HBO. I say lucky, because – good or bad – this should be one compelling television event.

If you weren’t already aware, the rap megastar spent six hours filming in Pace Gallery New York for a track on his new album with the unlikely title Picasso Baby.

In the trailer (above) he compares rap to painting (oh, really?) and legendary performance artist Marina Abramovic was on hand to lend credibility. Or perhaps destroy her own.

Having listened to the track on heavy rotation since then and also managing to decode most of it thanks to the fantastic Rap Genius website, criticismism has a few observations.

Firstly, as a cursory listen indicates, Picasso Baby is a shopping list. As such, anyone with an interest in contemporary art and background in a lucrative field of music might have written it.

Along with Picasso, Jay Z namechecks Mark Rothko, Jeff Koons, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Leonardo da Vinci and Jean Michel Basquiat (twice). All with casual aplomb.

To his credit, he leaves you in little doubt about his passion for collecting. He’s almost apologetic about it: “I’m an asshole/I’m never satisfied.”

(As we know, ‘Pablo Picasso was never called asshole’, but there’s nothing to suggest that the rap millionaire is giving props to Jonathan Richman here.)

He may be 43 years of age but Jay Z’s libido is still as rampant as his love of art. He trades a Rothko for a ‘brothel’ in a rhyme with no precedent in western art anywhere.

But then he enters the realms of utter fantasy with a seeming request for “a billion/Jeff Koons balloons”. The rapper surely knows that demand outstrips supply in the art market.

So the first verse sets him up as a nouveau riche collector enjoying an ecstasy of conspicuous consumption. It is impossible not to approve. Who wouldn’t do the same?

But unlike the oligarchs with whom Jay now rolls, the rapper lays bold claim to an artistic affinity with art world greats. Because you’ve never seen Charles Saatchi spit lyrics.

He compares himself to Basquiat and finally to “the modern day Picasso.” But what perhaps someone should tell him is that Picasso already *is* the modern day Picasso.

After the bit about the brothel, we get a touching glimpse of family life. His wife Beyonce is compared to the Mona Lisa (“with better features”). Take that, Leonardo.

HIs little girl Blue Ivy is meanwhile encouraged to “go ‘head lean on that shit” with reference to a Basquiat painting in the kitchen. Far be it from me to criticise a parenting style.

It might be best to draw a veil over most of verse three. This section of the lyric deals with the return of the repressed ie; scrapes with the law and trouble with guns.

But what you cannot ignore is a mysterious passage in French with a female speaker: “Et là je t’ai tout donné, montré, rien à cacher, tu es là Ivy, comme le nombre d’or”

This reference to the golden mean should knock Jay Z’s critics for six. The aesthetic ratio is a fusty bit of art historical detail which may be lost on most incidental yacht owners.

Not so Jay Z. Thanks to a $500 million net worth, his engagement with blue chip art is of a different order to yours or mine. Rap 1 – Art 0. Now will someone please paint him real good.

The new album Magna Carta Holy Grail, which features this track, is available from your local independent record store.

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