“Empire State Of Mind” Turns 10

“Empire State Of Mind” Turns 10

Start spreading the news: New York is the greatest city on the planet. Or maybe you’ve heard that before. Regardless of your own personal feelings on the place, or however a person might perceive its rises and falls from one decade to the next, New York has been a fixation and a global destination for longer than all of us have been alive. History is inscribed on every corner and in every facade — crucial moments throughout American history, and crucial moments throughout musical history. You can walk its streets and try to exhume the remains of any number of scenes, any number of iconic artists, because we’ve grown up consuming a countless amount of TV shows, films, and songs either set here or extolling this city’s magnificence. And 10 years ago, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys released another bid for the canon in the form of “Empire State Of Mind.”

The lineage of New York City songs is, of course, as varied and complex and rich as the town that inspired it. You have songs born from and capturing particular eras and milieus, Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” to Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” or Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” and Bill Withers’ “Harlem.” You have melancholic tributes, reflecting on loss and defeat and rejuvenation within an unyielding yet transformative city, all the way from Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Autumn In New York” to St. Vincent’s “New York.” You have pissed-off documents of the times, like the Strokes’ “New York City Cops,” and yearning daydreams that transcend time, like Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy In New York.” You have embraced theme songs like Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” and you have glorified MTA sloganeering like Taylor Swift’s “Welcome To New York.”

Many New York songs came from natives, but perhaps even more came from outsiders — whether from across the river (Bruce Springsteen’s “New York City Serenade“) or from across the ocean (the Pogues’ “Fairytale Of New York” or Sting’s “Englishman In New York“). You have slices of life that, when magnified across the past, start to feel mythological — “Positively 4th St.” or any number of ’60s Bob Dylan cuts conjuring a bygone era of Greenwich Village and of American identity. Then you have the giant, sweeping stories, the ones that reach for the universal lure of this place — a song like Frank Sinatra’s “Theme From New York, New York,” the promise of reinvention in the city looming in the horizon over just about everywhere else, a relatable tale for the millions upon millions of people who grew up one place and decided that life awaited them in another place.

Across the spectrum, these were the songs that enticed each new generation to try and stake their claim to New York. In “Empire State Of Mind,” Jay-Z attempted something towards the latter end of the tradition. The kind of song that was as grand and shimmering as the skyline. The kind of song that was supposed to sum up all the promise that skyline seemed to hold when viewed from far away, whether on a movie screen halfway across the world or in the moment when you first crest the right hill on the right New Jersey highway and the real destination comes into focus.

The 10th anniversary of “Empire State Of Mind” coincides with another 10 year anniversary, a personal one. On August 30th, 2009, I moved to New York after growing up in northeastern Pennsylvania; I was of that camp almost within reach of the city but not there. I could relate to all of the songs told from the perspective of being just outside of it, then finally in it, taking it for yourself. On September 8th, 2009 — 10 years ago yesterday — Jay-Z released The Blueprint 3, the album that featured “Empire State Of Mind.” For better or for worse, upon arrival I was gifted one of the New York anthems specific to my generation. It was a commercial success, and an artistic failure — yet for some reason critics voted it the best single of 2009 in the Village Voice’s Pazz + Jop poll.

Imagine the on-the-nose perfection: A new wave of 18-year-olds, bright-eyed and nervous and already convinced they’d made it just by arriving here, and a massive, catchy pop-rap song seemingly custom designed for them in that moment. “Empire State Of Mind” became a big hit all across America, but where I was living you heard it everywhere in those days. Echoing down the halls in our mostly-cushy dorms, blaring from storefronts — a sanitized New York song for a sanitized downtown Manhattan.

