Music and Art: Tanto Bravura!
Music and art have long been closely tied together, each taking inspiration from the other (for better or for worse). Some remarkable music has been...
Sarah Mills 30 April 2022
min Read20 March 2023
Full of metaphors, double meanings, and references to popular culture – from cinema to literature, and through fine art – rap is a musical genre that mixes diverse aesthetics, making it an extremely visual style of music. Long before Jay-Z’s Picasso Baby, many emcees have displayed their interest in and their knowledge of art history since the beginning of the genre. Here is a list of eight painters to whom rappers like to be compared.
Contract my mind, my thoughts keep escaping
Power of the pen, a work of art like Basquiat
Ja Rule, Believe
Jean-Michel Basquiat is, without a doubt, the most referenced artist in hip-hop culture; his dramatic journey is appealing for artists – whether in visual arts or music.
Forced to leave his household with no money at the age of 17, Jean-Michel Basquiat became homeless. Basquiat quickly made a name for himself in the underground milieu, until his career got propelled to the contemporary art scene thanks to his friendship with Andy Warhol.
Unfortunately, due to being addicted to drugs for years and feeling insecure regarding his success as a young black man in an environment ruled by white people, Basquiat died at the age of 27. Yet, over those years, Basquiat left behind an incredible number of creations, and above all, his success has given hope and been exemplary for the next generations of artists of color all around the world. German, French, Italian, and even Brazilian songs, such as A Pior Música do Ano by the rapper Froid, show Basquiat’s impact goes beyond a purely visual point of view:
Seja Basquiat e não DiCaprio
Aprenda a ler lendo bell hooks
[Be Basquiat and not DiCaprio
Learn to read by reading bell hooks]
Froid feat. Djonga, A Pior Música do Ano
Jean-Michel Basquiat is a symbol of resistance and black excellence. Not only is he cited in songs, but his works are also collected, and sometimes even tattooed or painted by artists like Swizz Beatz, who finds in Basquiat a true model and an inexhaustible source of inspiration. More than his character and appealing personality, Basquiat’s art is represented in a few ways in hip-hop culture.
Rap music is multi-layered and complex. Just as Basquiat referred to Egyptian mythology or his Caribbean origins, artists like Cormega in the United States, Froid in Brazil, or Disiz la Peste in France celebrate black culture, in all its diversity:
I move honorably, gained a lot of respect
Saw of poverty but wouldn’t trade God for success
In fact maybe I’m too advanced for crack babies
My impact is similar to Basquiat paintings
Visually fascinating, reality rap – not the fabricated
Cormega, MARS (Dream Team)
DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Just Kickin’ It
If there is an artist universally known around the world, an artist whose creative energy and success were made inspirationally, it is Pablo Picasso.
Picasso is the kind of man who dedicated his whole life to art. Contrary to Basquiat, Picasso learned it early in his life. His father was a drawing teacher and encouraged his son onto an artistic path from a young age. At least from the age of four, to the last day of his life at 89 years old, the Spanish painter never stopped creating.
Picasso was a forerunner and a leader. Although he developed different styles throughout his career, he is most famous for being the inventor of Cubism. The thing is that he developed it in collaboration with French painter Georges Braque, but Braque was less charismatic than Picasso. Whoever stood next to Picasso, whether it be his (multiple) wives or his friends, stayed in his shadow. Picasso fascinates, as much as he irritates. This aspect of his personality is also the reason why people, rappers included, keep talking about him.
Young Picasso, ya feel me? I thought so
There’s people in the world that are jealous of success
Don’t ever second guess yourself, step or get left
Mac Miller, Live Free
In the rap world, where emcees are in competition with each other on a musical level, everyone tries to be the next Picasso, the only one that history will vividly remember.
