How Wu-Tang Clan’s art-piece album breaks new ground for pop

If you’ve heard a Jay Z verse in the last few years, you’ve heard about his new hobby: art collecting. “Banksy, bitches, Basquiats,” Hov rapped on Rick Ross’ “3 Kings,” a trend continued on last year’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail” and an accompanying six-hour performance piece at MOMA that included the artist/professional sit-and-starer Marina Abramović.

Jay is even better at business than alliteration: all those art pieces are investments, not just wall fixtures. But I think his fascination, and Lady Gaga’s, as exemplified by her strained, Doritos-endorsing “Artpop” album cycle, goes deeper than that. The art world is fundamentally built on a sense of importance and a healthy appetite for bluffing: there’s no value inherent to million-dollar paintings beyond a combination of rarity and arbitrary prestige. (And sure, communicating ineffable truths about the human experience, but you can see that on Tumblr for free.) Pop music has the opposite problem: Jay Z and Gaga are worldwide figures whose music influences millions of people, but they can barely sell a record.

Jay Z’s Samsung partnership for “Magna Carta’s” release — which delivered one million free copies of the album to smartphone owners for a reported $20 million advance — was smart business, but take a step back and the picture sharpens: one of the biggest artists in the world was so nervous about selling records he gave a milli away? In the face of apparent consumer apathy (consumers have merely transferred their energies to YouTube and the like, but that’s another thinkpiece), the protective cocoon of high-art relevance is an understandable escape pod to climb up to.

But Jay and Gaga have been doing it wrong. Rather than grovel at the feet of the art-world establishment, evoking Warhol or Picasso, pop should be making them watch the throne. Enter the Wu-Tang. Per a Forbes announcement, the hip-hop crew will release a single copy of “The Wu – Once Upon a Time In Shaolin,” a secret release recorded apart from summer-due wide-release set “A Better Tomorrow.” Hidden in a silver-and-nickel box, the double-LP will go on a full-on museum tour, as well as appearing at festivals and other venues. Fans — sorry, patrons — will have to buy a ticket to listen to the 31-track album on headphones, like any traveling exhibit. When the tour’s over, the group hopes to sell the one-of-a-kind piece for a few million dollars. RZA, bitches, Method Man.

“This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king,” the RZA told Forbes. While it may not solve the industry’s financial conundrums, at least it’s a step toward claiming something else: confidence. Instead of buying art, Wu-Tang Clan have made their own.

What do you think of the Wu’s new release?

— David Greenwald

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