Category Archives: hip hop

Lyrical Breakdown: Jay Z, Picasso Baby

American readers will be lucky enough to see an art film by Jay Z next Friday on HBO. I say lucky, because – good or bad – this should be one compelling television event.

If you weren’t already aware, the rap megastar spent six hours filming in Pace Gallery New York for a track on his new album with the unlikely title Picasso Baby.

In the trailer (above) he compares rap to painting (oh, really?) and legendary performance artist Marina Abramovic was on hand to lend credibility. Or perhaps destroy her own.

Having listened to the track on heavy rotation since then and also managing to decode most of it thanks to the fantastic Rap Genius website, criticismism has a few observations.

Firstly, as a cursory listen indicates, Picasso Baby is a shopping list. As such, anyone with an interest in contemporary art and background in a lucrative field of music might have written it.

Along with Picasso, Jay Z namechecks Mark Rothko, Jeff Koons, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Leonardo da Vinci and Jean Michel Basquiat (twice). All with casual aplomb.

To his credit, he leaves you in little doubt about his passion for collecting. He’s almost apologetic about it: “I’m an asshole/I’m never satisfied.”

(As we know, ‘Pablo Picasso was never called asshole’, but there’s nothing to suggest that the rap millionaire is giving props to Jonathan Richman here.)

He may be 43 years of age but Jay Z’s libido is still as rampant as his love of art. He trades a Rothko for a ‘brothel’ in a rhyme with no precedent in western art anywhere.

But then he enters the realms of utter fantasy with a seeming request for “a billion/Jeff Koons balloons”. The rapper surely knows that demand outstrips supply in the art market.

So the first verse sets him up as a nouveau riche collector enjoying an ecstasy of conspicuous consumption. It is impossible not to approve. Who wouldn’t do the same?

But unlike the oligarchs with whom Jay now rolls, the rapper lays bold claim to an artistic affinity with art world greats. Because you’ve never seen Charles Saatchi spit lyrics.

He compares himself to Basquiat and finally to “the modern day Picasso.” But what perhaps someone should tell him is that Picasso already *is* the modern day Picasso.

After the bit about the brothel, we get a touching glimpse of family life. His wife Beyonce is compared to the Mona Lisa (“with better features”). Take that, Leonardo.

HIs little girl Blue Ivy is meanwhile encouraged to “go ‘head lean on that shit” with reference to a Basquiat painting in the kitchen. Far be it from me to criticise a parenting style.

It might be best to draw a veil over most of verse three. This section of the lyric deals with the return of the repressed ie; scrapes with the law and trouble with guns.

But what you cannot ignore is a mysterious passage in French with a female speaker: “Et là je t’ai tout donné, montré, rien à cacher, tu es là Ivy, comme le nombre d’or”

This reference to the golden mean should knock Jay Z’s critics for six. The aesthetic ratio is a fusty bit of art historical detail which may be lost on most incidental yacht owners.

Not so Jay Z. Thanks to a $500 million net worth, his engagement with blue chip art is of a different order to yours or mine. Rap 1 – Art 0. Now will someone please paint him real good.

The new album Magna Carta Holy Grail, which features this track, is available from your local independent record store.

Interview: David Blandy – Work of Fiction

©David Blandy, courtesy 176/Zabludowicz Collection, photo Thierry Bal

Picking up his gong in the Breakthrough category at The Times/South Bank Show 2010 Awards, artist David Blandy might have thanked the man who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. During WWII, his grandfather was a prisoner of war and Japan’s surrender is said to have saved his life.

“How do I reconcile my life and the life of most of my family with the 200,000 dead in Hiroshima?” he wonders aloud in his East London studio. “It can never make sense really.”

Blandy now looks East for inspiration. Martial arts, manga and video game culture all feature in his work. As a performance artist, he has long posed as a Zen-like wanderer, making countless films as The Barefoot Lone Pilgrim, armed with record bag, staff and portable turntable.

His latest alter-ego, The Child of the Atom, is a response to the atrocity which saved his grandfather. This time he has styled himself as a manga action figure with legions of fans.

“I thought it would be interesting if they were already fan made things, about this character who was already existing, so it’s like a fan homage,” he says of the film, shot in Japan in December.

