Hova Goes MoMA
Why Jay-Z loves shouting out Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Damien Hirst.
The video for Jay-Z's "On to the Next One," which he released on New Year's Eve, is the sort of densely packed curio cabinet that encourages repeat visits. In the lyrics, Jay-Z promises that no matter where you are, he's one step ahead of you—"on that next shit"—and the video is his attempt to illustrate that boast in unexpected ways. For starters: No other rap video has featured flaming basketballs, power cords whipping madly beneath fluorescent bulbs, and a fidgety evil clown. Photographed in the sumptuous black and white of a Richard Avedon portrait, these images and others combine to form a seductive, faintly menacing cipher. The gleaming 2011 Jaguar XJ that appears in several shots isn't the only thing tantalizingly beyond our grasp—so is the meaning behind most of what we see. We're left to scratch our heads as to what, for instance, that ram skull is about, or why the woman crouched on that stack of crates is holding martial-arts fighting sticks. Jay-Z, the implication goes, totally knows.
With the "On to the Next One" clip, Jay-Z and the director Sam Brown jumble bluntly evocative status symbols—a bulging stack of hundreds, Armand de Brignac champagne—with more mysterious symbolism—a bell jar containing taxidermy birds, a swirling ink blot, those whipping cords (which, it bears mentioning, are lifted from the 2002 video for Interpol's "Obstacle 1"). Some of the most memorable shots in the video are of black paint pouring down a diamond-covered skull. The skull is a replica of "For the Love of God," a Damien Hirst sculpture that the British artist fabricated for about $30 million in 2007 and sold for a purported $100 million (to a group of investors that includes the Ukrainian billionaire Viktor Pinchuk and, oddly, Hirst himself). Like the Jaguar XJ, Hirst's skull telegraphs extreme wealth, but that's not all: Screaming its value while begging to be mulled over, it's a status symbol and a puzzle in one.
This is not the first time Jay-Z has made an art-world reference in his work. For several years, he's mentioned Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat in his rhymes, discussed Hirst in his interviews, and put pieces by Hirst and Takashi Murakami on conspicuous display in his videos and stage sets. Nor is he the only hip-hop star to do so: Kanye West and Pharrell Williams have collaborated with Murakami on videos and sculptures, and West has blogged enthusiastically about Jeff Koons and Urs Fischer, among other artists; Swizz Beatz, who produced "On to the Next One" and who appears in the video wearing a jacket painted with a Keith Haring design, has rapped about collecting Basquiats, and he Twitters regularly about such Chelsea-centric matters as hanging out with Larry Gagosian.
In the late '90s, so many rappers rapped about Cadillac Escalades that the SUVs are still synonymous with hip-hop—albeit in a crusty, parodic way. At first glance, these nods to art stars may seem something like Escalades 2.0: A fresh way for Jay-Z and his cohort to not just broadcast their wealth but also their class, their conversance with high society, distancing themselves from those hopeless cases stuck on last-year's-model obsessions, who have never even heard of Miami Basel (where Jay-Z and his wife Beyoncé went shopping last year).
This explanation is partially true, but if all Jay-Z wanted to do was keep us abreast of his ever-swelling fortune and ascent into rarefied social circles, he might rap about, say, the wildly expensive canvases of Julian Schnabel—iconic wall candy of the hyper-riche—or any number of MoMA blue-chippers. (It's not hard to think of rhymes for Brice Marden or Lucien Freud.) Why is it Hirst, Murakami, and Basquiat who pop up in his videos and his verses?
Maybe it's because he sees them as kindred spirits. Like Jay-Z, who once calculated his personal fortune during the course of a song, Murakami and Hirst make art that is largely about the markets they exist in and the wealth they generate. Murakami designed monograms for Louis Vuitton, which in turn installed a functioning boutique in his 2008 MOCA retrospective. Hirst's "For the Love of God" is largely about its own value, both before and after its art-world debut; the question of how much it cost to buy the stones, and how much of a markup Hirst's imprimatur can sustain, is part of the narrative of the piece. This feels especially relevant to Jay-Z—when he raps, during the excellent Blueprint 3 outtake "Ain't I," that he paid $250,000 for the beat, he similarly writes the song's exorbitant cost into the song itself.
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.
Photograph of Jay-Z by Jeff Gross/Getty Images.