Jay Z as Guest Lecturer? - Schooling Students in Fine Arts and Architecture

Jay Z's memoir "Decoded" unveiled the mysterious double entendres and artistic references within his lyrics in a very sophisticated manner which open the eyes to various academics around the nation to the power and artistic genius behind rap lyrics. One of those academics is Dr. Shawn Peters at University of Wisconsin Madison. For the past two decades the hip hop generation has been unofficially led by Sean Carter, not only the pursuit of lyrical mastery, but the manner in which the constituents conduct themselves as businessmen, fashion and the endeavors we care to venture down and ultimately the cultural relevancy of elements to hip hop. As Jay Z continues to disseminate hip hop's fifth element, "knowledge", his lyrical assault on our ears is heavily saturated with knowledge for those who dare decipher the stories of his life experiences delivered through his music.

As Part II of my presentation titled "Hip Hop Inspired Architecture and Design" at University of Wisconsin Madison,  I wanted to awaken the students senses to the content behind Jay Z's "Picasso Baby". Similar to his other songs, its not hard for the students to recite the lyrics, but far too many have limited knowledge about the topics being described in those lyrics. I took the students on a journey that I hope they will never forget. 

The Package

With very little introduction given to the students, I distributed an inconspicuous folder of images, the contents of which I described as elements of a composition by an internationally known artist in the United States.  I challenged the students to name each work of art independently to determine the piece comprised of them all. As students extracted various works from the folder, they displayed baffled facial expressions some students even laughed as they held up images of unknown artwork to display to other students.. I thought to myself, "this is perfect" it's the response I was hoping to have.

See the gallery below for some of the images I distributed to the students.

I encouraged the students to yell out the names of the images or the artist of the individual compositions which they could identify. I heard a small voice from the back of the class squeal, Jean-Michael Basquiat! Then other voices chimed in, The Louvre!, Da Vinci!, Warhol!, MOMA!. The students were now engaged, but still no one knew how these images were related and what artist used them to create a new piece. The last clue I delivered to the students was this, When reciting this person's work, which many of you can do at this very moment, each of you will be able to identify all the images in your folders". Still no answer.

The Revelation

I revealed the secret, "It's Jay Z's Picasso Baby". The pursuance of lyrical references to the imagery was now at full throttle. One student held up an image of a large balloon sculpture and said "This must be the work of Jeff Koon, because Jay Z says "Jeff Koons balloons I just wanna blow up", as he says that, a class mate immediately goes to Google to find out additional information about Jeff Koon. This discovery is made over and over again, as students are now delighted by the fact that they can actually name every image in the packet now, by referencing Jay Z's song, including the work of Mark Rothko, Ye Mask (scroll to the gallery of images above and see if you can spot it) and Riccardo Tisci! Take a look at the video below which includes the lyrics to the song which you can now match with the photos above.

The Assignment - "Remix"

A diagrammed I used to explain the notion of remixing to the students. Remixing has been a popular concept in hip hop since the early days of its development. For example, early DJ's would extract certain portions of popular songs which savored specific emotions from the masses. Those beats were slowed down, sped up, chopped and looped over again to create completely new songs typically for break dancers. Those extracted beats were commonly referred to as break beats.  I used this same diagram to explain how developer Robert Moses took a portion of LeCobusier's Plan for Paris and implemented it, in part, in the South Bronx, eventually setting the environmental backdrop for the creation of hip hop.

Each group of students were to compose a new piece of work by combing extracted samples from the images available, the only rule was that students used traditional methodologies used to lyrically compose hip hop and rap music, in the case of this assignment was multiples of 16 bars. Each extracted sample of the imagery represents an individual bar of the new composition. Take a look below for some images of the groups in action. The resulting piece of work was to represent "Picasso Baby" or a view of society.

Below are some action shots of the student groups.

This student compares two works from Picasso, "The Crying Woman" in the left hand  and "Les Demoiselle d'Avignon" in the right hand as Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa lay on the table adjacent to an image of the Tate Modern in London. All referenced in Jay Z's song "Picasso Baby".

Two students discuss the philosophy of Mark Rothko and how not only his art but the philosophy behind it can be incorporated into their composition.                                                                                                                                     Jay - Z's lyrics: "I'm never satisfied, can't knock my hustle. I wanna Rothko, no I wanna brothel".


Scattered on the students desk are the lyrical references which compose Jay Z's Song "Picasso Baby". Centered on the table is an image of the Tate Modern, The student with at the bottom of the photo has dissected an Andy Warhol and a Mona Lisa image. To the far side of the table a student has in her grasp concept imagery of Riccardo Tisci Givenchy clothes flanked by a Picasso. Jay Z's lyrics: I just wanna live life colossal, Leonardo Da Vinci flows, Riccardo Tisci Givenchy clothes...

Abstract Art Inspired by Jay Z's - "Picasso Baby"

Each group was given 45 minutes to create their abstracted representations of Picasso Baby, some of the results are below. As expected, students deviated from the initial directions as not to limit their creative abilities, similar to what we are currently seeing within hip hop music today. I see no problem with bending the rules, break the mold, be new, be daring, especially if it heightens your results.

Title - "Face Forward" - This piece is a representation of the many faces which make up America and the right way to tackle diversity. The strips of imagery are woven together making the following statement. To overcome social issues amongst diverse individuals, we must seek to not simply coexist in space, but find overlapping similarities which allow our lives to become woven and see the strength and beauty we are able to exhibit as a unit.

Title - Facing Your Fears / Lost of Innocence - This group piece represents the individual's reflection of the temptations that he faces as he proceeds into the world from the warm embrace of his mother's arms. There are three frames in which a man can view himself in society and the temptations and challenges fluctuate between those frames, the first frame is viewing the world while in your mother's embrace, the second frame is envisioning ones self in society prior to moving into the world, the last frame is the first person account of what happens in the world.

Title - No Ceiling - It's a representation of glass ceilings to the possibilities found in the sky (celebrity, fame, wealth, opportunity, etc.) as represented by "celebrate Hollywood", the woman character below is in a very eccentric, upscale-looking garb despite being at the bottom. She is at the bottom of the map (literally), the food chain, surrounded by a high rise housing project. The red is symbolic of blood shed found at that bottom level resulting from attempts to ascend to the top. There are also two black power fists here representative of pride and the iron fist that systemically dominates people at this level. There's so much white space to represent how vast and bleak the distance is as one ascends/descends the scale presented. The strips of gold along the literal, glass ceiling is to tease what success may bring before seeing the true heights of potential success.

Title - "Poser Macklemore Wins Grammy For Pants"

Title - Everything That Glitters Aint' Gold - This piece is about the saturation of materialism and sexuality in society.

Yes the title was a bit misleading...or was it? I hope you enjoyed. More to come soon!