On the fourth floor of Sotheby’s, there’s a private room sponsored by Loro Piana, the Italian cashmere specialist. On a recent afternoon, rapper and style muse ASAP Rocky was sitting on the floor, wrapped in one of the company’s cashmere blankets, a pearlesque necklace peeking out from beneath his T-shirt and Prada technical sneakers on his feet.
A young woman entered the room and brought him a coconut cracked in half. He took a spoon to the tender white meat, and considered his place in — and out of — hip-hop.
When he emerged seven years ago, he was a high-fashion natural, displaying the sort of comfort and fluency in that world other rappers had pretended to pull off but never quite nailed. But something strange has happened in the years since: Almost all of hip-hop’s young generation followed suit. Goyard is more common than Carhartt. Gucci is more ubiquitous than Nike.
Rocky shrugged. “I proved my point in fashion,” he said. “Is it necessary for me to be at the Met Gala every year?” he asked. “I bodied that.”
Sotheby’s, though — that is something new. That evening, he was unveiling “Lab Rat,” a performance installation in a high-ceilinged space on the seventh floor typically used for auctions.
A few hours later, he was inside a large glass box set up in the middle of that room, with tools of torment spread around him: exercise equipment, holes in the wall through which he could be touched, a large pool of ice water.
The box, he said, was “a metaphor for me being distracted.”
It’s been three years since he last released an album, and he realized that his fans worried whether music was his focus. “Their main concern was, do he even like doing this?” he said. While he has been one of the most influential personalities in hip-hop of this decade — in terms of aesthetics, musical and personal — that hasn’t always translated to musical success.
It was notable, and unusual, hearing him rap the hook of a major pop-rap hit, G-Eazy’s “No Limit,” which went to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. “It’s fun,” he said of those kinds of songs, which are few and far between in his catalog. “Sometimes I’m frustrated. I’m in limbo, like, do you cash out or do you stay genuine to your craft? I would sleep better at night knowing that I’m me.”
He is the sort of rapper — the sort of New Yorker — who understands the difference between living on Park Avenue in the East 60s and living on Park Avenue in the East 70s. That person was at home at Sotheby’s. “Can I be real?” he asked. “All of the chicks look like they want to give me some …”
Hip-hop and art have become bedfellows, much as hip-hop and fashion have. A few days before, Sean Combs had paid $21 million for a Kerry James Marshall painting. And in 2013, Jay-Z did his own performance art simulation, based on, and including, Marina Abramovic.
Once Rocky was inside the box, a pair of examiners in lab coats peppered him with questions of varying degrees of intimacy and cruelty: “What do you like least about your own body?” “In 100 years, do you think anyone’s going to remember your music?” They made him dunk his head in the ice water; he lasted 56 seconds. As he came up, gasping for air, the male examiner announced, “The subject will do better,” and made him go again.
A couple hundred of Rocky’s friends (and friends of Sotheby’s — you could tell the difference) stood around the box, aiming phone cameras at him. Thousands more watched on a YouTube stream. Out in the crowd, a gaggle of dancers, many of whom looked like mini-Rockys, interacted with the crowd and various mannequins strewn around the room. They encouraged viewers to wield a golf club and strike an imaginary ball from atop a baby mannequin.
The event wasn’t bereft of commerce. At one point, Rocky pulled a chunky black sneaker out of a bag: the reveal of his coming collaboration with Under Armour. And the performance was also an elaborate maze leading to, at the end of the night, the announcement of his fourth solo release, “Testing,” which arrived Friday.
“I never won a Grammy — that makes me sad,” Rocky said. “I might be getting discounted.”
“Testing” is his most outré album to date, the one least concerned with prevailing trends. “I wanted to make my version of trip-hop,” he said. One song, “Praise the Lord (Da Shine),” was produced by grime star Skepta while both men were on LSD, Rocky said. The album closer, “Purity,” is mournful indie rock featuring Frank Ocean and a Lauryn Hill sample.
“I feel like I’m just changing sounds again, and it takes some getting used to,” Rocky said. His taste in art is similarly instinctual. “It’s unorthodox. I don’t completely know what I’m doing, I just know what I like and what I don’t like. That’s what people trust more than anything.”
“I can afford contemporary art, but I prefer masters, Renaissance,” he added. “Those pieces like a million and up, $5 million and up.”
In other words, the sort of pieces that usually fill the room he was performing in. At the end of the event, some of the dancers had slid up to the balcony suites that lined the room. During auctions, those are the rooms where the most serious collectors can bid in relative luxury and privacy, set apart from hoi polloi.
On this night, though, the suites’ windows were thrown open, and dancers flooded the floor with huge silver balloons, which other dancers then threw into the glass box. Rocky was surrounded, suffocated, stuck.
But then the dancers freed him, and “Testing” began to play from the speakers. By the end of the night, Rocky was in one of those suites, surveying the detritus. Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones (Part II)” was blasting. Everyone was dancing.
“It’s not for everybody to understand,” he’d said earlier. “I can afford to be myself.”