‘Watch the Throne,’ Kanye West & Jay-Z; ‘Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: L’amour fou’

Call Larry Gagosian
You belong in museums
—Jay-Z, “That’s My B**ch”

Jay-Z dreams of collapsing the class and race divisions reflected in high art and pop art hierarchies. Reverse the title of Kanye West & Jay-Z’s love song from their Watch the Throne album (“That’s My B**ch”) with that of the Gagosian’s Picasso retrospective (L’amour fou), which ran from April 14 to July 15; the switch-up might give contemporary currency to Picasso’s artwork inspired by his love for Marie-Thérèse and afford West and Jay-Z the luxury of expressing pure romanticism (“mad love”).

Pablo Picasso, “Marie-Thérèse avec une guirlande” (1937).  Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Pablo Picasso, “Marie-Thérèse avec une guirlande” (1937). Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

This is a problem of context and ideology rather than a reflection of these artists’ limitations. Jay-Z knows this: “[If] Picasso was alive he woulda made her.” Jay-Z’s roll call of modern multiculti icons (Salma, Penelope, Halle, Beyoncé) challenges segregationist standards of art and beauty.

However, West and Jay-Z also honor and expand upon Picasso’s studies of desire and physiognomy. As L’amour fou displayed, Picasso’s style emerged from the need to represent the whole of his responses to his model. With Watch the Throne, West and Jay-Z revive hip-hop by interrogating the cultural implications of their sexual responses.

The Gagosian retrospective traced Picasso’s radical development from conventional sketches to surrealism (“Figure au bord de la mer” (1929)) to his vibrantly personal, later style of cubism (“Fille dessinanat à l’intérieur” (1935)). “That’s My B**ch” similarly displays the multiperspective approach that distinguishes the entire Watch the Throne album.

In the song, West’s gritty high-life portrait is powered by a sample of James Brown’s “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved.” Jay-Z’s activist ode to dark-featured vixens answers West’s yearning—that of a privileged black man—and Brown’s sexualized political entreaty, acknowledging responsibility.

Although focused on the Spanish Picasso’s love for a blond, blue-eyed French girl (The Other, as signified by the retro’s title), the Gagosian collection reveals those aspects of Marie-Thérèse that appealed to Picasso’s distinct sexual identity: the seductive shape of nose, hips, breasts, sex. Equally personal, West combines the sacred and the profane to describe his siren: “Mary Magdalene from a pole dance.” Picasso crowns Marie-Thérèse with a wreath in both “Femme lisant à la table” (1934) and the sublime “Marie-Thérèse avec un guirlande” (1937). These artists draw upon Western religious iconography to signify the spiritual worth of their subjects.

West and Jay-Z and Picasso give expression to the women’s own longings with a woman’s voice and her postures, respectively. In the hook to “That’s My B**ch,” Elly Jackson sings the woman’s desires: “I’ve been waiting for a long, long time/ Just to get off and throw my hands up high.” The pole dance and hands up high imagery—signifying the need for release—sync with the sensual contortions in Picasso’s representations of Marie-Thérèse (e.g., the tormented female figures in “Le sauvetage” (1932) or the repose of “Femme aux cheveux jaunes” (1931)). These artists instruct the audience to make the leap from desire to compassion. That is a quality befitting kings.

Jay-Z expresses this compassion in the album’s closing track, “Why I Love You,” which stands as a summary of his whole career—a truth exemplified in his collaboration with West: “I tried to teach ni**as how to be kings/ And all they ever wanted to be was soldiers.” Watch the Throne defines a cultural calamity—nihilism—in terms of the hierarchy on the opening song, “No Church In The Wild”: human being < mob < King < God < non-believer (“Who don’t believe in anything”).

With the penultimate “Made in America,” Jay-Z counters disbelief with vernacular faith and topples hierarchies with an outsider’s patriotism, a unifying, democratic impulse. To do so, he summons an image of womanliness as indelible as Picasso’s transcendently voluptuous and fertile “Femme nue couchée” (1932): “I pledge allegiance to my grandma/ For that banana pudding, our piece of Americana.”

“Why I Love You” ends the album with West and Jay-Z trading off on, then jointly repeating, the revolutionary words of forgiveness from the King of Kings on the cross. To redefine “The Throne”—and thus power—the duo returns to sources of vernacular sustenance, channels physical desire into compassion and liberates Picasso from art world hierarchies. And so the peak pop art and high art experiences of 2011 challenge us all.

John Demetry topples critical hierarchies in his book The Community of Desire: Selected Critical Writings (2001–2007), available at www.lulu.com.