They’re waiting for him at the gallery. They’re lined up in the foyer, as if for inspection. Ealan Wingate, who runs the place, nutty-professorial in a bow tie and blazer, stands with some gallery staffers, young women in heels and complicated blouses, their demeanor poised and professional, their eyes flashing OMG, OMG as the gallery doors open to let in the hard fall wind off the Hudson and also Shawn Corey Carter, better known from the Marcy Houses to Marrakech as Jay-Z. He’s wearing Timberlands, just-this-side-of-baggy jeans, a plain dark blue hoodie, and a look of regal amusement. Like, For me? He shakes everybody’s hand, introduces himself as “Jay.”
Jay is among the first rappers to name-drop his contemporary-art holdings in the same you-ain’t-up-on-this tone that other MCs employ when discussing their watches. He shouts out art-world superdealer Larry Gagosian in his verse on “That’s My Bitch,” from Watch the Throne, the collaborative album he and Kanye West released a few months ago. So we’re at one of Larry’s places, the warehouse-sized Gagosian Gallery on West 24th Street.
Wingate leads us into the main room, which currently houses Junction/Cycle, two mammoth sculptures by he-man minimalist Richard Serra (who happens to live around the corner from Jay in Tribeca). Curving walls of rust-brown steel cut the gallery into canyons. Wingate says we’re supposed to walk through them and think about memory, so we do; it’s kind of like an existential corn maze. Jay is clearly impressed by the sheer scale Serra’s working on, but he doesn’t linger. It’s not until Wingate takes us into a side room and shows us a big Cy Twombly triptych that I see him actually stopped short by what he’s looking at.
The Twombly is all scrawl and half-erasure, violent like a bus window keyed by an army of scratch-taggers, if scratch-taggers bombed public transit with the names of Greek heroes like AGAMEMNON and AJAX and ODYSSEUS and JASON. Also—and once Wingate points this out to us, it’s hard to see anything else—there are a lot of exuberantly crude drawings of vaginas and balloon-animalish dicks.
Jay digs this one. It reminds him more than a little of the Basquiats he collects, the ones he’s referring to on the Throne track “Illest Motherfucker Alive” when he rhymes House like a museum with see ’em when I’m peein’ with Usually, you have this much taste, you European. (Classic Jay: culturedness as swag, class snobbery brushed off like so much shoulder dirt, and a relatability-enhancing reference to taking a piss just like a regular dude, all in the space of three lines.)
He stands ten feet back from the Twombly, and for a long minute nobody says anything and the wind rattles the gallery’s windows and he briefly ceases to be the focus of everybody’s attention.
“You hear that silence right there?” he finally says, laughing. “That’s art workin’.”
Good art doesn’t always breed contemplative silence. Take Watch the Throne, on which two grandiose motherfuckers explore the theme of grandiose-motherfuckerdom from vastly different perspectives, stacking dubstep on top of opera on top of Otis Redding, triumphalism on top of sorrow on top of more triumphalism, striving for a sound as vast and strange as the world they’ve come to inhabit. It’s glorious and obnoxious and pointedly self-aware, and it was more fun to argue about than any hip-hop record since, I don’t know, Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak or Jay-Z’s widely jeered Kingdom Come.