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Hip Hop's New Plaything: Jean Michel Basquiat

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Words by Sitting Witty

'Yellow Basquiat in my kitchen corner'; Jay Z smugly informs us of his interior design preferences in ode to all things artsy, 'Picasso Baby'. And this isn't the first time the rapper has name checked the Brooklyn born artist, 'Ain't I', 'Most Kingz', '3 Kings' and 'Illest Motherfucker Alive' being just a few of the tracks leaving less art inclined Shawn Carter fans lunging for the Google tab. With passing mentions of Jeff Koons and Da Vinci, Jay Z's apparent breadth of art world knowledge has left a few wondering; Is this simply yet another rapper feigning artistic expertise? (Let me just stop here, for safety reasons. Any avid The Taste Level readers must be well aware of our editors ceaseless infatuation with a certain Mr Beyonce and I wouldn't want my article cut under any circumstances.)

In recent years, a string of lyricists have replaced 'Ass' references with art world nods. Kanye West, Rick Ross, Macklemore, ASAP Rocky, J. Cole and Frank Ocean have all tipped a proverbial hat to Hip-Hop's favourite painter, but Jay Z's constant referencing of late Haitian-American artist Jean Michel Basquiat goes beyond a simple fancy for neo-expressionism. Basquiat, much like Jigga, came from very humble beginnings only to end his life rocking Versace in a Venice art studio. He began as an underground graffiti artist prone to sleeping on couches for lack of a more comfortable alternative and  brought the grit of the ghetto to life with raw depictions of a struggle he knew all too well. Within the stroke of a paintbrush, he had soon befriended Pop Art legend Andy Warhol and was selling his works for hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop.

Like the raps of Jay Z, the works of Basquiat used a street born medium (Graffiti) to convey sombre social commentary and political ideologies. Favouring primitivism, his bursts of colour, scrawled prose and 'back to basics' approach to art can be likened to the simplistic wall drawings of a preschooler, but harbour the heavy themes of colonialism, racism and the struggle of the class he had come from. Much like Mr Carter's luxury rap remains the 'Hermes of Verses' Basquiat can be rightly dubbed the Saint Laurent of Street Art. The similarities are to easy to draw between the two: Both are Brooklyn born prodigies and one of four siblings. One was addicted to drugs, the other sold them. Nine years apart in age, both rocketed into a  mainstream wholly at odds with their working class backgrounds. But that is where the similarities end; Basquiat died a lonely death following a heroin overdose, whilst Jay Z is currently selling out stadiums and has set up home with a pop icon (though arguably, he did hook up with Beyonce's 80's equivalent in the success stakes, Madonna). In another life, Basquiat may have been bumping Budweiser’s in the White House too. But depression and drug addiction claimed the young artist at just 27 years old, a fact that Jay Z seems unable shake. He explains in Decoded  that his references to the painter are not merely made in passing:

“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.”

The art work of Basquiat remains as much a grim omen of a stratospheric rise to fame as his short life does. Jay Z is almost a parallel universe Basquiat; starting from the bottom (Not the Drake bottom mind, the actual bottom) and now rapping about the things Basquiat never lived to have, the people he never got to meet, the money he never got to count and the lifestyle he never lived to live. Two similar starts that couldn't have had more different endings. His paintings now line the walls of a house he would have owned in an alternate reality. Jay couldn't be more right when he muses, 'It ain't hard to tell/ I'm the new Jean Michel'.
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Song Review: Jay-z - Open Letter

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Listen Here
In a fortnight that brought Rick Ross' despicable pro-rape and Ray J's equally despicable attempt to retain some post-Moesha relevance  one would be forgiven for thinking what the hell was wrong with rap music these days? Both depict Hip Hop's regretful side.