Rap is an art and I’m like Picasso
But of course, why else would you try so
Kool Moe Dee, How Ya Like Me Now
‘Cause each and every time you touch a spraypaint can
Michaelangelo’s soul controls your hands
Grandmaster Melle Mel & The Furious Five, Beat Street Breakdown
Pablo Picasso was certainly admired, but Michelangelo was desired by the most powerful people of his time. At a period when artists didn’t yet have a social status as important as they do now, especially painters and sculptors, Michelangelo was respected and feared by the Pope himself. In his book, The Story of Art, Ernst Gombrich writes that after a disagreement, Pope Jules II begged the Florentine artist to come back to Rome to realize a project he only wanted to be done by him.
Thus, when rappers compare themselves to Florentine artists, it is not an easy claim. When LL Cool J says that the Pope “raised Michelangelo from the dead so he can make a fresh painting of my head” it can be interpreted as a claim of high recognition as a talented artist, which has been historically harder for black people. In this light, the rapper implies his accomplishment is bigger even than the Italian artist’s.
The President woke and he called the Pope
The Pope climbed to heaven on a golden rope
He asked the Lord to raise Michaelangelo from the dead
So he can make a fresh painting of my head
LL Cool J, My Rhyme Ain’t Done
However, it should be noted that the reasoning behind Michelangelo’s comparison is first and foremost related to talent; with social recognition being only a positive effect of the latter.
Similar to Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, Michelangelo’s style is easily recognizable. The notion of artistic personality appeared during the Renaissance, influenced by The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari. If rapping is like picturing scenes as Jay Z states in Guns & Roses, it is understandable that, although talking about similar themes, rappers’ flows need to be distinct from one another and be as innovative and talented as Michelangelo was.
I stepped into the Hall of Fame and put my frame on the wall
I’m like a Michelangelo paintin’ that hangs in the vault
B.o.B Feat. Lil Wayne, E.T.
I rap so Rembrandt
Touch the stars
Cause the sky’s no limit
M.I.M.S, On & On
Rembrandt van Rijn is the most famous Dutch artist of the 17th Century, formerly called “The Golden Age”. As a painter, draftsman, and etcher, Rembrandt is famous for his use of chiaroscuro, strong contrast of shadow and light, along with his portrayal skills.
For the exhibition All the Rembrandts, organized in 2019, the Rijksmuseum director characterized Rembrandt as the forerunner of Instagram selfies. Indeed, the Dutch artist left us with a considerable number of self-portraits, from his youth to the tired face of a ruined old man. Yet, there is no sign of vanity to interpret here. During Rembrandt’s time, self-portraiture was a way to search, train, and improve technical skills for cheap. Rather than paying a model or being subject to their schedule, artists just needed to look in their mirrors.
The repetition of self-portraits practice could also be the reason Rembrandt was able to represent expressive faces while keeping an ounce of mystery. Knowing Rembrandt’s reputation for auto portraiture as well, rappers make the difference between simple “install-selfies” and artistic portraits, as German rapper Bushido attests in CLA$$IC:
Dein Album ist ein Selfie, unser Album ist ein Rembrandt
[Your album is a selfie, our album is a Rembrandt]
Bushido & Shindy, CLA$$IC
Finally, one of the reasons Rembrandt was criticized when he was alive and admired nowadays, is his talent to compose realistic scenes, with a thick facture. From the absolute abstraction of the pigment, he gave birth to strikingly banal scenes. Language being a system based on initially abstract signs, words make sense only if one masters the use of them. Not only to give it meaning but also to reach an audience. It is through Rembrandt that rappers bring to light the magic of their poetry.
Yo, my brain races to create these lyrical mosaics like paintings
To me record store and art galleries are merely the same thing
I feel like I’m Rembrandt and my man Van Gogh is amazin’
Canibus, The Rip Off
From the beginning, references to popular culture have been integral to rap. Similarly to Andy Warhol, emcees have been using this technique to prove that rap is indeed a form of art, one that deserves similar consideration. This technique can also be found in the fashion industry, as luxury streetwear begins to be incorporated by designers such as Virgil Abloh and Alexander Wang:
My flow like Andy Warhol art
Alexander Wang in my shopping cart
A$AP Twelvyy & A$AP Ant, Fraternal Twins
In Warhol’s obsession with icons of pop culture, he would certainly have been interested in the rappers who appear to be the new role model and sources of inspiration for young people, just like James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Elizabeth Taylor before them. For some rappers, rather than using Michelangelo as a talent-fame comparison, look instead for a Warholian one. The use of Andy Warhol as a model of reference in a song like Dough-Boy’s would be less for highlighting skill rather than popularity.