Blandy himself is the consummate fan. When we meet, he is quick to show off his current favourite graphic novel, his vintage arcade machine cartridges and just a few of his many vinyl records. He may be up on art history, together with Freud, Lacan and Žižek, but this serious artist is a pop kid at heart and well aware of the absurdity.

“Art’s been very important to me in my life,” he insists, “But at the same time has it really changed me? Has it been as profound an influence as . . . Karate Kid?”

He laughs, just as the viewer might at footage of a tall, bespectacled Blandy, dressed in his orange Kung Fu suit, wandering the streets of New York in search of soul. Humour is everywhere in his work, or more seriously, “the joy of acknowledging the truth that maybe identity itself is a fiction”.

“Once you embrace that idea you realise that anything is possible,” he explains. “Rather than feeling completely constrained within your boundaries of – I don’t know? White middle-class male from North London – why can’t I be a superhero anime action figure?”

Or for that matter a black soul singer. Another film finds Blandy made up like a minstrel in reverse as he mimes along to Syl Johnson’s classic, Is It Because I’m Black? The track lasts eight minutes and in psychological terms is something of an endurance piece.

“I may have put on clown make up, but I perform the song with total . . .” he is lost for words. “I’m just inside it and in a way it’s inside me now because I’ve learnt it for the last eight years. It’s just become such an intrinsic way of how my brain is”.

It is this depth of engagement which makes the work so interesting and Blandy compares it to an experiment: “I guess I’m not scared of making a fool of myself in the aid of art, in the aid of trying to understand a bit more of who I am.”

But this serious question about identity leads the artist back to the video game Street Fighter, which he says is also hard-wired into his nervous system.

“Where do we get our ideas if we don’t read philosophy or if we don’t deal with religion?” he asks. “That desire to believe in something or have rules to live your life by is still there, so you end up relating to [game character] Ryu, wandering the world looking for the perfect fight.”

This in turn, he argues, might lead you to an interest in reading actual Zen philosophy. Just as going to a show by David Blandy could lead you to Syl Johnson, Street Fighter or manga epic Gundam. “I guess I see that almost as my role as an artist,” he adds, “To be the finger pointing at the moon, as Bruce Lee would say”.

Written for Art & Music.

Fortress of Solitude by David Blandy at 176 / Zabludowicz Collection

Published on Culture24

David Blandy – Fortress of Solitude, 176 / Zabludowicz Collection, London, until Summer 2010

Strap on the artificial guitar and fire up the games console and you are ready to enter David Blandy’s world. It is indeed, as he demonstrates, a stage. We find our truth in the roles we play.

Guitar Hero is just part of it. Fortress of Solitude includes a library of games, books, comics, films and records which invite the viewer to load up, read, or put on different mass culture artefacts. Each carries a Soul Archive label as if a piece of Blandy’s very essence.

His influences, and the show is about nothing else, are eclectic. They include Kafka and Joyce, but also Marvin Gaye and EPMD. Martial Arts seem to tie the whole lot together as the sphere where hip hop, video games and of course film collide. Way of the Samurai is the subtitle of both a book (Mishima) and a movie (Jim Jarmusch).

It could also reference Blandy’s longest running video pieces. Soul of London, Soul of the Lakes and The Five Boroughs of the Soul all star the artist in an orange kung fu suit, with staff and portable record player. Each one documents a quest or in search of truth or the meaning of soul. On the subway in New York, a barefoot Blandy explains to a bemused local that he is doing a penance.

In the Bronx, he risks getting shot. In London, he risks mockery. In Cumbria, he risks cut and bruised feet. But each film is cut and spliced with clips from the music and the movies the film-maker loves. So they combine postmodern hyperreality with real endurance, an intriguing mix.

The artist also puts himself on the line with emotive lip-synced performances of hip-hop, reggae, funk and soul classics. In Hollow Bones he even mimes along to a Syl Johnson track called Is It Because I’m Black? Blandy by the way is, apparently, not.

That could mean his performances are as hollow as the bones in the film’s title. Or it could mean that they are still bones, still the structure of his existence.

Trouble Tune Tonic at the South Bank Centre

Published on Art and Music

Kier Vine/Charlie Dark/Gold Future Joy Machine/Dels/Speech Debelle/Sebastian Rochford and Leafcutter John

He doesn’t quite hammer nails through his piano, but shortly after beginning to play Kier Vine does get to his feet and walk away. His instrument carries on playing, thanks to the magic of electronica and the recital takes a turn for the weird. So does the whole evening.

