Full of metaphors, double meanings, and references to popular culture – from cinema to literature, and through fine art – rap is a musical genre which mixes diverse aesthetics, making it an extremely visual style of music. Long before Jay-Z’s Picasso Baby, many emcees have displayed their interest and their knowledge of art history since the beginnings of the genre. Here is a list of eight painters who rappers like to be compared to.
Basquiat, the Legend
Contract my mind, my thoughts keep escapingJa Rule, Believe
Power of the pen, a work of art like Basquiat
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 DiCaprioFroid feat. Djonga, A Pior Música do Ano
Learn to read by reading Bell Hooks]
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 representative in a few ways to 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 respectCormega, MARS (Dream Team)
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
Picasso, the Greatest
A lyrical painter, the Fresh PrinceDJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Just Kickin’ It
And y’all in awe of my Picasso essence
If there is an artist universally known around the world, an artist whose creative energy and success made was inspirational, 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 actually 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 soMac Miller, Live Free
There’s people in the world that are jealous of success
Don’t ever second guess yourself, step or get left
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 PicassoKool Moe Dee, How Ya Like Me Now
But of course, why else would you try so
Michelangelo, the Talented
‘Cause each and every time you touch a spraypaint canGrandmaster Melle Mel & The Furious Five, Beat Street Breakdown
Michaelangelo’s soul controls your hands
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 the Florentine artist, 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 a 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 PopeLL Cool J, My Rhyme Ain’t Done
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
However, it should be noted that the reasoning behind Michelangelo’s comparison is first and foremost related to talent; 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. 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 wallB.o.B Feat. Lil Wayne, E.T.
I’m like a Michelangelo paintin’ that hangs in the vault
Rembrandt, the Master
I rap so RembrandtM.I.M.S, On & On
Touch the stars
Cause the sky’s no limit
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, a 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 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 for which Rembrandt was able to represent expressive faces while keeping an ounce of mystery. Knowing Rembrandt’s reputation for auto portraiture as well, rappers clearly make the difference between simple “insta-selfies” and artistic portraits, as German rapper Bushido attests in CLA$$IC:
Dein Album ist ein Selfie, unser Album ist ein RembrandtBushido & Shindy, CLA$$IC
[Your album is a selfie, our album is a Rembrandt]
Finally, one of the reasons Rembrandt was criticized when he was alive and admired for 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 too a system based on initially abstract signs, words make sense only if one masters the use of them. Not only to give it a 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 paintingsCanibus, The Rip Off
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’
Warhol, the Popular
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 a similar consideration. This technique can also be found in the fashion industry, as luxury street wear begins to be incorporated from designers such as Virgil Abloh and Alexander Wang:
My flow like Andy Warhol artA$AP Twelvyy & A$AP Ant, Fraternal Twins
Alexander Wang in my shopping cart
In Warhol’s obsession for icons of pop culture, he would certainly have been interested in the rappers who appear to be the new role model and source 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 talent rather than popularity.
So they post a video mocking all their enemiesDoughboy, 望穿抽水
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
Andy Warhol’s success introduced the idea that artistic genius is not enough to succeed in our modern societies. You need to be marketable. Even though making profit from art was already an 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 from. Jay Z would certainly agree.
I’m in The Hall already, on the wall alreadyJAY-Z Feat. Kid Cudi, Already Home
I’m a work of art, I’m a Warhol already
Dali, the Extravagant
Salvador Dalì, frà, disponibilità giornaliera non è mai esauritaClub Dogo, Confessioni di una banconota
Quando passo la frontiera dolcevita
[Salvador Dalì, bro, daily availability is never exhausted
When I cross the border dolce vita]
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 the 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 aspect 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 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 on 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 AliDilated Peoples, Directors
Shape the future like cash is clay
The Salvador Dalí
To get his dreamlike compositions, Dalí developed a technique which 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 normaliMarracash & Guè Pequeno, Salvador Dalì
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]
Leonardo da Vinci, the Enigmatic
The Mona Lisa aside, which is literally 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, an architect, writer, engineer, poet, musician… da Vinci could do it all. Therefore, although his peers recognized his many qualities, they would struggle to understand him. Genius is an incredible gift that can allow people to excel in what they do, but it can also be a curse.
Tell me I ain’t got it, you fakin’, lyin’, hallucinatin’Tech N9ne Feat. JL of B. Hood & King Iso, Hit the Ground Running
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
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 people cannot follow the genius, as da Vinci had to experience.
Because the artist didn’t receive a conventional education, he developed his own 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 the 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 FatBig Grams, Fell in the Sun
Heard he grew into a man and put his family on his back
Had a master plan, Da Vinci code, nobody couldn’t crack
More than plots, rappers simply like to compare the poetic complexity of their songs to da Vinci’s impenetrable genius.
Van Gogh, the Accursed
Paint a picture like Van Gogh, I’m cursed manYung Lean, Red Bottom Sky
Skrrt skrrt to the moon, bitch, I’m swervin’ (Skrrt)
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 United States for its supposedly 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 own ways – Van Gogh cut his left ear. Following this event, Gauguin ran away to Tahiti while Van Gogh registered himself into 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 a mind where the person is so into their head that they don’t literally 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, bitchKanye West, Feat. JAY-Z & Swizz Beatz, POWER (Remix)
I’m on my Van Gogh, I don’t hear shit
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 pasNessbeal, Rimes instinctives
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]
Actually, 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 of death, Van Gogh is a metaphor for artists who invested their lives for their passion, and it is what makes them admirable.