So they post a video mocking all their enemies
And that’s how you get likes Boy, overnight celebrity
Andy Warhol said it best you got your 15 minutes now
If you got a good amount of followers you in the crowd
I’m always frowning in my pictures that’s just me in real life
Cause I’m surrounded by these fuckers that’s how it feels like
Doughboy, 望穿抽水 (Wang Chuan Qiu Shui)
Andy Warhol’s success introduced the idea that artistic skills art not enough to succeed in our modern societies. You need to be marketable. Even though making a profit from art was already existing practice, Warhol demonized the concept and made it into high art. The lesson that rappers could learn from Warhol is that art is a commodity and, in the end, being an artist is a business like any other that one can make a big profit. Jay Z would certainly agree.
I’m in The Hall already, on the wall already
I’m a work of art, I’m a Warhol already
JAY-Z Feat. Kid Cudi, Already Home
Salvador Dalì, frà, disponibilità giornaliera non è mai esaurita
Quando passo la frontiera dolcevita
[Salvador Dalì, bro, daily availability is never exhausted
When I cross the border dolce vita]
Club Dogo, Confessioni di una banconota
Being marketable is not a guarantee for success, however. Having a strong personality and being original makes all the difference. And who better as an example of personality capitalization than Salvador Dalí? Dalí was certainly the most famous and most successful surrealist artist, even after he got officially expelled from the movement.
Salvador Dalí made his career by creating an extravagant personality for himself. He was a showman who was playing the persona he made for himself in every breath he took. Rappers often invent a public persona as well. Most of them wouldn’t lie as much as Dalí did, but they do either exaggerate or hide some aspects of their life.
A recent example of this kind of attitude is the rapper 21 Savage’s case, who was known as being from Atlanta, Georgia until he got arrested for being illegally on American soil as a UK citizen. Nonetheless, the way artists want to show themselves to the world is a choice they make. It is a liberty they have to control their public image. Even the more caricatural personalities are not complete lies about one’s persona, but simply an exaggeration of one aspect of it.
Despite his recusals, Dalí’s extravagance made people sometimes think he was crazy. Maybe he was, like his uncle who had a personality disorder, or maybe he was just enough crazy to play it perfectly.
Although he was creative in many fields (fashion, graphic design, movies…) Dalí is artistically most famous for his concept of melting things, both inanimate objects and human beings. Although it is a concept that he developed throughout his career in many paintings, The Persistence of Memory, which displays several melting watches, is the symbolic one artists like to refer to.
Forced to war like Muhammad Ali
Shape the future like cash is clay
The Salvador Dalí
Dilated Peoples, Directors
To get his dreamlike compositions, Dalí developed a technique that consisted of getting access to the infinite world of the subconscious without the use of drugs. He would prefer people think he was indeed crazy rather than taking drugs. In homage to this eccentric but bold attitude, the Italian duo Marracash and Guè Pequeno start their song Salvador Dalí by referencing the painter’s famous quote “I don’t do drugs. I am drugs”:
Non siamo strani, non siamo normali
Siamo la droga, non siamo drogati
Mentre correvo in gironi infernali
Sono impazzito a dipingere quadri
Salvador Dàli, Salvador Dàli
[We are not strange, we are not normal
We are drugs, we are not drug addicts
While running in hellish circles
I went crazy to paint pictures
Salvador Dàli, Salvador Dàli]
Marracash & Guè Pequeno, Salvador Dalì
The Mona Lisa aside, which is a theme in itself in the music community, Leonardo da Vinci himself has also been referred to by rappers.
