Jay-Z has a long-standing habit of name-checking the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (see: "Most Kingz," "3 Kings," "Illest Motherf--ker Alive," "Ain't I," etc.), but it's on "Magna Carta Holy Grail" that the rapper takes his obsession with the downtown New York icon to new heights.
There are many references on the album, but none are more explicit than on "Picasso Baby," when Jay-Z drops the subtleties and simply raps, "It ain't hard to tell, I'm the new Jean-Michel." Jay -- who recently purchased
another Basquiat painting from a painting of Basquiat by Swizz Beatz (see above) -- also discusses Basquiat at length in his memoir-cum-lyrics-explainer "Decoded," describing the artist as "hip-hop when hip-hop was still in its cradle." Here's more from the illuminative excerpt:
One Basquiat print I own is called Charles the First—it’s about Charlie Parker, the jazz pioneer who died young of a heroin overdose, like Basquiat. In the corner of the painting are the words, MOST YOUNG KINGS GET THEIR HEAD CUT OFF….I read it as a statement about what happens when you achieve a certain position. You become a target. People want to take your head, your crown, your title. They want to emasculate you…
One critic said about Basquiat that the boys in his paintings didn’t grow up to be men, they grew up to be corpses, skeletons, and ghosts. Maybe that’s the curse of being young, black, and gifted in America….I’m trying to rewrite the old script, but Basquiat’s painting sits on my wall like a warning.
So while it's clear that Jay's appreciation of the artist is deeper than a simple pop culture reference, what would Jean-Michel Basquiat have thought of Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter?
It's hard -- no, impossible -- to know for sure, but one gentleman who knew Basquiat quite well says he'd probably be a fan of the rapper. Glenn O'Brien, the former editor of Interview magazine, current GQ Style Guy and friend of Andy Warhol and Basquiat, was at Jay-Z's "Picasso Baby" video shoot at New York's Pace Gallery on Wednesday. O'Brien, who made "Downtown 81" about Basquiat, sent us this email when we asked him what Basquiat would have thought:
Yeah I was there. I went up and got rapped at with Ouattara [Watts], who was also one of JMB's best friends -- Ouattara actually danced with Jay-Z. Yeah, I think he would have liked it, just like Tom Ford liked it. I wish he had been there. I do think he would have liked Jay-Z's stuff.
As for whether or not Basquiat would have approved of the way 1 million copies of Jay-Z's album were pre-purchased and distributed by Samsung through an app that culls users' phone data, O'Brien said he has "no opinion regarding Samsung or the advertising in Yankee Stadium."