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SoundTable Discussion: Is Jay Z’s ‘Picasso Baby’ Really A Work of Art?


As Twitter went wild over Friday night's HBO/YouTube premieres for Jay Z's "Picasso Baby" video performance art film, the great majority fawned breathlessly while a few observers were truly outraged by the clip. Thus, an emergency session was convened at SBHQ to evaluate its merits, and we called in special guest and NYC banker/music producer/culture critic iExist for his take.
Left

Remi: So what sparked the need for the discussion in my head was the fact that while half of Twitter was calling him the second coming of Christ, and the other half swore he could repaint The Last Supper himself, one tweet stood out for me, and I thought it merited discussion. It said:

"I want a Picasso. In mi casa #Bamboozled #NewMinstrelShow #BlackActorsInBlackerFace #BravoSpikeLeeYouCalledThisOne"

D-Money: Oh wow.

Butta: Interesting.

Remi: So yeah, Bouncers. What'd we think? Game-changing art? Self-aggrandizement? Minstrelsy? Or just a fucking video?

D-Money: Well, to be fair, I'm not a fan of the song in the first place,
and the video didn't sway me.

Remi: See, I adore the song! It was one of the first to jump out at me on the album.

D-Money: Interesting, why's that?

Remi: On a record where (Inevitable Yeezus Comparison Alert:) nothing came close to touching the pure fire of "Black Skinhead," this almostsortakinda came close. So I wasn't surprised it was the single.

D-Money: I can see that.

Butta: I have yet to even listen to the album, so this was my introduction. Meh -- on the audio and visual.

Remi: Thought the "liveness" of his vocals was kinda awful. Jay's live flow is great for a stadium, but not when tempered to work in the Pace gallery.

Alright, iExist. Wanna tell us what you thought of it?

D-Money: Yes iExist, do share.

iExist: Thought you'd never ask LOL.

It's hard to look at this video without considering the pitiful state of hip hop today.

Butta: (Which Jay part and parcel helped to create, but I'm sleep.)

iExist: Well without arguing whether he helped create it or not, he, moreso than any other artist from his era, has committed to its change and ultimately its elevation. Personally, I feel as though this video attempted to return hip hop to a respected art form. Sort of a transcendence via the bridging to other artists.

D-Money: iExist, I can see him trying to bridge the gap with this video, however I just found it very self-important.

iExist: D-Money, when has hip hop not been self-important? The arrogance and self-overindulgence of hip hop is part of what makes it a unique art form.

Plus there will be kids watching this video, Googling the various artists that adorn the credits for a glimpse into another world they were unfamiliar with.

Remi: This is true iExist.
But I also noted the converse: an audience who may not know about a Mickalene Thomas or Rashid Johnson will see them equated with George Condo and Jim Jarmusch and look into them, too. Thus, Jay becomes the great equalizer. So in that sense, while his presence may not be "charity," it's sure as hell beneficial.

D-Money: Truth. But I don't feel that the video's aim was really trying to bridge a gap/introduce as much as it was to seek "validation" of hip hop (and more specifically, Brand Jay Z as an artist/art form).

iExist: Oh, but on the contrary D-Money, the individuals, were carefully selected. From Marina Abramovich to Allan Cumming, to Fab Five Freddy to Rosie Perez, etc.

Remi: Dude, any video that brings out Rosie Perez(!!) looking that damn good is a win for me!

D-Money: LOL. Call me cynical, but I don't think Jay Z's audience is really gonna go that deep, though.

Butta: It's all a bit tired and played out though. Just like the R. Kellyization of R&B. This isn't next level to me. Just more of Jay Z doing Jay Z. It's become underwhelming.

iExist: Butta, I think the brand that is Jay Z and Beyoncé has absolutely become overwhelming. Quite frankly, I was tired of hearing and seeing Jay Z all over the place until MCHG. He single-handedly butchered The Great Gatsby soundtrack. LOL

D-Money: Don't get me started on The Great Gatsby. Please don't.

