The Number Ones

November 28, 2009

The Number Ones: Jay-Z’s “Empire State Of Mind” (Feat. Alicia Keys)

Stayed at #1:

5 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

In New York! Concrete jungle wet dream tomato! There’s nothing you can do!

The first time I heard the song that finally landed Jay-Z his first and only lead-artist #1 hit, I rolled my eyes so hard that they almost fell out of my head. A few months earlier, I’d moved from New York to Chicago, and I was still floating on how easy life can be when you decide that you’ve had enough of NYC. Suddenly, I didn’t have to drag groceries 10 blocks home! I didn’t have to weather the summertime subway smell! My new landlord only gave slight Russian-mafia vibes, rather than overwhelming Russian-mafia vibes! It was intoxicating. So when I heard this puffed-up Broadway-rap pastiche about the streets that make you feel brand new and the lights that inspire you, I had to wonder: Does anyone outside of New York really care about New York like that? Shows what I know.

Jay-Z, a man with a mythological career, has been in this column three times, but those three chart-toppers did not belong to Jay. Instead, Jay has been here for his contributions on three different pop songs from three different female singers: Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker,” Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love,” Rihanna’s “Umbrella.” Jay was already a canonical figure, and his importance could not be overstated, but his success wasn’t based on hit pop songs. Jay was topping album charts and filling arenas long before he scored his first solo top-10 hit. (That would be 2001’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” which peaked at #8. It’s a 7.)

Instead, Jay was a rap archetype, a hustler who’d become a conqueror through charm and instincts and sheer will. He didn’t need a #1 pop hit. Instead, Jay proved his own importance again and again, over and over. By the time he finally pushed his way to the top of the Hot 100, Jay had already been through multiple career evolutions. He’d been the king of New York rap in a time when that was not necessarily a safe thing to be. He’d moved from misanthropic youthful hauteur to ruminative grown-up mastery. He’d retired and unretired. He’d started making really bad music.

Finally, Jay-Z came out with this New York song that seemed custom-built for media spectacle — for the VMAs, for the World Series, for the local tourism bureau. “Empire State Of Mind” wasn’t the final act of Jay’s story, but it gave him the one grand, undeniable hit that reached the parts of the world where people don’t endlessly obsess about hidden messages in rap lyrics. The success of “Empire State Of Mind” was a true achievement. It’s a shame about the song itself.

Jay-Z hasn’t just been in this column as a guest-rapper. If you’ve been following this column for at least the past virtual decade, Jay has been a constant presence, lurking in the background and epitomizing the hopes and dreams of virtually every other big-deal rapper. Let’s start this column’s story with the retirement — the moment that Jay supposedly relinquished his rap throne after releasing his 2003 ending-statement LP The Black Album and sending his jersey into the rafters at Madison Square Garden. For his next act, Jay took over as the president of Def Jam Recordings, where he signed Rihanna and enjoyed the continuing success of his protege Kanye West.

During the time when he was supposedly retired, Jay-Z would still pop up with occasional guest-verses and remixes, and they would always feel like events. I saw Jay live a lot of times when he was supposed to be on break, and he was always a transcendent performer. Jay was a folk hero in New York, but he also stood as an avatar of rap success everywhere else. Jay’s retirement didn’t last. His break between albums was only three years. Jay came back with 2006’s Kingdom Come, a self-important nothing of an album that I really, really hated. (Comeback single “Show Me What You Got” peaked at #8. It’s a 5. Right now, it’s been six years since Jay’s last solo LP; maybe he’s been in secret double-retirement since then.)

After Kingdom Come, Jay-Z seemed to realize that nobody needed his bored corporate-executive raps, and he readjusted. Jay’s 2007 album American Gangster was released in conjunction with the Ridley Scott movie of the same title. It wasn’t a soundtrack LP, but it was supposed to serve as a companion piece. The way Jay pitched it, the idea was that the movie helped him reconnect with his own criminal past, and the record was his meditation on the life that he’d once lived. American Gangster might be my favorite of Jay’s post-retirement albums, and Jay might as well wear its lack of pop-chart success as a badge of honor. Jay wasn’t chasing radio-play with American Gangster, which is good, since he didn’t get it. The album’s biggest Hot 100 hit, lead single “Blue Magic,” only made it to #55. Great song, though.

