The fruits of Jay Z's six-hour lip-synching labor last month at New York's Pace Gallery premiered last night on HBO in the form of the 10-minute "performance art movie" "Picasso Baby."
As a music video, the Mark Romanek-directed "Picasso Baby" is pretty fantastic. It's crisp and joyful. It's never boring (until its two minutes worth of credits). It elaborates on its source material's theme ("For you to see, I'm the modern day Pablo, Picasso baby," is the takeaway from the Magna Carta Holy Grail track). It's a collection of precious moments like Jay flubbing his words, Jay doing a half-hearted riff on Kid n Play's Funky Charleston with artist Rashid Jones, and Marina Abramovic exercising her craft of intense staring.
I'm not sure that it amounts to much beyond beyond a really fun music video, though, and it very much wants to amount to something (or at least, it wants to trick you into believing that it amounts to something — let's not forget that this is fundamentally a commercial for a product). Jay opens the clip pondering the similarities between performance art and concert performance. He muses on the way that art galleries have separated art from mass culture, that people into hip-hop aren't into fine art because they consider it "too bourgeois."
And then, he raps (live, along with the backing track for much of the video) to a bunch of famous people of all stripes: actors like Taraji P. Henson, Alan Cumming, Rosie Perez and Michael K. Willams; director Jim Jarmusch; rapper Wale; hip-hop pioneer Fab Five Freddy; art dealer Sandra Gering; clothing designer Cynthia Rowley; artist Marilyn Minter; two stars of Girls. There are some civilians thrown in there, but this is largely a celebration for and of the celebrated. This isn't a tearing down of the bourgeoisie, it's a restructuring. This isn't for the people; it's for the special people.
It's also a way of Jay Z asserting his artistry. In the video's intro, Jay speaks of his artistic brethren: "We are artists, we're alike, we're cousins. That's what's really exciting for me: bringing the worlds back together." Hip-hop has had to fight for its right to be recognized as art, so the move to make it literal is understandable. But for anyone already cognizant of hip-hop's artistic value, the message of this "movie" is largely redundant. It works way better on a visceral level — it's that kind of art, and it doesn't have to be anything else.