Now let's talk about the good. Let's talk about Jay-z. Facing rampant criticism from his decision to sell his minority stake in NBA franchise Brooklyn Nets – and then take a cheeky break to Cuba with Beyonce as an 'up yours!' (and also in violation of a U.S ban on citizens visiting the state) – Jay-z turned not to twitter, but to rap. His impromptu mini track “Open Letter” is defiant, abrasive and intensely braggadocious – perfect. Jigga speaks candidly about his decision to divest Nets shares, and more superficially about the state of world affairs. In a flow as relaxing as his illicit trip, Jigga raps: “Boy from the hood but got White House clearance” and “Obama said chill, you gonna get me impeached/But you don't need this sh*t anyway/Chill with me on the beach” – thereby picking up on the Black Excellence motif he and Kanye West pioneered on 'Watch The Throne'. And the best thing about it all is that there is a degree of truth in this. The Carters and Obamas do have a social relationship. The White House was therefore faced with serious questions regarding the Cuba saga today.

Listen to enough Lupe Fiasco and he would have you believe that wealthy rappers equates to stupid rap – with Maybachs as a disgusting by-product. It does not. Yes, Jay-z is not shy about celebrating excess. But why shouldn't he be? Is music not just another form of escapism? Why do I want to listen to Akala's pseudointellectual piffle when ostentatious rap about Maison Martin Margiela and MurciĆ©lagos are far more interesting? In any case, Jay-z has shown with “Open Letter” that he can still retain the essence of hip hop: identifying a problem and eloquently addressing it in verse. This is an important moment in modern hip hop.


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5 of the Worst Rap Lyrics Ever

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Photo via HypeTrak

Flo-Rida and Nelly aside, the soul of rap music is lyricism. Therefore Rick Ross's verse on Rocko's track U.O.E.N.O has been capturing heat with many online suggesting he may have gone too far when rapping gleefully: “Put molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it / I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it”. This line got me thinking about some of the worst lyrics ever to have been delivered in rhyme:

  1. Ma$e – Higher
The superstar rapper turned Baptist Minister – then turn rapper again – decided to come out of his second retirement to deliver what was a largely solid verse on Higher from G.O.O.D Music's Cruel Summer. Yet money Ma$e could have ruined it all with the line: "You know I ain't Muslim my n**ga, I'm about my bacon!".

  1. Tony Yayo – Terminate on Sight (T.O.S)
That Tony Yayo is on this list should be no surprise to rap scholars. Yayo was always a shocking lyricist, only really part of G-Unit due to his undying loyalty to head honcho 50 Cent. On G-Unit's track Terminate on Sight (T.O.S) Yayo ponders: “Who, who, who, who, who, who want it? Which gangsta want it? (WHAT?) Which rapper want it? (WHAT?)” before finally demanding “Which trapper want it? … My house is haunted”.

  1. 2 Chainz – Birthday Song
2 Chainz has an endearing quality about him, upon hearing his “TWWWWWWWWWO CHAAAAAIINZ” stamp on a featuring track it just feels like everything is going to be okay. 2 Chainz just wants everybody to have a good time. However Birthday Song reveals his vulnerable side, with the Georgia native wondering what happens when it all ends. He flips between being buried in the Booty Club, the Gucci Store, the Louis Store, the Jewellery Store and finally the Truey Store. The confusion seems to have got to his pen, with 2 Chains proclaiming: “She got a big booty so I call her Big Booty”. Duh.

  1. Tinie Tempah – Pass Out
The East Londoner's magnum opus gave him the leverage he needed to make constant appearances in GQ and at London Fashion week. However his soundtrack to 2010 is laden with whiny lyrical mishaps. Of the best are “I got so many clothes I keep some in my Aunt's house”, “Soon I'll be the Prince like Prince Charles child” and the classic “ I been Southampton but I've never been to Scunthorpe”. Verdict = more time needed in the booth and less time attempting to be Kanye West.

  1. Ying Yang Twins – Get Low
Apparently the Ying Yang Twins are still making music. If you have heard anything from the Atlanta duo please do comment below. Ten years ago (wtf?!) Get Low with Lil Jon got us crunk and secretly wanting to purchase pimp cups to store our crunk juice in. This was partly thanks to the shocking line “To the window to the wall (To the wall), Till the sweat drop down my balls!!”. Long live rap music.




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The Death of Transfer Deadline Day

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With dust settling on another football transfer window, one cannot help but notice the lure of the day has faded.