Jay’s form of celebrity was not pop-star celebrity. Instead, he carried himself as an operator — a figure whose talent and personal charisma were his greatest weapons in his endless quest toward global dominance. I’ve seen people comparing Jay to Bill Clinton. That comparison has its problems — Jay would never be able to inflict Clintonian levels of global suffering, even if he wanted — but I can understand them. Like Clinton, Jay flaunted his mythic story of humble beginnings and unlikely glory. Like Clinton, Jay always seemed to be the most important person in the room.

There’s another comparison, too, and Jay always seemed to relish it: Former Number Ones artist Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was a pop star, too. In some ways, he invented pop stardom. But Sinatra’s whole mythos — the backslapping hepcat lingo, the women, the criminal connections, the starpower that lingered longer than the hits — worked in different ways. Jay had that same gravitas, and he knew it. In his lyrics, Jay referenced Sinatra again and again. Jay in 2003: “Grown man, I put hands on you/ I dig a hole in the desert, then build the Sands on you/ Lay out blueprint plans on you/ We Rat Pack n***s, let Sam tap dance on you/ Then I, Sinatra, shot ya, goddamn you.”

Jay brought back the Sinatra namecheck on “DOA (Death Of Auto-Tune),” the single that marked the opening volley from his album The Blueprint 3. Jay wasn’t trying to top any pop charts with that one, either. Instead, he was rebuking the entire idea of the pop charts, or at least the sound that had taken over the pop charts over the previous year or two. The Sinatra line on that song is a bit of a red herring: “This ain’t for iTunes, this ain’t for singalongs/ This is Sinatra at the opera, bring a blonde.” It functions a bit like the Harvey Keitel appearance in the video — one more sign that Jay is a classic New York guy. That song also has the line “this ain’t a #1 record,” and that part was entirely accurate. (“DOA” peaked at #24.) The part about Auto-Tune dying, however, was disastrously and hilariously wrong. It’s been nearly a decade and a half since “DOA,” and Auto-Tune hasn’t gone anywhere.

Jay’s next single came a lot closer to #1, at least in part because it wasn’t afraid of Auto-Tune. “Run This Town” wasn’t a statement-song like “DOA,” but it did feel like an effective declaration of stadium-rap dominance. For that song, Jay teamed up with Rihanna and Kanye West, two towering figures who owed him their entire careers. I might argue that Rihanna’s colossal hook and Kanye’s messy, impassioned verse overshadow Jay on “Run This Town.” (Some of those Kanye lines — “I’m beasting off the riesling,” “What you think I rap for, to push a fuckin’ RAV4?” — have lived in my head ever since.) But Jay sounds majestic and purposeful on “Run This Town.” He sounds like he really does run everything.

In the end, “Run This Town” peaked at #2 — one of the many huge pop songs that couldn’t quite make it into the winners’ circle during the summer of “I Gotta Feeling.” (“Run This Town” is a 9.) In a Village Voice interview with my friend Sean Fennessey, Jay said, “I thought ‘Run This Town’ was gonna be #1. That was almost a foregone conclusion because we was already gearing it for it to be #1. But it was the bridesmaid.” (I wondered if “Run This Town” was kneecapped by the whole Kanye West/Taylor Swift VMA situation. When Jay Leno shamed Kanye to tears on his short-lived prime-time show, Kanye was there to perform “Run This Town” with Jay and Rihanna. But the record shows that “Run This Town” reached its peak a month before the VMAs, so I guess America just preferred the Black Eyed Peas.)

Instead, what finally took Jay to #1 was the song about the town itself, not the song about running the town. “Empire State Of Mind” had its origins with two New York songwriters, Angela Hunte and Janet Sewell-Ulepic. Hunte got her start as a member of 7669, an unsuccessful girl group that put out a few records on Motown in the early ’90s. Hunte wrote a few 7669 songs, and after the group ended, the producer Salaam Remi helped her get a publishing deal with EMI Europe. Hunte moved to the UK and wrote for British artists like Ms. Dynamite and Mis-Teeq. She also co-wrote Britney Spears’ 2005 single “Do Somethin’,” which peaked all the way down at #100, and Danity Kane’s 2006 debut single “Show Stopper,”which made it to #8. (It’s a 6.) Janet Sewell-Ulepic, Hunte’s writing partner, had a writing credit on Kat DeLuna’s Elephant Man collab “Whine Up,” which peaked at #29 in 2007.