Leonardo Da Vinci was the kind of artist whose knowledge didn’t know any limits. More than a painter, he was also a sculptor, architect, writer, engineer, poet, and musician… da Vinci could do it all. Therefore, although his peers recognized his many qualities, they would struggle to understand him.
Tell me I ain’t got it, you fakin’, lyin’, hallucinatin’
You get a vibe but do hide your feelings, you tryin’ to escape ’em
To the rudimentary, it’s too Da Vinci for you to take in
Tech N9ne Feat. JL of B. Hood & King Iso, Hit the Ground Running
In this verse, JL insinuates that being out of the box because of a special talent can be both a gift and a defect, as other people cannot follow the artists’ intellect, as da Vinci had to experience.
Because the artist didn’t receive a conventional education, he developed his language and, because he was left-handed, he wrote from the right to the left. Therefore, his notebooks would have been difficult to understand for anyone but himself. Moreover, the comprehension of da Vinci’s theories is even harder to comprehend as, after his death, the notebooks were spread out.
All these elements made a mysterious aura around Leonardo da Vinci. Dan Brown’s 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code, and its cinematographic adaptation in 2006, exacerbated popular interest and aroused people’s imagination. Rappers who compare themselves to Leonardo da Vinci in a song, such as Fell in the Sun by Big Grams, sometimes refer to the mystery around the artist:
Once upon a time there was a boy named Daddy Fat
Heard he grew into a man and put his family on his back
Had a master plan, Da Vinci code, nobody couldn’t crack
Big Grams, Fell in the Sun
More than plots, rappers simply like to compare the poetic complexity of their songs to da Vinci’s creative accomplishments.
Paint a picture like Van Gogh, I’m cursed man
Skrrt skrrt to the moon, bitch, I’m swervin’ (Skrrt)
Yung Lean, Red Bottom Sky
Who has never heard of the cursed artist? Edgar Allan Poe in literature, Richard Wagner in music, and Vincent Van Gogh in painting. All these men have in common that they had traumatic events in their life, as well as emotional instability, which led to tragic deaths.
Vincent Van Gogh was a man with an ardent character, accentuated by his excessive consumption of drugs and alcohol, in particular absinthe, which was for a long time banned in Europe and the United States for its supposed hallucination effects. Because of all this, Van Gogh experienced psychotic crises, which were sometimes extremely violent.
In December 1888, after an argument with Paul Gauguin – another cursed artist in his ways – Van Gogh cut his left ear. Following this event, Gauguin ran away to Tahiti while Van Gogh registered himself in a psychiatric asylum.
This period of Van Gogh’s life is particularly addressed in songs referring to the painter. Some of them translate into words the intensity of the feelings Van Gogh would have felt during his crisis. Others use the metaphor of the artist’s ear to express a state of mind where the person is so into their head that they don’t hear what others have to say, or in a rap context enemies and haters:
I don’t stop until I see the end, my vision clear, bitch
I’m on my Van Gogh, I don’t hear shit
Kanye West, Feat. JAY-Z & Swizz Beatz, POWER (Remix)
Gauguin and Van Gogh are similar in the way they both died in solitude and poverty, researching a form of art they were the only ones to envision. Like all true accursed artists’ stories, it is only after they died that people started to appreciate the singularity of their paintings.
Although this kind of fate is hardly desirable, artists like French rapper Nessbeal compare themselves to these tormented artists, suffering from feeling misunderstood but knowing they would pass to greatness:
Tellement profond, normal que tu comprennes pas
C’est comme Van Gogh, Ness sera couronné le jour de son trépas
[So deep, normal that you don’t understand
It’s like Van Gogh, Ness will be crowned the day of his death]
Nessbeal, Rimes instinctives
The glorification of artists after their death is something recurrent in hip-hop culture, the Pop Smoke and Chynna Rogers cases being some of the more recent. Without making an apology for death, Van Gogh is a metaphor for artists who invested their lives in their passion, and it is what makes them admirable.
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