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…"