Trouble Tune Tonic is a night of adventurous entertainment at the South Bank Centre. It’s free of charge and, in style terms, a bit of a free for all. Along with modern classical, the line up on Friday included spoken word, rock ‘n’ roll, hip hop, rap, jazz, electronica and video installations. But was it a tasty musical bouillabaisse or did more prove to be less?

The piano piece that kicks it off is called Equal Temperance. It too is a bit of a collage as all of the music was collected from 29 pianos which have been strategically left around the city. So the first musicians we hear are members of the public, who sound better than our Saturday night talent shows would lead you to expect. Vine and producer James Bulley have spent three weeks reworking the material so the result is both ghostly and hypnotic. Despite the empty stage, it leaves an early evening audience spellbound.

From classical with a twist we moved to poetry with a bassline. Now some would say that what with metaphor, meter, onomatopoeia, etc., the poet already has enough tricks up his sleeve. Why bother adding beats? Charlie Dark replied: “I think music just pushes it forward, in some ways, and engages more audiences. It’s an art form that hasn’t necessarily moved forward with other technological advances.” True, the lyre and lute are long forgotten, but what can music gain from poetry? “Maybe some substance in this day and age,” Dark said. “And something to think about while you’re dancing.”

Not many people dance, but he is indeed engaging. Dark spins atmospheric narratives about London life that take us from the comfort of the Queen Elizabeth Hall Front Room to the mean streets of Croydon and across town to the Notting Hill Carnival. It’s still quite a minimal performance: one man and a drum machine with a bit of echo and reverb. The special effects mix in well, like sonic spice.

By now we had a taste for the unusual. But the least usual thing about next act, Gold Future Joy Machine, was their name. “We heard you haven’t had a rock and roll band in this room for quite some time,” announces Johnny Kenton, frontman, “You’ve got one now.” There are seven on stage and they know how to tear things up. But perhaps good-time punk rock is a dish best served with plenty of booze and the bar was only doing steady trade. Given what we’d seen so far GFJM came across as a little bit trad.

The same could be said for Dels, an MC who rocks the mic at high volume and bounces his rhymes off the beat of a live drummer. There’s a largely seated audience who leave a polite chasm between themselves and the low stage, as if waiting for Jools Holland to direct his studio cameras at the next act. Dels doesn’t look to enjoy his set much and admits to having toothache. Perhaps he should have had the thing extracted live on stage to keep up the interest levels.

There’s more than a little interest in the next act, because Speech Debelle has just been nominated for the 2009 Barclaycard Mercury Prize, as it’s now called. The room fills out with likely Barclaycard owners and there’s a ripple of excitement as a small woman in an outsize t-shirt takes the stage with a three-piece acoustic jazz band. Speech is here to mix angry rap with a backing of cocktail-hour music and the unlikely combination works. The band hold back enough to showcase the lyrics and whether rapping about Facebook or the morning tube, this MC does so with drama, an added ingredient.

“The boundaries are definitely blurring between rap, spoken word and song,” she later said. “I’m an artist that uses my voice as an instrument and working with live musicians has opened new ways of understanding my instrument. You could call it neo rap.” At one point she brings saxophonist Soweto Kinch on stage and there’s a jazz/neo rap fusion in full effect. “Hip hop is a young music,” she explained. “So it has the ability to draw in other music and go in different directions.”

But there’s some music that even hip-hop can’t absorb. Sebastian Rochford and Leafcutter John perform some challenging electronica in nearby bar Concrete. It’s every bit as jagged and brutal as the prevailing architecture of the Hayward Gallery venue and the surrounding arts complex. If tonight has so far been a fairly palatable melange, this seems designed to stick in your throat. Indeed the piece is called Nails, which brings to mind all over again the thought of Fluxus Piece 13, in which George Maciunas did hammer nails into a keyboard.

Nothing that sensational happens, but Trouble Tune Tonic does almost boil over. The venue is a dark, industrial shoebox. The alcohol is suddenly flowing. The late night set by Soweto Kinch is some 40 minutes late. Sweat drips from the ceiling. A crowd blocks out the visuals up on screen. Shouted conversations drown out the music. It’s no time or place for art, you think. Bring back the loud and dirty rock ‘n’ roll.