In the year since Jay-Z released "Empire State of Mind," the song has already become a classic. In "Decoded," in stores Tuesday, Jay-Z lays out the origin of what he calls the greatest hit of his career.
BEAT THE SYSTEM BEFORE IT BEATS YOU
There are sometimes two Jay-Zs when you look at my music. There's the one who can drop a "Big Pimpin' " or "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)," songs that are intended for wide audiences, designed to just get listeners high off the sheer pleasure of them. And then there are the deeper album cuts, which are more complicated. The entire package is what makes an album. I think it's worth it to try to find that balance. It's like life -- sometimes you just want to dumb out in the club; other times you want to get real and go deep.
Even then, the idea some people have of "dumbing down" is based on a misperception of what a great rap song can do. A great song can be "dumbed down" in the sense that it appeals to a pretty low common denominator -- a big chorus and a great beat and easy-to-follow lyrics can get you a hit (but even then there's an art to combining those elements). But that's not the whole story: A great hit can also give listeners a second layer, and then a third, and more.
The song that's probably the biggest hit in my career so far, "Empire State of Mind," is a great example of how this can work. On the "dumb" side, it's driven by Al Shux's incredible track, Alicia Keys' giant arc of a hook, and my in-the-pocket flow -- those are completely universal in their appeal. The next layer down is the storytelling. For a hit song, the narratives are pretty ambiguous: They're about loving a city for all the regular guidebook stuff (the Yankees, the Statue of Liberty, et cetera), but also recognizing it as the place where I used to cop in Harlem and have a stash spot where I cooked up work like a pastry. There's a great tension between the anthemic, even hopeful chorus and the lines about the gang of n----- rollin' with my click and corners where we selling rocks and the story of girls who come to the city of sin and get turned out.
And for the hip-hop heads who come looking for technique, it's got all kinds of sneaky Easter eggs if you're a close listener: the way I played with the flow on and in the winter gets cold in vogue with your skin out to also make it sound like a reference to Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue (which conjures the image of glossy fashion as a counterpoint to the literal meaning of the line); the way I turn the old cliché about New York being a "melting pot" into a fresh reference to the drug game; the way I use the punchy sonic similarity between "bus trip," "bust out" and "bus route" to amplify a metaphor about getting sexually exploited. Even little s--- -- the Special Ed shout-out or the line about LeBron James and Dwayne Wade -- forces you to keep listening beyond the "dumb" elements. And then there are the bits of snap philosophy -- Jesus can't save you, life starts when the church ends -- and punch lines with new slang like n-----, I be Spiked out, I could trip a referee. It's a trick I learned from all the greatest emcees: a "dumbed down" record actually forces you to be smarter, to balance art, craft, authenticity and accessibility.
When I first heard the track for "Empire" I was sure it would be a hit. It was gorgeous. My instinct was to dirty it up, to tell stories of the city's gritty side, to use stories about hustling and getting hustled to add tension to the soaring beauty of the chorus. The same thing happened with another big hit, "A Hard Knock Life." The chorus is a sweet-sounding children's song, but the lyrics are adult: violent and real. Knowing how to complicate a simple song without losing its basic appeal is one of the keys to good songwriting.
READ THE FIRST EXCERPT FROM JAY-Z'S "DECODED."
Copyright © 2010 by Shawn Carter. From the book "DECODED" by Shawn Carter, published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.Send a Letter to the Editor
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Is "Empire State of Mind" a new anthem – maybe even the new anthem – for New York City?
Over the years, the Big Apple has inspired countless odes and lyrics in its honor. There's just something about New York City that inspires song, apparently; Wikipedia's less-than-definitive "List of Songs About New York City" includes nearly a thousand titles. While lots of those songs are pretty obscure – "We Are New York and We Love Basketball" by Paulette LaMelle, anyone? – there's no denying that over the years we've seen plenty of top-notch New York songs from top-drawer New York artists. The A-list of old-school New York anthems might include the jazz standard "Autumn in New York," Frank Sinatra's legendary "New York, New York," and Billy Joel's classic piano song "New York State of Mind." From the hip-hop generation we have Nas' similarly titled but otherwise rather different "NY State of Mind," Ja Rule's "New York," and the Beastie Boys' "No Sleep 'til Brooklyn"… among many, many more.