Butta: Yeah... The Great Gatsby... NO.

Remi: Hah! I knew enough to let that one miss me altogether. But I think Jay decided in the last five years to be the living embodiment of the American Dream for young people of color. It's a problematic and imperfect stance, but it's got its value.

D-Money: Remi, maybe that's what rubs me the wrong way about it all.

Remi: Folks can look to him as someone who's transcended drug dealing, hip hop, even music. He's a cultural force as a man now. So while you wanna shake him, there's something really validating about this pair of black people who are arguably the most powerful pop-culture couple in the world.
I mean, I always say the key to enjoying commercial rap is suspension of disbelief -- you're surrounded by cars in this huge mansion, lying on a nest of women and money? And it's your first video?? Sure, son.

iExist: Hip hop and, unfortunately, much of music today is a young man's game.

Remi: Well, Jay's now at that point where he doesn't need to lie, and he's aware of it. He ends "Versus" on MCHG with the lines: "The Truth in my verses / versus / your metaphors about what your net worth is. [laughter]" He literally doesn't have to fake-brag anymore. 

iExist: Remi, that line was directed at Baby from Cash Money lol.

Remi: But is it false? I'm not sure what you're getting at, iExist
"I fraternize with a world leader every now and again": True
"I have hundreds of millions of dollars sitting around": Check
"I smash someone who's objectively one of the most beautiful and powerful women you've ever seen:" Check
His LIFE is a fucking rap song.

Butta: Check, Remi!

D-Money: (It sounds like Remi might be getting a check)

Remi: And I think that's something to applaud in that it's aspirational.

iExist: But what if its just an evolution, period? Jay Z is the first hip-hop artist that's relevant after the age of 40. I don't think it's a commitment to an American Dream image. What do you expect a rapper at his age to talk about? He has no baby mama drama, he isn't in the streets, he's not worried about his next record deal, he isn't concerned with battling or convincing other rappers of his greatness, he's just a grown man whose interests have expanded with his income and networks and this is essentially what we're seeing/hearing in his music.

Remi:
iExist, there are things for you to defend, and people to defend against. This ain't one of them.'Cause I'm not maligning his American Dream thing.

iExist:
Oh, I'm not defending at all. I'm just enthusiastic about this evolution of the art form.

Remi:
Though you really shouldn't repaint him as making "grown man music" though.
That's a bit of a skkkretch.

iExist: It's not a matter of grown man music, it's "class disparity" music. LOL
Remi: Hahaha! "GOP Rap, the Brooks Brothers of verses."
So how does the video illustrate said evolution?

D-Money: It's interesting that you see this as an evolution, iExist. I kinda think he's bored with rap/hip hop.

iExist:
It's evolution you know why? 2 Chainz, Drake, Rick Ross, Lil' Wayne, French Montana hahaha. It's evolution man. Just look around you. Haaaaannnnn!!

D-Money:
LOL
Remi: iExist, stop lying to yourself. "Picasso Baby" is a "money, cash, hoes" song like any other, just in a higher tax bracket.

iExist: Remi, yes, unfortunately, it's still hip hop. LOL

D-Money:
So hip hop's evolution is ultimately turning yourself into commodity? I guess that fits.

iExist:
But Remi, the video says "Hey James L. Knight Foundation, fund and preserve hip hop also. Hip hop, as someone in the video said, is making yourself art.

D-Money:
That's the quote I wanted to talk about. Thanks for bringing it to that.

Butta:
Making yourself art...doesn't every artist who takes the stage to perform do that? Because Jay Z did this performance at the Pace I'm supposed to be extra impressed? Not so fast.

Remi: What Butta said.

iExist:
Yes Butta, you're right. It's not a matter of being impressed for me. It's just stating the obvious. Again, 2 Chainz, Drake, Rick Ross, Lil' Wayne, French Montana, etc.

