Perhaps it was too ubiquitous. That’s the only explanation I can offer for the very obvious oversight on our behalf of a song that was so important upon it’s release that it became the instant classic neither of the artists performing it had achieved up until this point. Neither ’99 Problems’ nor ‘If I Ain’t Got You‘ were ever going to hold a candle – something many New Yorkers are currently doing as their powers shuts down across their hurricane-battered city – to this musical force of nature. ‘Empire State Of Mind’ is a song so strong that it survived being knocked back initially by Roc-A-Fella executives, dodged being sung by Mary J. Blige instead of Keys and wound up becoming an anthem at a time when celebrating anything so boldly and without irony was a commerical death sentence. Rappers have always been territorial, indeed, if Kendrick Lamar’s fresh, Compton-soaked release is anything to go by, it’s as important as ever. But rarely do they celebrate the city not for what it means to them and their crew, but what it represents as an idea. Tupac did it inadvertently on ‘California Love’, admittedly a song all about the kind of excesses he soaked himself in on the sunny coast and Kanye and Lupe have had their fair share of ballads to Chicago, but the frame has never been quite so open as it was here. Yes, I’m sure there are others who have done it before him, and he was undeniably more obsessed with the shiny than the grimy, but in my recent memory, Jay-Z was the only guy willing to stand up and say New York belongs to me, but it also belongs to everyone, and then offer up a hook so immediately tangible that you believe him. That was a really big deal.
Alicia Keys didn’t write this hook, but it’s somewhat impossible to fathom when you hear her sing it. The skyward-spiralling melody comes care of two Brooklyn natives, one of whom grew up in the same apartment block as Jay-Z, who wrote it when they were away from their hometown on holiday. Keys’ hollering, bellowing and-other-adjectives-to-describe-your-lungs-bursting take on the chorus is remarkably democratic. Pitch-perfect long notes, small steps up and down the scale and a raised seventh at the turnaround, it’s easy to remember and even easier to imitate; all you have to do is open up your heart and shout it. It’s a love song, a baseball anthem, a gangster’s ballad and a tourism ad all wrapped up in two affirmative statements – “These streets will make you feel brand-new/Bright lights will inspire you” – and book ended by a city name that seems designed for rooftop screaming. I spent a lot of my time in Manhattan recently standing on rooftops looking out at the city and doing just that. New York is a city full of singers; they do it on the subway, in the streets, on elevators and at bars. Back home, we only sing in public if we’re at a show or a sports game; in New York, it’s built into their DNA. Somewhat innately, Jay-Z knew this when he licensed the rights to this song; if you’re going to put out a track about a city where nobody’s afraid to dance in the street and play banjos underground, you’d better make it one they’re all going to get on board with.
Really, ‘Empire State Of Mind’ is about precisely that. It’s the state of mind in which a pounding, orchestral piano groove that has no hint of malice can be transformed into the biggest rap song in forever. It’s the state of mind whereby a former drug pusher who can’t even sing in tune has no problem calling himself the black Frank Sinatra. It’s the state of mind that dictates that mentioning poor neighbourhoods and rolling up in a Maybach in a same sentence is OK, because diversity is the name of the game. I mean, seriously, the chords that Keys plays here could be smashed out by anybody who knows how to play ‘Chopsticks’, and yet they seem totally inspired. Why is that? What is it about New York, about hustle and about that beautiful, transcendent self-belief that carries simple ideas to lofty heights? I believe the key lies in the city itself, in the now blacked-out lights that inspire the people who populate it. It’s not bragging if you can back it up; New York really is one of the cultural zeniths of the world. Here’s praying they make it through the night to sing tomorrow morning.
Jay-Z ft. Alicia Keys – ‘Empire State Of Mind’