The second track of Jay-Z's new album, "Magna Carta Holy Grail," is titled "Picasso Baby," but his allusions to late neo-expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat within the song may be a more striking comparison for the rapper. "I'm the new Jean-Michel," Jay-Z raps, which is one of the multiple times Basquiat is referenced on the song. Even Jay-Z's collaborators give a shout-out to the artist elsewhere on the album ("I hope my black skin don't dirt this white tuxedo/ Before the Basquiat show," Frank Ocean sings on "Oceans"). It's an allusion that Jay-Z has made for years.
But the parallels between the artist's and musician's careers suggest that Jay-Z is not so much the new Basquiat, but a continuation of the struggles the painter faced had he been allowed to mature. Dying due to a heroin overdose at 27, Basquiat was just beginning to grapple with the contradictions of success and his humble, urban beginnings, a contradiction that has defined much of Jay-Z's (and plenty of other rappers') career. This juxtaposition is also a dominant theme for much of "Magna Carta Holy Grail." Simply put: Jay-Z is Basquiat grown old.
Born to immigrant parents in Brooklyn in 1960, Basquiat began his art career on the streets. He gained notoriety for his graffiti work with his friend Al Diaz (under the tagline SAMO) before breaking out as a solo artist on New York's glitzy 1980s arts scene. Jay-Z, also born in Brooklyn, came into the world nine years after Basquiat, with his early music referring to the lessons he learned dealing drugs during his youth.
Basquiat's rise to fame was meteoric. A 1985 New York Times piece titled "New Art, New Money" opens with Basquiat drinking a Kir Royale at an elite Manhattan restaurant and describes his ascent:
"Five years ago, he didn't have a place to live. He slept on the couch of one friend after another. He lacked money to buy art supplies. Now, at 24, he is making paintings that sell for $10,000 to $25,000. They are reproduced in art magazines and also as part of fashion layouts, or in photographs of chic private homes in House & Garden. They are in the collections of the publisher S. I. Newhouse, Richard Gere, Paul Simon and the Whitney Museum of American Art."
While the New York Times profile captured Basquiat at the height of his fame, critics were already doubting whether his art – brash, violent and gritty primitivist portraits of urban black life – was beginning to lose some of its authenticity, particularly as Basquiat became embedded with the high-end, celebrity art community (including a buddy-buddy relationship with the biggest celebrity pop artists of them all, Andy Warhol):
"But after Basquiat's show at Mary Boone last spring, some critics complained that his recent work had grown too soft, too slick - and one blamed the long shadow of Warhol."
Since finding fame, Jay-Z has had to juggle his new life and the old one that inspired the music that made him famous in the first place. He brings up his crime-ridden past and current fancy lifestyle, at times within the same breath. And while Basquiat descended into depression and drug abuse over the course of his rapid rise (and it's worth considering how his art would have had evolved if it had continued to run up against this contradiction), two decades of fame have brought Jay-Z not just riches, but stability. He is happily married to a global pop star and father to perhaps the most envied 17-month-old in the world. "I don't pop molly, I rock Tom Ford," he raps on "Tom Ford," referring to Ecstasy, rap's drug du jour, the same one Jay-Z said would have people "feeling like a champion" on "Empire State of Mind."
While Basquiat was just beginning to grapple with this contradictory existence, Jay-Z has had two decades to reflect on it, and his struggle to do so is on display in "Magna Carta Holy Grail."He brags of his journey from drug dealer to billionaire businessman on "BBC" (which stands for "Billionaire Boys Club"), saying that despite his legal wealth, he could catch federal racketeering charges due to the cost of his jewelry. Mostly, Jay-Z feels confident about this duality, no matter the suspicions that arise. In other places, he sounds a little more insecure, as on "Somewhere in America:"
"New money, they looking down on me
Blue bloods they trying to clown on me
You can turn up your nose, high society
Never gone turn down the homie"
The comparison he makes between slave ships and "Ocean's 11" yachts on "Oceans" has ruffled some critics, but he has every right to brag about his success, as he does on "F.U.T.W.," which he begins by begging, "Just let me be great."
"After that government cheese, we eating steak
After the projects, now we on estates
I'm from the bottom, I know y'all can relate"
But his new life of business pursuits – endorsements, record labels, clothing lines, sports management – outside (yet so entwined with) his music haven't entirely pleased critics. "Magna Carta" reviewers have derided the album's Kurt Cobain riffs and shots at Instagram after he convinced Samsung to buy the first million copies in order to ship the album through an Android app, as well as having the RIAA change their digital sales rules so the album was certified platinum before it was released. Fittingly, the album marketed with the hashtag #newrules.
Billboard's Jeff Rosenthal wonders why Jay-Z references Basquiat so much. On a somewhat obvious level, they serve Pierre Bourdieu's theory of cultural capital: that one can establish his or her social class not just by the things he or she can afford, but also the cultural artifacts one is familiar with, such as art, music, cinema and fashion.
It's not just that Jay-Z is rich enough to afford a Basquiat painting, he understands its cultural relevancy. So devoted to Basquiat's legacy, Jay-Z even used Basquiat's signature "E" without the vertical line on his Blueprint 3 album cover.
In Jay-Z's world, he can be a high-flying rich guy, but someone concerned with the racial and political struggle on the streets. And in that sense, his Basquiat references are fitting. Not only because Basquiat's art focused on many of the same themes as Jay-Z's music, but because their careers followed the same trajectory. Jay-Z's career may stretch as long as Picasso's, but its really a continuation of the contradictions Basquiat was only beginning to face. As Jay-Z says on "Picasso Baby," he wants to "spray everything like SAMO," but he's also worried about "scratching up his Lambo," a concern Basquiat never had the chance to understand.