Remi: And "performance art," my ass. The only thing that took it from being just a concert video set in an art gallery was the whole "audience becoming performers" thing, which was reinforced by featuring them in the credits.

D-Money:
The other difference is him inviting the art world in to "validate" it. (At least that's what I saw.)

Remi:
One could argue that side of it, D-Money. Another side of the argument is the fact that if (yes, iExist) 2 Chainz/Drake/Rick Ross/Lil' Wayne/French Montana invited the art world to a video shoot, they'd be waiting a long time. So it's a celebration of Jay's (and therefore hip hop's) ascendancy.

Butta:
And when I saw one of those actresses from that insipid Girls billed as an "Artist" when Taraji P. Henson was billed as an "Actor"...what was THAT about? That rubbed me the wrong way.

Remi:
Hahaha. She's apparently a painter as well, though.

D-Money:
LOL.

iExist:
HAHAH Butta, it's probably what she asked to be called. (The kid was billed as a Superhero.)

Butta:
I am going to start calling myself a "Bon Vivant," however.

iExist: LOL. I went with "Homme de Loisir."

Remi:
All that said, I love that this video made it okay to be a smiling rapper again. Say what you want, this was downright joyful.

D-Money:
It was.

Butta:
Remi, see Phonte.

Remi:
Butta, Phonte isn't mainstream.

D-Money:
I must admit that it was fun. Though I would've preferred to see Kanye do something like this.

Butta: Ah, I remember the good old days when Kanye used to smile...

iExist:
Ye did "Runaway," which was avant garde for a hip hop artist as well.

Remi:
...and also a horrendous mess

D-Money:
A horrendous, yet artistic mess.
LOL.

Remi:
Yeah, but it failed woefully.

iExist:
HA! A noble attempt nonetheless.

Remi: No, because it just looks pretentious and forced, making hip hop as a culture look too unsophisticated to grasp "real" art.

iExist:
Yeah, Remi. "Runaway" seemed contrived.
Pretty much like Nicki Minaj's whole career. LOL

Remi:
OK, so was the video good or bad for hip hop culture? Or was there a net-zero effect?

iExist:
Good!

D-Money:
I don't think it was either.
It's just another video.

iExist:
Damn, so what would be good for the culture? "Just another video" would be "No New Friends"!! LOL

Remi:
I think it was fairly good for the culture.

D-Money:
I mean, what makes it so great?
Jay?
The art space? "Artistes"?

Remi:
In that it showed hip hop in a positive light, for the reasons expressed above. Do I think it was a great video? Absotively not. Do I think he just redefined art, like the Twitterati seem to believe? Fuck no.

iExist:
Not great, no. But good for the culture.

Remi:
But do I think he was "Dancing for Mister Chawlie?" Absolutely not. Jay has shown himself to not be that type. (See: DeNiro, Rob.)

Butta:
It's an OK video. It's no Janelle/Badu "Q.U.E.E.N.," which was a far better video to convey "living" art.

iExist:
Hahaha at "Q.U.E.E.N." No comment.

Butta:
I suppose whatever doesn't show us twerking, whoring, slanging or acting a got'damn fool is good for the culture.

iExist:
Yes, Butta. Whatever doesn't show those things is good for the culture. Evidence of the levels to which our culture is represented in the mainstream media, I will always support or promote anything that presents us in a more favorable light.

Remi:
So, best elements of the video? Let's go around the room.

D-Money:
Umm...it's shot very nicely.

iExist:
LOL

Butta:
Best element for me, seeing artists like Kehinde Wiley and Mickalene Thomas included.

D-Money:
Agreed.

Remi:
Absolutely.

iExist:
Yep. I was surprised to see KW there. The audience reactions.The fauxthentic/fauxganic reactions caught on the carefully placed cameras were good. LOL   

Remi:
The cameos. Rosie Perez, Alan Cumming, Taraji. But I guess Omar from The Wire didn't merit a spot in the credits, huh?

