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.