Because I was truly embracing my life as a New York transplant in those days, I spent a good chunk of that first year or two on busses in and out of the city, back home to PA or to smaller college towns to visit people. There was a confusion in my idealism, wondering if I was missing out on some kind of true, archetypal college experience by living in a place without a bucolic campus, living in a place where I could really ignore the fact I was in college at all for all the stimuli surrounding me otherwise. But, I had made it! I was living in New York. So, I succumbed to the spell, too — every time the bus drifted out of town, I’d throw on The Blueprint 3, “Empire State Of Mind” lingering to let me know I’d be back to my new, real life in the greatest city on Earth soon enough. (In some meager effort towards my defense, I at least came to my senses soon enough and switched to the first Blueprint for this ritual.)

All of which is to say, “Empire State Of Mind” succeeded exactly where it was intended to. It was bombastic, tugging at the heartstrings of your wildest dreams. But it was also a facile and cliche-ridden song, one that threw out random references as if it was telling a street-level NYC story (DeNiro in Tribeca), but grasped at the universal classic status of Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” Jay even calls himself the “new Sinatra” in the first verse.

As with many songs belligerently attempting universality, “Empire State Of Mind” lost the specifics, the atmosphere, that made so many other mythological New York songs connect and endure. It was instead an empty promise, a shiny and superficial song for those who never got past a surface (or tourist) level experience of the city. Even at 18, many of us thought we were savvy enough. Many of us knew the cinematic New York was not the one we would receive. The mystic New York dream was a fleeting concept even harder to attain those days, and we should’ve known better. Our theme song was from a New York artist who probably did know better.

OK, maybe all of that isn’t entirely fair to Jay-Z. It’s not as if he’s just rattling off famous spots exclusively. “Empire State Of Mind” is victorious in the tradition of big-screen rap, its tone aspirational/inspirational in the tradition of a certain kind of New York song. Jay-Z’s customary affirmation of his scope and power is told through the lens of a guy who did grow up on the streets in Brooklyn, the song littered with little references to his past alongside the future he claimed for himself: “I’ll be hood forever,” he raps between the DeNiro and Sinatra shoutouts.

Whether you want to give him credit for that is up to you and your mileage for the latter-day version of Jay-Z, the one who feels galaxies removed from the origin stories he told with conviction in the ’90s. Either way, the song answers you again and again with a gigantic bludgeon of a “We’re making a classic New York song here” chorus: “In New York/ Concrete jungle where dreams are made of/ There’s nothin’ you can’t do/ Now you’re in New York/ These streets will make you feel brand new/ Big lights will inspire you/ Let’s hear it for New York, New York, New York.”

Part of the problem is that Jay-Z had already written more successful, more evocative New York songs. All the way back on Reasonable Doubt, he had “Brooklyn’s Finest” with Biggie. On the first Blueprint there was “Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love)” — perhaps not a deeply NYC song, but a big dramatic city song with far more of a mood (and dexterity) than “Empire State Of Mind.” Even just two years before “Empire State Of Mind,” there was another NYC song on American Gangster, the Lil Wayne team-up “Hello Brooklyn 2.0.” In 2007, that was a tribute to the Brooklyn Jay-Z knew, the Brooklyn that was on the cusp of a full-blown gentrification still going strong today. That’s not a pivotal Jay-Z song, but it feels far more dialed-in and human than “Empire State Of Mind.” At the very least, it seemed timelier than the latter’s intentionally old-school image of a city where dreams are made.

“Empire State Of Mind” was not an anomaly in this moment of Jay-Z’s career. The entirety of The Blueprint 3 was dressed up in the sort of expensive sheen that adorns albums conceived, from the start, as blockbusters from stars already established as monumental. Most of it sounded vaguely futuristic initially and dated within months. And it had its fair share of other grimace-inducing moments.