Angela Hunte and Janet Sewell-Ulepic were overseas and feeling homesick when they wrote the skeleton of “Empire State Of Mind.” Hunte later told Billboard, “We said to ourselves, ‘We complain so much about New York — about the busy streets, about the crowds and the pushing, about the subway system — but I would trade that for anything right now.’ Before we left the hotel that night, we knew we would write a song about our city.” They recorded a demo with Alexander Shuckburgh, a British producer who goes by the name Al Shux and who’d mostly worked with UK rappers like Sway. (Not MTV News Sway. Different Sway.)

Al Shux built the “Empire State Of Mind” beat on a sample of “Love On A Two-Way Street,” an orchestral R&B hit that the Washington, DC R&B group the Moments released in 1970. (“Love On A Two-Way Street” peaked at #3. It’s an 8.) Angela Hunte, Janet Sewell-Ulepic, and Al Shux all got songwriting credits on “Empire State Of Mind.” So did “Love On A Two-Way Street” writers Sylvia Robinson and Bert Keyes. Robinson co-founded the pioneering rap label Sugar Hill Records, and she’s already been in this column as a credited writer on Puff Daddy’s “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down.” (As an artist, Robinson’s highest-charting single is 1973’s “Pillow Talk,” which peaked at #3. It’s a 5.)

At the time, Jay-Z was busy disentangling himself from Def Jam and starting Roc Nation, his own company. Angela Hunte and Janet Sewell-Ulepic wanted Jay to record “Empire State Of Mind,” so they submitted the track to Roc Nation, and they got a discouraging response. But EMI executive Jon Platt heard the track’s demo at a barbecue, and he called Jay directly to pitch the song. Platt had been Jay’s first publisher, so Jay listened. Jay told the Village Voice, “As soon as I heard it, I knew what it was gonna do.”

Jay has said that he almost brought in former Number Ones artist Mary J. Blige for the “Empire State Of Mind” hook. That would’ve made it a very different song, and probably a better one. Instead, the pianos on the beat made Jay think of Alicia Keys, who’s been in this column a handful of times. Jay and Alicia had never worked together, but she’s married to his frequent collaborator Swizz Beatz. Jay says he called Alicia and told her, “Man, I got this song; it’s gonna be around for 30 years.” That was all she needed to hear. Alicia gave the hook a big, polished Broadway-style delivery, and she also wrote the bridge — the “put your lighters in air, everybody say yeah” bit, which is easily the most uplifting part of the track.

The funny thing about “Empire State Of Mind” is that it’s not that uplifting, at least if you look at Jay-Z’s lyrics in isolation. Jay does plenty of bragging on “Empire State Of Mind,” and he spends a lot of the song delighting in his own status as New York royalty. He’s down in Tribeca, right next to De Niro. He’s sitting courtside at Knicks and Nets games — so close that he could trip the referee. He made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can. He’s the new Sinatra, and since he made it here, he can make it anywhere. (“Theme From New York, New York,” Sinatra’s final Hot 100 hit, peaked at #32 in 1980.)

But Jay doesn’t just trumpet his own magnificence and name New York landmarks on “Empire State Of Mind.” He gets into his own sordid past, even naming the address of his old drug spot — 560 State Street in Brooklyn, which happens to be the same building where Angela Hunte grew up. Jay makes sure to point out that he’s still sippin’ mai tais with Ty-Ty, just like he did on “Dead Presidents II.” He reels off rap references both classic and current, shouting out both Special Ed’s 1989 banger “I Got It Made” and Young Jeezy’s 2009 Gucci Mane diss “24-23” in the same breath. Jay also devotes the song’s entire last verse to the cautionary tales of women who come to New York and get blinded by the lights: “Mami took a bus trip, now she got her bust out/ Everybody ride her, just like a bus route.” That part of the song isn’t quite empathetic. Instead, Jay sounds neutral and dispassionate — simply describing the facts of life in the big city.

There’s a lot going on in the “Empire State Of Mind” lyrics, but it almost doesn’t matter. Throughout the song, Jay sounds bored and businesslike, and his lines simply don’t hit that hard. Instead, they get lost in the song’s sheen. There’s no cheat code to a great Jay-Z song; he’s operated in too many modes and eras for that. For my money, though, Jay’s voice tends to work the best when it’s got open space to operate. Even when the beats were tricky and outwardly impressive, as with so many great Jay/Timbaland tracks, Jay’s voice was still front and center. I don’t get that from “Empire State Of Mind.”

