Yesterday in New York Jay-Z did a combination performance art piece and video shoot for “Picasso Baby,” a song from his new album/app/branding opportunity in which he names a lot of art world luminaries. For six hours inside the white space of the PACE gallery he performed the song, interacting with some of the very same art world luminaries named in the song. Most notably, performance art superstar Marina Abramovic, whose The Artist is Present inspired the stunt, showed up and danced with Jay for a while, which was adorable in a middle-of-the-wedding-reception sort of way. Overall, though, the whole thing felt weird and misaligned, like combining two Google trends chosen at random.
What’s frustrating about the event is that it’s yet another example of Jay-Z taking on an interesting pursuit but doing it in a half-assed way. This is not to say a bad way, or an embarrassing way, as you could see happening if almost any other musician decided to do performance art. (Kid Rock stripping naked and covering himself in honey, etc.) Jay is an incredibly talented and effective human being, and so most things he chooses to do will turn out pretty well. And any area he chooses to go into is going to be welcome him with open arms. Abramovic is building a performance art museum, and so I’m sure she was more than happy to have one of the most famous people in the world create a pretty good piece of performance art.
But it’s that “pretty good” that’s getting increasingly frustrating when it comes to Jay. He’s pretty good at performance art. He’s pretty good at Twitter. He’s pretty good at being a record executive. He’s pretty good at being a restaurateur, a fashion magnate, and a nightlife promoter. I’m sure he’ll be a pretty good sports agent. Probably the other six art pieces he’s doing for the album will be pretty good, too.
But none of them are great, and that’s too bad. Certainly the new album is far from great, and rapping is the thing Jay-Z is supposed to be great at. Not coincidentally, it’s also the thing he’s devoted himself to the longest. Here is another thing he is great at: being in a relationship with Beyonce. Who doesn’t love their relationship? I guess we don’t really know what it’s like on the inside, but from the outside it just gives you hope for the world. And we know he’s worked at it, steadily and committedly, for over a decade now, because relationships are hard work, and theirs seems to be going well. So he’s capable of picking one of these other things and devoting himself to it, really getting into the details and achieving virtuoso status, at least if the video of him singing “Yellow” to Bey is anything to go by. (Being goofy to your partner in public = A+ relationship moves.)
Jay’s been nothing if not up front about why he’s been such a dilettante: he wants to be seen as a successful businessman, not just a great rapper. He has a firm grasp of what success looks like in American culture. A success is someone who’s good at managing things, not someone who’s good at doing things. Steve Jobs is successful; Doug Engelbart is obscure. Despite his art work yesterday — and his declarations that he’s the new Picasso, new Basquiat, new Sinatra — Jay does not want merely to be an artist. (Though, of course, successful artists are frequently more managers than creators these days.) But maybe it’s time to accept that he’s achieved that success many, many times over. It’s legitimately impressive that he was able to rise to the top in so many fields, and entirely amazing that he can be proficient at such a wide variety of pursuits. But maybe if he focused on just one or two of them, he might produce some actual masterpieces rather than just more pretty-good.