Its lead single “D.O.A. (Death Of Auto-Tune)” was positioned as a state-of-rap evisceration as vicious as “Takeover,” but lacking the ferocity of a younger Jay or a target as concrete as his one-time rival Nas, it tumbles into “Old Man Yells At Cloud” territory right away. Another hit from the album, “Young Forever,” was an additional cloying moment seemingly meant for college kids soundtracking “the best times of our lives” the same as “Empire State Of Mind.” The album wasn’t without its enjoyable tracks — the Jay/Kanye/Rihanna collab “Run This Town” is an entertaining footnote in the career of three titans who have better collabs with each other; “Already Home” could temporarily fool you into thinking you’re listening to original Blueprint — but ultimately it remains one of the lowest points in Jay-Z’s career.

Jay’s entire post-retirement arc has moved in almost perfectly alternating patterns, from nadirs to subsequently surprising revitalizations. From the flat return Kingdom Come, he was able to actually get back in tune with the themes and tropes that once drove him by loosening up within the filmic inspirations of the American Gangster concept soundtrack. After Blueprint 3’s failed grandiosity came the exhilaratingly decadent, triumphant Watch The Throne with Kanye. And after similarly wealth-and-power-minded raps paid decreasing dividends on Magna Carta… Holy Grail, Jay won many of us back with 4:44, one of the most vulnerable and reinvigorated turns in his catalog.

There’s a trend there: The better work of Jay-Z’s second act arrives when he’s reacting to, or in opposition with, something. Looking at the story of American Gangster and getting fired up, bouncing off his protege Kanye on Watch The Throne, or embroiled in a long marriage drama with Beyoncé on 4:44 (the second in an eventual trilogy of albums addressing that subject). Most of his truly quintessential latter-day moments arrived in these contexts as well. Watch The Throne’s “Niggas In Paris” remains the most addictive, swaggering piece of music Jay-Z’s been on since his short-lived absence; his verse on Kanye’s “Clique” is another memorable reminder of how their partnership could bring out the best in Jay even in waning years.

Jay-Z made headlines this year for becoming the world’s first rapper billionaire. His true imperial phase is right now, and although it could exist beyond music entirely, it’s also closely woven with his and Beyoncé’s beyond-power-couple status. That, too, has given us more pivotal scenes than many of his recent albums, from the infamous elevator sequence, to the story unfolding across Lemonade, 4:44, and Everything Is Love afterwards. Who knows if either song will be in rotation 10 years from now, but something like “Apeshit” already feels like more of a Moment than “Empire State Of Mind” does a decade onward.

All of this can make a person forget how significant “Empire State Of Mind” felt at the time. Jay-Z had plenty of hits before, most of which have stuck around more than this song. But “Empire State Of Mind” was his first and only #1 single as a lead artist. (The song’s popularity prompted Keys to record her own version, which stalled out further down the chart.) By at least one metric, it was the biggest song of Jay-Z’s career, even if it seems to have mostly faded from history, let alone failed to attain the permanence of a classic NYC song. Just the other week, right around that 10-year anniversary of moving to New York, I heard “Empire State Of Mind” blasting from a car and felt as if I had been transported back to the last couple months of 2009. I honestly can’t tell you if I’ve heard the song in public here at any point from then until now.

There was another time when the song followed me, though. Two years after moving to New York, I was studying abroad in Shanghai. It doesn’t matter how far you go, how foreign the city you adopt is: Soon you’ll develop patterns and routines just as you did in whatever less remarkable place you originated. So in China, I took the same 10-minute walk to class cycling through the same couple songs, I ate at the same dumpling place for lunch every day, and I listened to the same four songs they played on a loop, over and over. It was a funny playlist, all major pop/rap hits from just a couple years ago, the ones that had just started to fade into a backlog of memory. And one of those was, naturally, “Empire State Of Mind.” Suddenly, halfway across the world, I couldn’t escape the call of New York again. In all of its confused snapshots, the song made me wistful for the place I’d temporarily left behind.