Al Shux’s “Empire State Of Mind” production goes for sweeping lushness, but it mostly sounds cluttered to me — those strings and clanging pianos fighting for space with the blippy drums and Jay’s own voice. Alicia Keys’ chorus is as catchy and memorable as you could possibly want, but its towering optimism stands in contrast to the layered image of New York that Jay tries to paint on the verses. The tension doesn’t serve the song. Instead, it sounds like the song isn’t sure what it wants to be. Maybe that’s why it’s so much easier to focus on Jay’s self-satisfied tone than on the stuff that he’s actually saying.

So maybe the chorus is the focus of “Empire State Of Mind.” Maybe we’re meant to hear the song as a glittering beacon of local-pride positivity. But that makes the whole thing sound like the shallowest version of New York itself — the New York of movie montages and postcards, not the place where people actually live. It all just sounds so Broadway. Broadway is a part of New York, too, but it’s not one of the parts that ever interested me. I lived there for years and never once saw a Broadway show. (Jay-Z himself was helping produce Broadway shows by this point; he had a hand in Fela!, the musical about Fela Kuti, which opened on Broadway in 2009.)

New York is a place that allows for a whole lot of publicity stunts, and Jay-Z took full advantage when he was promoting “Empire State Of Mind.” Jay and Alicia Keys first performed the song at a Madison Square Garden benefit show on the eighth anniversary of 9/11. Two days later, the VMAs were in New York, and the two of them closed the show out. Host Russell Brand announced Jay as the “mayor of New York,” and the camera followed Jay through the bowels of Radio City Music Hall like it was the Copacabana kitchen in Goodfellas. That was the performance where Lil Mama, overcome with local pride, crashed the stage and confused everyone. In October, Jay and Alicia performed the song at Yankee Stadium just before the second game of the World Series.

Eventually, “Empire State Of Mind” seemed to take on its own context, outside of Jay-Z’s whole legend and maybe outside of New York itself. It just became one of those songs that everyone knows. The Blueprint 3 only went platinum once, but the “Empire State Of Mind” single is triple platinum, and it’s got more streams than almost any other Jay-Z song. Alicia Keys released her own version of “Empire State Of Mind” without Jay in 2010, and her “Empire State Of Mind (Part II) Broken Down” peaked at #55.

Jay himself seemed slightly surprised to see “Empire State Of Mind” getting radio spins all across the country. When asked how “Empire State Of Mind” ranked among his favorites of his own songs, Jay said the same thing that most Jay-Z fans would probably say: “Is ‘Empire’ better than ‘Can I Live‘? I don’t think so.” He’s right. “Empire State Of Mind” isn’t even the best local New York anthem that Jay ever made. This is, after all, the guy who recorded “Where I’m From.”

Jay had recorded some of the hardest verses rap had ever heard, but he wasn’t interested in being hard anymore. One week after “Empire State Of Mind” reached #1, Jay turned 40. Rap was moving in different directions, and Jay was losing touch. On his 2009 track “Classical (Intro),” Gucci Mane, the rapper on the greatest underground streak of the moment, said, “I’m from east Atlanta 6, where the boys dump bricks/ But we don’t bump The Blueprint 3.” After “Empire,” the only Blueprint 3 single that went top-10 was “Young Forever,” the pillowy and indulgent aging-anxiety number where the British singer Mr. Hudson flipped Alphaville’s 1984 single “Forever Young.” (“Young Forever” peaked at #10. It’s a 3.)

Jay-Z hasn’t entirely been in executive mode since “Empire State Of Mind.” In 2011, Jay got together with his old protege Kanye West, recorded the collaborative album Watch The Throne, and recaptured some of his old hunger. The single “N***as In Paris” caught fire and went all the way to #5, despite its decidedly radio-unfriendly nature. (It’s a 10.) Touring together, Jay and Kanye would end shows by performing “N****as In Paris” over and over again, eight or nine times in a row. Today, it’s Jay’s most-streamed song.