D-Money:
LOL

Butta:
IT'S RACIAL!

D-Money:
Also, is it just me or did Wale only get a couple seconds of screen time? Like, just enough for them to show his name. LOL.

Butta:
I blinked and missed Wale

iExist: A couple of milliseconds too long in my opinion lol.

Remi:
Another favorite element 

iExist: HAHAHA. She made even me feel uncomfortable lol.

D-Money:
LOL I watched that whole interaction hoping that they both had popped a mint before that.

Remi:
Seriously.

D-Money:
But he was doing that for 6 hours. So you know his breath had to be hella stale.

Remi:
I'm fairly certain no celebrity guest stayed for 6 hours though. So they probably made sure everyone was AquaFresh for those shots.

Butta:
Wait, so this is the video that was culled from that 6 hour performance?

D-Money:
Yeah, Butta. This is the video.

Butta:
Maaaaaaaaaaaaaan.
I guess I should thank my lucky stars it wasn't longer O_O

iExist: Hahaha.

Butta:
Watch they release it on DVD.

D-Money: You know they are.

iExist: No they wouldn't. Kids don't watch DVDs anymore. LOL

Remi: Yeah, don't try to understand us, Pops.
Another favorite had to be Sandra Gering, the art dealer who looked like an X-Men villain.

D-Money:
X-Men villain?! Sir...
I was wondering what was going on with her

Remi: Besides her plan to use her metal-manipulation powers to strangle Jay with his own chain?

Butta: Is it bad that I have no damns to give about who the majority of these people who I didn't recognize are?

iExist: It might be, Butta. LOL

D-Money: Nah Butta, I feel like most of his audience doesn't really care either. Also, I couldn't help cringing with the kids there, and Jay saying "Fuck it, I want a trillion."

iExist:
Yeah, the language?

Remi:
Yeah, thanks for bringing that up. I think that's what offended a few people. The cursing, the "niggas," the pantomiming gunplay, all that before/among the largely white, wealthy crowd? Felt like that may have been the root sentiment behind that tweet.

Butta: True, Remi

D-Money:
Yeah, that too. That really made me uncomfortable.

iExist:
Oh please. We all know what people say and listen to behind closed doors.

Remi:
But should that be a problem, though? It's not like anyone expects different from Jay. In fact, I'd be somewhat worried if he cleaned it up for them.

D-Money:
It's a double edged sword, honestly. I wouldn't want him to clean it up either.

iExist:
I'm glad he didn't clean it up. That's why I love Jay's video so. I'm tired of these rappers and this ratchet music, man.

Remi:
I do blame hip hop. That's what Don Lemon and I will be discussing tonight over scotch.

D-Money:
LOL

iExist:
Decency is erroding.

Remi:
Stop trying to get an invite, iExist

iExist:
Remi, you can't see Don without me. LOL

Remi: So, least-favorite elements of the video?

D-Money:
I mean, it's kinda boring, honestly. LOL I don't know why, but I expected more.

Butta:
Yeah, the video is a little dry. THIS was the best footage of all those hours? I would have been bored to tears had I been there.

D-Money:
Right.

Remi:
Hahaha. Again, only folks hoping for signed titties would sit through all 6 hours. I imagine they cycled folks through.

Butta: My last image of Jay was him rocking The Throne tour and how amazing that was. This is blah in comparison.

D-Money:
The most interesting thing about it was the famous folks that came through

Remi:
Of course, it wouldn't be anything without them. Least favorite thing probably was how he couldn't stay on beat. Way to fuck up a great song in the name of "art," Jay.

D-Money:
Oh, and this didn't need to be 10 minutes. Six at most.

Butta: Five tops.

iExist:
I guess now we're ruminating. LOL

Remi:
Hah. This video is the equivalent of a 20/20 Experience song: Overblown, overhyped, and grossly overlong.

Butta:
Bye, Remi. LOL

Remi:
Hahaha

D-Money:
#ThereItIs


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