Jay-Z feat. Marina Abramovic

In case you missed it, Jay-Z showed up at the Pace Gallery in Manhattan yesterday and lip-synched his song “Picasso Baby” from his brand new album Magna Carta Holy Grail for six hours as cameramen shot footage for the track’s upcoming music video. Apparently an invite went out Tuesday to a select few, including Wale, Girls‘ Adam Driver, Marina Abramovic, and Judd Apatow. Here’s a Vine with Jay-Z and Abramovic from the scene:

I’m not going to take this chance to review Magna Carta Holy Grail, partly because others have already done a great job doing so, and partly because I haven’t really listened to it very much so far. I do, however, have some thoughts on the overall weirdness of MCGH’s marketing strategy (via Samsung) and the message Jay-Z is promoting with it.

The whole scheme, it seems, is that the new album comes from some place of supreme artistic inspiration, brought on by Jay-Z’s juggling of success, failure, fatherhood, and keeping credit behind his rapping character. The end goal is to sell copies and Samsung products, but a critical component of that plan is the careful maintenance and presentation of the Jay-Z character, the Nets cap-wearing, gold watch-donning master hip hop executive.  Where it gets interesting is when he does things like yesterday’s video shoot, creating another layer of inspired artist-ness to the persona. As GalleristNY pointed out this week, “Jay-Z’s never been shy about his interest in contemporary art,”  but with this appearance he’s directly placing himself in the same frame of reference as contemporary visual and performance artists in addition to his musical colleagues. It’s actually kind of brilliant postmodernist thinking: he’s appropriating all of the cultural ideas and preconceived notions about artists and using that to manipulate his own image ever so slightly (and not super subtly).  He’s not anymore just Jay-Z the rapper, now he’s Jay-Z the artist, and that’s the image being used to sell albums and phones, regardless of its validity.

“Picasso Baby” in particular shows Jay-Z playing his “vibrant child” card when he boasts “I’m the new Jean-Michel” in the song’s second verse, despite the fact that Jay is a 43-year-old multimillionaire with a career that spans 17 years (more than half of Basquiat’s entire lifetime) and a seemingly stable (and ridiculously famous) family life. Jay-Z is simply not the fresh renegade artist on the scene. Quite the contrary, it seems like the former Shawn Carter is kind of out of things to say. On MCHG, he tells us (for the thousandth time) about his success in rising from selling drugs in the Brooklyn projects to becoming the mogul he is today. The only new development even from 2011’s collaboration with Kanye, Watch the Throne, is that he had a baby with Beyonce, but the media has so tirelessly covered Blue Ivy from day one that even that storyline is stale and played out by now. This may be Jay-Z’s first album as pops, but that doesn’t make his development into fatherhood compelling source material.

It also raises some interesting questions about the theory behind this sort of performance art. Was Jay-Z lip-synching one of his own songs in front of a curated audience to promote himself, his new product and the products of a massive corporation in the same vein as some of the performance pieces Abramovic is famous for? You could argue that the latter was also a sort of artistic self-promotion, so where does the line between art and advertisement fall? Is Jay-Z’s performance closer to “The Artist is Present” or a sponsored mural outside a Chipotle?

At one point during the Magna Carta Holy Grail promo ad that showed during Game 5 of the NBA Finals last month (on ESPN, nonetheless, which opens a totally different discussion on corporate culture and image), Jay-Z says that “the album is about, like, this duality of how do you navigate through this whole thing, through success, through failures, through all this and remain yourself,” which is indeed true, at least in part. There is an interesting duality being played off of with the album and its promotion, one that bounces the rapper between being presented as a cultural and artistic icon and staying true to the financial, corporate juggernaut the Jay-Z brand represents.  

Jay-Z is, to his credit, mirroring the art world with MCHG‘s buzz – the album and the big-budget promotional campaign swirling around it may be pushed with a cultural, art-as-a-higher-calling veneer, but at its core it’s still simply and basically all about business. The event likewise was presented as a piece of performance art, even to the point of getting Abramovic there, but it was after all a video shoot, making Wednesday’s “piece” really nothing more than a flashing promotion. Which on one hand, is fine – by all means, artists (musical and otherwise) should look to push the boundaries of promotion and hype-creation and Jay-Z has done exactly that this summer – but you can’t heap on the cultural cred and artistic gravity AND turn the proceedings into a corporate sideshow without the former ringing a little hollow.