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Sunday, August 11, 2013 0
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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