Like the best lists, the chronological order of every fashion brand that Jay Z mentions in his lyrics tells a story. This story is now on a T-shirt, created by Katherine Bernard. She spent three months sifting through all of Jay Z’s catalogue. A slice, from Reasonable Doubt into In My Life: Volume 1: “Reebok Armani Bally Calvin Klein Levi’s Guess Versace Rolex Rolex Victoria’s Secret Rolex.”
Bernard says you can see the process of his self-definition. “It registers as a narrative suddenly,” she says, “and you start to root for the story that these brands evoke.” As Vogue’s Lynn Yaeger, interviewed in a video Bernard made of people reading the shirt aloud, says: “It’s actually not that uninteresting.” In the words of the New York Times’ music writer Jon Caramanica: “This is funny the more you read it.”
It’s part of a project called ART AS WRENCH, which is a clever anagram of Shawn Carter. Bernard says it’s not about invoking luxury but setting up a context. After a reference to a Birkin bag, he sings in his next song about “Pinstripe Lees when the first day of school came.”
Jay Z also uses clothing as metaphor. Bernard cites a lyric from “Cashmere Thoughts,” from Reasonable Doubt, as her favorite: “Mink thoughts to think thoughts type similar / Might you remember, my shit is cold like December.” She praises employing mink as a verb: “He’s talking about how he manipulates his own mind to keep out the cold. I think. I mink.”
As she told me about her process, Bernard is digging through Kanye West’s lyrics for her next in the series. “As his life increasingly becomes a performance, what he wears carries more weight. He lives in his clothes in a really public way,” she says. “There’s a dialogue between him and his clothes that’s very personal and sometimes even contentious.” It’s going to be a long T-shirt; perhaps Bernard will consider wrap-around text.