When a blurry-eyed sports anchor headed to the Sky Pad the dire state of the transfer deadline day was revealed. It displayed January's top spenders as Newcastle United. Now, with all respect to the toon army, the signing of obscure Ligue 1 players is not what the transfer window represented. At its 2008 peak, deadline day was when the big boys came out to play. We became accustomed to shots of Sir Alex speeding to private airports to personally chauffeur stars from their G4 Jets aiming to force through astronomical deals. Deadline day was once a lavish display of extravagance. It was footballs answer to Paris Fashion Week, with Robinho's confused face gingerly grasping a Man City shirt having an ethereal quality for the deadline day fateful. Learning that Stoke secured the services of Brek Shea doesn't really compare.

Sky's presentation has also fallen by the wayside. Deadline day protagonist Jim White, once our colourful man on the inside, has shrivelled into a caricature of himself. His deadline day delivery now lacks the genuine passion that made him famous. Sky Sports News have become far too aware of themselves on deadline day, constructing video montages of 'best bits' whilst also pre-empting the live reactions of testosterone fueled fans 'looking to get on the telly'.

Indeed, the presenters insistence on wearing synchronised ties and dresses proves symbolic of what deadline day has become, a very sad gimmick.
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Kanye West predicts baby in 2005, TheTasteLevel predicts kids future

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With frighteningly accurate levels of foresight Kanye West predicted on 2005 album track Celebration that he “had some problems before .. but [would] let them go” and would have a "well endowed" surprise baby with “a momma that had a phatty”.    TheTasteLevel too has has decided to turn to prophecy, pondering what the future holds for the Kim and Kanye's kid:

Celebrity Agent: Kim Kadashian appears to have a knack for making folk famous. Indeed, Kanye even admits she made herself a “superstar all from a home movie”. She then proceeded to make her mum, sisters, brother and interesting looking step-dad very famous too. Yeezy has a similar knack. Having provided a foothold for the careers of Lupe Fiasco, Cyhi The Prynce, Kid Cudi and Big Sean. Perhaps it will run in the kids blood ?

Fashionista: Both parents are renowned for their ostentatious sense of style. Upon breaking into the rap game with College Dropout, Kanye was unique in his ultra preppy mix of Ralph Lauren polo shirts and sweaters with Louis Vuitton backpacks. Six studio albums and millions of dollars later Mr West continues to try interesting things.

One half of a rap duo: Any serious rap fan will know that familial rap duos can really work well. Take, for instance, brothers Pusha T & Malice of Clipse who in their day pushed the boundaries of cocaine rap. Also take (perhaps lesser) note of Peckham duo Joe Grind and his brother Giggs. Given that Jay-z and Kanye West will both have kids, and they have proclaimed to be little and big brother in all but name, good money is on their successors eventually taking up the mantle and producing some sort of cousin to cousin sequel to Watch The Throne .

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Boots season

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As winter closes its time to think of getting winter footwear.  The obvious choice are a pair of boot. Regretfully, the boot of choice has recently been the JLS-boot. These chimney sweep things look thin and have typically been worn by chaps in a tightly tied up fashion, tucked under the trouser. Its time to move away from those, and towards something more sophisticated. Here are some options.

Desert Boot (first row)
Desert boots were first used by the British Army in the Western Desert Campaign against Axis Forces in World War II. Since then the boot has become a grown up piece of fashion footwear popularized by retailer Clarks. Their understated construction provide a perfect option that will go with just about anything else.  Such basic pairs can be picked up for shockingly cheap prices on eBay. However, should you want something more out there Topman are currently selling a dashing pair in leopard print.

Chelsea Boots (second row) 
Much like the desert boot these also have a historical grounding. Apparently conceived in the Victorian Era as a comfortable  riding boot, the Chelsea boot is quintessentially British and enjoyed popularity in the 1920's and 60's. Their contained construction means they suit those with slim and longer legs.  Do not bother wearing if totally covered by a pair of baggy trousers.

Hiking Boots: Vibram Sole or Duck Boot (final row)
These appear a modern day invention. With a greater length and weight than the above, such boots will not be for everyone. However, the Vibram sole boot is really interesting due to its thick white sole, whilst the water resistant Duck Boot also brings something new to the table. Such hiking boots, will probably never be worn for hiking and are more a matter of style over substance. Tie the boot up loosely, neatly fold your trousers up over the boot and lounge in their amazingness.     
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