Jay went back to his most boring tendencies on his next solo album, 2013’s Samsung-marketed Magna Carta Holy Grail. In my personal rankings, that’s Jay’s worst record by far. For the single “Holy Grail,” Jay got together with Justin Timberlake, who was entering his own too-big-to-fail era, and made really annoying use of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” chorus. (It’s a 3.) That same year, Jay rapped a verse on his wife Beyoncé’s #2 hit “Drunk In Love.” (It’s a 9, and Jay is the worst thing about it.)

In the years that followed, Jay-Z made a whole lot of flashy and apparently-successful business moves. He grew Roc Nation into a management powerhouse, got into the sports-agent business, produced movies, and made a whole lot of noise with the star-studded 2015 launch of the streaming service Tidal. These days, Jay and Roc Nation produce every Super Bowl Halftime Show. In the process, they help shield the NFL from post-Kaepernick racial scrutiny, and Jay won himself an Emmy. He’s reportedly now worth $2.5 billion, which makes him the richest musician who has ever lived.

Jay-Z doesn’t chase pop success anymore, if he ever did. He doesn’t need it. These days, Jay-Z only makes music when he feels like it. His most recent album is 2017’s 4:44, an introspective look at his own fuckups after he apparently cheated on Beyoncé. That same incident led Beyoncé to record Lemonade — a fascinating example of two superstars sharing their own sides of the same story. 4:44 is a compelling record, and its chart positioning was entirely beside the point. (The highest-charting single from 4:44 was the title track, which peaked at #35.) Jay and Beyoncé stayed together. In 2018, they released Everything Is Love, a not-very-interesting collaborative album that mostly seemed to serve as an excuse for a joint stadium tour.

These days, Jay-Z is too busy existing as a human luxury brand to get back in the trenches. Jay’s most recent album isn’t even really his. In 2020, Jay rapped uncredited verses on nearly every song from the rap enigma Jay Electronica’s long-awaited debut album A Written Testimony. It was like Jay-Z had gotten sick of waiting around for Jay Electronica’s album, like he simply took it upon himself to make sure the thing finally saw the light of day.

Last year, Jay-Z rapped a grand total of two verses — one regular verse on Pusha T’s “Neck & Wrist” and one marathon verse on DJ Khaled’s posse cut “God Did.” (“Neck & Wrist” peaked at #76. “God Did” peaked at #17. DJ Khaled will eventually appear in this column.) A few months ago, Jay closed out the Grammys with his “God Did” verse. He can still do stuff like that. He’s Jay-Z.

Lately, Jay-Z has presented himself as a full-time art appreciator. In April, he played his first live show in four years at a Basquiat/Warhol exhibit for the Louis Vuitton Foundation. A few days later, he released an “Empire State Of Mind” remix that mashed the original up with the instrumental from Gil Scott-Heron’s “New York Is Killing Me.” It’s pretty good. I probably like it better than the original. Jay will continue to figure into this column in some unexpected ways. He’ll be back, for example, as a songwriter on a couple of his wife’s hits.

Jay-Z is a titanic figure. He had the last #1 album of the ’90s and the last #1 single of the ’00s, and that staggering feat really only hints at his longevity. Jay’s real impact goes beyond his success as a pop musician. He’s a touchstone, a trendsetter, and a living symbol — the outsider who became a pillar of the establishment. When Jay was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2021, nobody was surprised. Jay is a much larger figure than his one #1 hit, but I still think that one #1 hit isn’t much of a song.

GRADE: 4/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s Alicia Keys performing “Empire State Of Mind” on The Colbert Report in 2009, with Stephen Colbert rapping his own verse about living out in the suburbs:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Starting in 2010, LCD Soundsystem started working the chorus of “Empire State Of Mind” into live performances of their own song “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” Here they are, doing it in Sydney:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Stevie Wonder, someone who’s been in this column many times, singing “Empire State Of Mind” at a 2010 live show:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the experimental Swedish pop duo jj sampling “Empire State Of Mind” on their 2010 track “New Work”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Naturally, a whole lot of rappers have released versions of “Empire State Of Mind” about their own hometowns. The best example is Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 track “Compton State Of Mind.” Here’s the video for that one:

(Kendrick Lamar will eventually appear in this column.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” the totemic dance-pop banger with the video that captured millions of imaginations, peaked at #2 behind “Empire State Of Mind.” It’s a free bitch, baby, and it’s a 10.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Put your lighters in the air, everybody buy it heeeeere!

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