"On to the Next One" and why Jay-Z loves shouting out Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Damien Hirst.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Jan. 13 2010 9:32 AM

Hova Goes MoMA

Why Jay-Z loves shouting out Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Damien Hirst.

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Jay-Z's commonalities with Hirst go further. Like Jay, who signed a "360-degree deal" with LiveNation, leaving his longtime record label so that he might benefit more fully from the tremendous revenue he generates, Hirst recently bypassed the gallery system and sold $200 million worth of his art directly at auction, via Sotheby's. And, as in Jay-Z's music, Hirst's meditations on wealth frequently accompany meditations on mortality. The Hirst pieces Jay-Z gravitates toward are those in which this theme is especially prominent: the diamond skull, which references memento mori, and which Hirst has described as a laugh "in the face of" death; the spin-art skull paintings that dominate Jay-Z's "Blue Magic" video, works that, produced in a batch of 300 by a team of assistants, nod both to the "death of the author" and supply-and-demand economics.

Jay-Z seems to feel a kinship of a different sort with Jean-Michel Basquiat. An insight into his appreciation comes in one of the best, most dexterous rhymes of his career, a 2006 freestyle over Kanye West's "Grammy Family" instrumental. Jay-Z begins by rapping that he's "inspired by Basquiat," and puts the artist—born in Brooklyn to Puerto Rican and Haitian parents in 1960, an international star by his early 20s, dead of a drug overdose at 27—in a continuum of fallen icons that includes Malcolm X, Michael Jackson, and Kurt Cobain. In this company, Basquiat figures both as a civil rights hero—a type to whom Jay-Z often compares himself—and a cautionary tale. Whereas Hirst's art mingles wealth and death, Basquiat's career (which begins at about the same time as hip-hop itself) mingles fame and death. With Basquiat's demise in mind, Jay-Z, the invincible hustler who refuses to lose, grapples with the idea of the self-destructive success story: "Game stays the same, the name changes/ So it's best for those not to overdose on being famous."


The pair's artistic preoccupations overlap, too. Like Jay-Z, who has toyed in several of his songs with popular conceptions of himself as violent, misogynist, or otherwise brutish, Basquiat also played in his scratchy canvases with the notion of the black "primitive"—a term that came under scrutiny in the '80s art world, and which had been applied to Basquiat early on. "Every step you take they remind you, you ghetto," Jay-Z raps on the "Grammy Family" freestyle.

It's perhaps curious that Jean-Michel Basquiat is the only black art star to really penetrate the hip-hop airspace, at least as explicit references go, even as the field of black art stars has grown more crowded. (Kanye West did once link on his blog to a roundup of "promising young black artists.") For Jay-Z, at least, his interest in the artists he champions seems to have as much if not more to do with their relationship to money as with their relationship to race. (Of course, he regularly describes the African-American amassment of wealth as a political act in itself.) On 2009's "Already Home," he brags, "I'm a work of art, I'm a Warhol already," and, indeed, Jay-Z has realized Andy Warhol's vision of the artist-as-corporate-entity more completely than Warhol, with his Factory and roster of superstars, ever did.

Jay-Z has this in common with Murakami and Hirst, and the clue to the affinities between all three artists—Brooklyn rapper, Japanese kawaiienthusiast, and U.K. cow-slicer—may be that they made some of their most famous work riding the crests of giant tidal waves of money. In the early '00s, thanks respectively to a broadening global market for rap and the hedge-fund-era rise of the superrich collector, both the hip-hop and art worlds were more flush with cash than ever before, and Jay-Z, Murakami, and Hirst were among the biggest beneficiaries, poster boys—and narrators—of the boom times. "I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man," Jay-Z famously rapped. It could make a nice title for the next Hirst exhibit.

Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.


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