I don’t know if that’s a reappraisal of the song or not. Plenty of pop songs are effective but not great, and it’d still seem as if the jumbled signifiers and shallow Broadway theatricality boom of “Empire State Of Mind” are simply precision-focused pop gestures from a guy who didn’t need to make them. We were already several years removed from Jay’s oft-quoted “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!” line from the remix of Kanye’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone.” Jay might’ve still wanted a #1 hit all his own, but he didn’t need one. He didn’t need to make music at all. And aside from someone returning to what they always knew, a core aspect of their being, you’d have to assume the only drive was the larger goals, the legacy, the classic New York song, the “new Sinatra.”

Maybe there was something noble deep down in all of that, looking at a history of a certain kind of pop song and trying to make one for the rap world, to tell a different kind of aspirational New York City tale. But “Empire State Of Mind” didn’t do that, and rap already had plenty of iconic NYC songs. Instead, “Empire State Of Mind” mostly functioned as the kind of art about New York that makes other people hate the idea of New York being shoved down their throats. It’s a song that plainly states the assumed, historic greatness and messiness of this place without truly translating it — for those that had just moved here, for those who were from here, for those who had always dreamt of getting here, for those who had their doubts, for anyone.

Clearly, the song did work for enough people to stay at #1 for five weeks. But when I think back to its introduction to the world, to its ubiquity in those more innocent early college days in New York, all that lingers is one of the more out-of-touch endeavors in a now spotty yet still storied career. I think about how, in that time of New York history, it was a song that strove to be a modern standard, that by its sonic nature was of its time, and yet by its ethos felt as archaic as Sinatra must have singing “Theme From New York, New York” the same year Marquee Moon, Rocket To Russia, and Talking Heads: 77 came out.

Two years before “Empire State Of Mind,” there had been a new addition to the canon of essential New York songs. LCD Soundsystem had ended their sophomore album Sound Of Silver with a song called “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” a mournful piano ballad that traced the death of culture in a post-9/11, Bloomberg era New York. That looked back on recent history, and distant memories of being drawn to a New York during an older history, and how all of this was being lost. James Murphy’s perspective was, of course, wildly different than Jay-Z’s. In this instance, we’re talking about a white hipster artist cataloguing the decay of a wilder, grittier, artier New York that still would’ve been gentrified by the standards of Jay-Z’s old neighborhood.

It’s a thorny comparison, and one that really just exposes how a place as diverse and disparate as this city needs a whole genre of theme songs, from the generational ennui of “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” to, perhaps, a different slice of that generation’s hope in “Empire State Of Mind.” Cities always change, neighborhoods transform before our eyes — that’s part of what makes them dynamic, what pulls us in from afar. And we need different glimpses, from street to street and year to year, of all that transient existence, to later cobble together the next big, shuddering portrait of one chapter of a big, shuddering city.

But the generation that seized onto “Empire State Of Mind” when we got here, the anonymous restaurants and clubs that played it over and over, it felt like we had no idea what we were doing. Maybe nobody ever did and that was the point. So many New York songs were written by outsiders who came from nothing and did find it here. So many songs were written about a New York Dream, a subset of an American Dream but also something more global and beyond it. In “Empire State Of Mind,” Keys’ chorus blanketed a city of old businesses closing and rents sky-rocketing, a city that was pushing out its locals, a city that people would deride as being full of kids bankrolled by their parents. The city we moved to was far from the romance of a New York becoming itself 100 years ago, far from the lawless vibrancy of the 1970s. New York used to be where you could make it, even if it was never easy; now it was hard to say who New York was made for.

“Empire State Of Mind” was a theme song, in that way, by and for those removed from daily life here — the super-rich smiling through a withering dream. It’s a Recession-era piece of escapism that, a decade later, almost sounds like a rueful laugh at a dimming mythology. Still, 10 years on, there are those of us who moved here and stayed, who shook off our childhood visions of a fantasy city and grew to love it here, in all its contradictions and despite constant reminders that the days we’re living through can’t possibly be the best ones. Maybe soon enough there will be a new era of New York, necessitating a new standard to tell its story. For now, maybe “Empire State Of Mind” was the generational anthem we deserved after all.

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