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The Jay-Z state of mind 

Wednesday, Mar 17 2010
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You have to get in a space where you can't even all the way listen to your friends, because they love you so much that they have places they want you to be." So says Jay-Z, on the subject of "Empire State of Mind," the song that finally put him atop the Billboard Hot 100. "They have moments in time that felt great for them — 'Oh, I wanna hear "U Don't Know" again.' But we done that already. I can't."

Everyone loves Jay-Z — not just his friends. And so everyone wants a unique, time-specific version of him. "Empire State of Mind" is the closest we've come to consensus. It's hard to believe, a dozen solo albums and countless playlist staples later, that this was his first number one single. Now we have the quintessential Jay-Z song. It might not be the most lyrically penetrating or sonically progressive, but last summer, the single was booming from every car in every state in the nation.

Deciding to record "Empire State" was shrewdly calculated, with a Broadway melody and chorus scientifically engineered for mass consumption, and a malleable narrative that could be bolted onto anyone's life. It was penned by two unheralded songwriters, Jane't "Jnay" Sewell-Ulepic and Angela Hunte, and orchestrated by an equally anonymous U.K. producer, Al Shux.

The song is an odd duck on last fall's otherwise aggressive and sometimes confounding album, The Blueprint 3. It gleams while the rest groans. But when Jay received a call from his first publisher — EMI's "Big Jon" Platt, with whom he confers during the making of every album — he knew he had to jump.

His most important decision was calling Alicia Keys next. Her brassy, soaring chorus is the song's heartbeat — without it, it's hard to imagine "Empire State" as more than a nice New York hit. And it almost was. Jay-Z admits he was "two seconds away" from asking Mary J. Blige, his reliable longtime collaborator, to supply the chorus, a move that would have been safe and true to his heritage. But something about the piano sound and melody (and maybe the commerciality) struck him, and so it was.

It's a blessing, really, because the song is hardly an emotional dynamo without Keys, her voice rising on each word, grasping for the grandeur Jay sometimes misses. He says the song is meant to be inspirational, initially tracking his transition from "out that Brooklyn" to "down in Tribeca," a familiar trope for Hov.

But in the second verse, things get strange: Jay adopts a granular, scrunched flow ("Rest in peace, Bob Marley") while engaging in some deeply insular cocaine-rap talk. "If Jeezy's payin' LeBron/I'm paying Dwyane Wade," he raps, invoking the semi-obscure Young Jeezy mixtape song, "24-23 (Kobe-LeBron)," which details the premium street price for coke.

That a song with such deep-seated and confusing criminal mythology — attention: Jay-Z no longer deals drugs — has enjoyed such mainstream success is a testament to the feats of ignorance. "Things are for different people, and that's not really for them," Jay says elusively. This made his performance of "Empire" at Yankee Stadium during the 2009 World Series doubly dizzying. Here was the alpha rapper for all times, repping for New York City, certainly, but also laying Easter eggs about the dope game and denigrating the Yankee cap in Yankee Stadium. Well played.

About The Author

Sean Fennessey

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  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

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