I Like It Like This, the “selling exhibition” at Sotheby’s that pairs contemporary art made by black artists with songs picked by Drake, is many things at once: an ad for Beats headphones, a free opportunity to see work from the likes of Kara Walker, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kehinde Wiley, an interesting experiment in museum display and, most importantly, an implicit argument that hip-hop deserves the same respect as the art you encounter in galleries.
In an essay for Artforum in 1991, musician and producer Brian Eno famously wrote that “Curatorship is arguably the big new job of our times: It is the task of re-evaluating, filtering, digesting and connecting together. In an age saturated with new artifacts and information, it is perhaps the curator, the connection maker, who is the new storyteller, the meta-author.” More than ever before, pop stars must be adept at “filtering, digesting and connecting together” — otherwise people will find something else to click on.
Curation is one of Drake’s greatest strengths. At this point, his co-sign has become the stuff of legend. In the last few years, he’s helped launch the careers of the Weeknd, Migos, PARTYNEXTDOOR, iLoveMakonnen, Dej Loaf, Fatherand more with a well-placed tweet, an Instagram post or a guest verse. While he has not moved into the worlds of art and fashion to the extent of other rappers –Kanye West or Jay Z or A$AP Rocky — this exhibit is an obvious fit for him, an easy extension of his ability to know what sounds good.
Drake picked music for 20 works in I Like It Like This. Viewers approach a piece, throw on a big pair of headphones, and listen to a song while admiring the art. It’s not a complicated concept, but it still feels novel. Art is usually examined from a safe distance in solemn, quiet, tightly-controlled places. Every time you take the headphones off and move on to the next painting or sculpture in I Like It Like This, the silence of the gallery feels newly deafening. And much of the music is bracing, irreverent, and uncontrollable, the exact opposite of a museum setting.
Most of the songs Drake picked come from contemporary rappers like Young Thug, Chief Keef and Kendrick Lamar. Drake did include one-and-a-half of his own tunes — “Wu Tang Forever” from his Nothing Was the Same album; he also appears to rap a verse on the Weeknd’s “The Zone” — and several tracks from artists on his OVO label, including PARTYNEXTDOOR’s “Wild Bitches” and Makonnen’s “Rumor.” There are a few throwback choices (Robert Johnson,Shuggie Otis) and a few artists from outside the hip-hop ecosystem, includingPopcaan and Jamie xx.
Sometimes it was easy to connect a song to an artwork; funnily enough, these tended to be the weakest pairings in the show. While admiring Theaster Gates’ piece “Throne, Toward the Close of Day,” Drake had viewers listening to “The Joy” from Kanye West and Jay Z’s Watch The Throne album; the throne pun felt a bit gimmicky. Similarly, he set up Wangechi Mutu’s “Untitled (Female in Fishnet)” with Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues” — the painting draws on blues imagery, depicting a woman in fishnets clutching an exploding snake, so the choice of Johnson felt too easy, and it didn’t add much to what you were looking at.
But other music-art pairings changed and deepened the appreciation of both forms. Romare Bearden’s “All The Things You Are” shows a saxophone player threatening to dissolve; the figures edges bleed into a bright bed of orange watercolor. This fit PARTYNEXTDOOR’s “Wild Bitches” like a glove, as that singer’s voice seems to drift aimlessly through clouds of synths and drum machines, always on the verge of fading out of existence. There’s also a surprising horn riff about 2/3 of the way through “Wild Bitches”—its sudden appearance seemed to suggest that the saxophone player in Bearden’s painting had suddenly jumped into the music you were hearing.
In another inspired pairing, Drake matched Skepta’s “Shut Down” with Rashid Johnson’s “If It Ain’t Ruff,” achieving a close-to-perfect union of sound and form. Johnson’s piece is a mirror that’s been hit with three big blasts of black paint, violently obscuring the piece’s reflective function. Skepta’s song squiggles and squirms with an uncontainable energy, the musical incarnation of that paint. By the end of the track, it feels as if the mirror is about to explode.
Barkley L. Hendricks “Passion Dancehall #2,” an affectionate painting of a dancing couple, was accompanied by Popcaan’s glorious, understated “Everything Nice:” this was a clever pun on Drake’s part too, since you’re standing in a gallery surrounded by expensive art. Everything is really nice. In I Like It Like This, Drake’s moving past curation and on to lobbying: he wants people to include modern rap and R&B, which anyone with an internet connection can download for free, in the same category as the fancy stuff.