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When it comes to Jay-Z, is it swindle or is it art?

Jay-Z performs in Toronto in 2011.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

You have to give it to Jay-Z, the hip-hop superhero who starts sentences with "This is going to sound arrogant," and then exceeds all possible expectations.

Recently, the Run This Town rapper responded to the criticism of Harry Belafonte by comparing himself to President Obama and declaring that his "presence was charity." On his new song Picasso Baby, Jay-Z is similarly confident, proclaiming "I'm the modern day Pablo."

If he is boldly generous with his self-assessment, Jay-Z is equally liberal with his definition of "performance art," which is the term he used to describe his marathon six-hour performance of Picasso Baby at Manhattan's Pace Gallery in June. A 10-minute-plus edit of the deal premiered on HBO this weekend and is now available online. Someone like the MoMA-sleeping actress Tilda Swinton might see the event (which involves head-to-head renditions of the song performed directly at various invite-only attendees) as more "performance" than "art." We could just as easily call it a stunt or a swindle.

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In his grave, the great sucker-seeker P.T. Barnum nods his head approvingly and with the flow, as the art and business of hip hop is reborn every minute in the age of Jay-Z.

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