What makes each of those songs so powerful – and what makes Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" such a worthy successor to the crown – is the combination of the deeply personal and the universally iconic. The city at the heart of the song is both both a real, gritty place and an idealized, flashy dream.
On one level, Jay-Z's New York is his New York. The verses of "Empire State of Mind" are littered with specific details from Jay's biography, from shout-outs to his wife Beyoncé Knowles ("BK is from Texas"), to his trendsetting adornment of the Yankee hat, right down to a mention of a real address he once lived at ("my stash spot, 560 State Street").
At the same time, Jay's New York (and New York Alicia Keys sings about in the hook) is the same glittering metropolis of hope and dreams that can be found in so many other songs. Especially in the self-conscious allusion to Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" – in the recapitulation of the famous line "If I can make it here / I can make it anywhere" as "since I made it here / I can make it anywhere" – Jay-Z grounds himself in classical New York mythology.
That mythology is essentially a mythology of a city that offers great challenges and equally great opportunities. This is the New York of the Ellis Island immigrant dream, the New York that has been luring in ambitious young people from the country for 200 years. And this is the New York of so many iconic songs.
The jazz classic "Autumn in New York," for example, most famously performed by Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, describes that season in the city as one offering the "promise of love," yet it is also "mingled with pain" of missed chances and love lost. The city giveth and the city taketh away. Similarly, Billy Joel's piano song "New York State of Mind" depicts New York as the only place where a singer can capture the true essence of the "rhythm and blues"... even if that essence sounds a pretty melancholy tone.
For rappers Nas and Ja Rule, meanwhile, the two faces of New York become even more pronounced as the city becomes the arena for the most extreme kind of gangster wars. In his 2004 song "New York," Ja Rule talks about having "a hundred guns a hundred clips" just "'cause [he's] from New York." The way he phrases it makes you think: would he have a hundred guns a hundred clips if he wasn't from New York? Hmm. In Nas' hip-hop classic "NY State of Mind," the city's ghetto neighborhoods are like mazes with "black rats trapped." The city becomes a terrifying place: "I think of crime when I'm in a New York state of mind." But once again, even the challenge of the criminality of New York has its promises. For Nas, the life of New York is one essential to the idea of blackness. Nas' "peoples come back, black" from the streets, as if to say that that the soul of the African American community can only really be found in its transcendence of everyday urban problems like crime and poverty. The "New York state of mind" is a black one for Nas.
Okay, so that's the musical background upon which "Empire State of Mind" unfolds. So what's Jay-Z doing in the song? We already know that he wants to acknowledge the New York mythology, but from the second the verses begin, Jay-Z puts himself on top of it all. Jay-Z "made it" in New York. He's done. That simple tense change to the most famous line in the most famous song about "New York, New York" epitomizes Jay-Z's attitude in "Empire State of Mind." He's not dreaming about what the city has to offer; he's already got it. He's already "out that Brooklyn" (where the real-life youngster known as Shawn Carter grew up in the grim Marcy Projects). Life is easy, "crusin' down 8th Street," "sittin' courtside, Knicks and Nets give me high fives." Jay-Z's life is the life of luxury that Nas equates with legendary gangster Al Capone in "NY State of Mind." Jay co-owns an NBA team, he lives in Robert De Niro's neighborhood (TriBeCa) – De Niro's gangster/dude-ish roles in The Godfather: Part II, Raging Bull, and Taxi Driver being idolized by teenage boys everywhere, of course – but still Jay hasn't sold out; in fact he thrives on his roots.
It seems that Jay-Z is entirely aware of this because his rhymes become instructive by the end of the song. "Empire State of Mind" explicitly teaches its listeners the two-sided lessons of greater promises and greater challenges. The third verse links up with Alicia Keys' chorus lyric "bright lights will inspire you," warning "lights is blinding:"
Lights is blinding, girls need blinders
So they can step out of bounds quick
The sidelines is, lined with casualties, who slip to life casually
Then gradually become worse, don't bite the apple Eve
And there it is again: the forbidden fruit, the iconic symbol of good and evil. Jay-Z warns us that the allure of the Big Apple – the dream of "New York, New York" and "Autumn in New York" – should be screened through a caution more familiar to Ja Rule and Nas. For everyone who gets to be "Spiked out" courtside at a Nets game, a dozen more are destined to become one of the "casualties" lining the city's gritty streets. And both have to respect the place where these stories all play out: "Let's hear it for New York…"