On Wednesday afternoon, in the middle of a thick, 90-degree New York summer day, Jay-Z did something weird.
The rapper took over Chelsea’s Pace Gallery for the entire day to film the music video for “Picasso Baby,” one of the songs on his dismally reviewed new album, Magna Carta Holy Grail.
It was modeled, as is everything these days, after the Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic—and her famous 2009 performance piece, “The Artist Is Present,” in which she sat face to face with a changing cast of strangers for long hours at MoMA, reducing many of them—through her wise, knowing face, and steady eyes—to tears.
Unsurprisingly, Jay-Z’s efforts reduced no one to tears but rather caused everyone to lose it, resulting in the kind of hysteria that took over the street, blocked traffic on one cross-town block in Chelsea, and caused hundreds of people to flock to the gallery as soon as they got wind of it on Instagram (where they were told by suited bouncers, “If you don’t have a stamp, don’t even TRY coming in”).
Here was the gimmick: in a revolving set of mini-performances throughout the day, Jay-Z performed “Picasso Baby” for six hours straight to a constantly changing crowd of art world luminaries, celebrities, and total randos. The crowd was arranged around the perimeter of the gallery, allowing for a giant white space in the center, where Jay circumambulated a mini-riser stage with a GoPro camera attached to it and a single wooden bench. Everyone had to sign a release form and headshot to enter; people wearing writing on T-shirts and baseball hats had to obscure them or stand out of view for fear, presumably, of starting a trademark lawsuit, or worse—disappointing Jay-Z. Six or so people with fancy video cameras attached to them flitted around the space documenting the whole thing for the imminent music video, and we were instructed by a Teamster to “make a huge fuss when Jay-Z entered,” which was, of course, what we were going to do anyway.
Dressed in a white, short-sleeve dress shirt with a gold chain over it, jeans and sneakers—Jay-Z emerged, probably for the 40th time that day, seemingly in good spirits. He first serenaded Alan Cumming, then a cool lady with blue hair, then Rosie Perez and Michael K. Williams (who played Omar on The Wire), then Jemima Kirke—who went wild and whipped her hair back and forth—and then, possibly with the least fanfare and perhaps most ironically, Diana Widmaier Picasso, the granddaughter of the great artist himself. (Watching Jay-Z sing “I’m the modern-day Pablo” into the face of Picasso’s descendent seemed, for the record, simultaneously offensive and kind of exciting.)
The scene recalled Kanye West’s impromptu performance at Art Basel in Switzerland last month, when he threw together a last-minute Yeezus “listening party” at Design Fair for art types to get a sample of his forthcoming album. In the span of a month, both West and Jay-Z have made great overtures to the art world, eager to align themselves with all things Abramovic and Warhol and Koons. Of course, the art world loves them back—but as soon as the mutual adoration is openly expressed, it suddenly feels uncool. Take, for example, the ham-fisted, name-dropping opening verse of “Picasso Baby”: “Jeff Koons balloons, I just wanna blow up Condos in my condos, I wanna row of Christie’s with my missy, live at the MoMa / Bacons and turkey bacons, smell the aroma.”
West’s approach—in its scrappy, last-minute way—felt somehow more genuine and endearing. In a long opening speech to the crowd assembled at Art Basel, the rapper gave a bumbling but heartfelt speech about his adoration for various artists and his fight against the “constant dumbing down of culture.” But his listening-party model was, by nature, narcissistic, modeled after Steve Jobs and his debut of a new Apple product to a select crowd before release.
If West admired the art world from afar, then Jay-Z put himself smack into the middle of it—becoming, in his Abramovic-like way, a kind of living, breathing performance artist—which is, of course, what he is in a way, anyway. For all those release forms and security guards, Jay-Z appeared more relaxed than West had been. For all the pretentiousness, the performance was democratic, bringing young kids onstage and high-fiving them, shaking hands in the crowd, dancing with enthusiastic fans and then inviting everyone to jump the rope and rush around him into one big, completely overwhelming, group huddle.