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Like most of his peers in hip-hop, Jay-Z heavily samples a vast back catalogue of pop music for beats, melodies, and material that he can approbate for his songs. "Empire State of Mind," like much of The Blueprint 3, is built off of samples.
"Empire State of Mind" has two key samples. The beat is taken from the intro of Isaac Hayes' "Breakthrough." Meanwhile, the piano loop is taken from the intro of The Moments' "Love on a Two-Way Street."
Each of these has been sped up, so the key is one half-step higher too. Instead of being in the key of F major, as in the Moments' song, the "Empire State of Mind" is in F# major. And, of course, they're taken out of context. You probably wouldn't recognize that these are samples without being told so. If you don't happen to be a huge fan of the Moments or Isaac Hayes, you probably won't even realize that two of the three core aspects of a song—the melody, the harmony a.k.a. the chords, and the rhythm—aren't original at all.
And since Alicia Keys, who actually plays the "Love on a Two-Way Street" piano line in live performances of the song, is the featured artist on the track, the idea of sampling is even further obscured. This leads us to an important understanding of the art of sampling.
Sampling can occur as a shout-out to another artist, as something that listeners will recognize and latch on to—as when Eminem sampled the well-known Aerosmith song "Dream On" in his 2002 song "Sing for the Moment"—but more often, samples are taken from obscure sources. The idea is to take a small portion of the song, speed it up, slow it down, loop it, whatever, and incorporate it with new sounds, making it fresh and new.
Whoever heard of the 4 Levels of Existence? Probably not you. And yet, a sped up version of the intro to their song "Someday in Athens" provides the heart of "Run This Town," the other mega-hit from The Blueprint 3.
Something similar is true for "Empire State of Mind." You've probably heard of Isaac Hayes, especially if you watch South Park, and maybe you've even heard of the Moments, but neither of these songs is likely to be familiar to you.
To be honest, neither of these songs is especially great. After the nice, but slow intro, "Love on a Two-Way Street" transforms into a pretty uninteresting ballad. Isaac Hayes' "Breakthrough" is a more-or-less throwaway funk song. Part of the game in producing hip-hop is finding hidden gems like this. Like rap itself, sampling relies so much on memory. It usually isn't interesting if a song samples something well-known, so getting these deep cuts gives producers a lot of cred.
While Jay-Z's rap is more interesting lyrically than musically, there's still Alicia Keys' vocal track to think about, since she actually sings. Her vocals on the chorus have been praised as the emotive heart of this song, and the catchy melody has rendered it immediately recognizable.
Not to mention that the melody already has rendered itself immediately recognizable. Remember Coldplay's "The Scientist"? The vocal hook is practically identical to Keys' melody during these lines:
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There's nothin' you can't do
Might we say that Alicia Keys is "sampling" her melody here?
Maybe. It's not unfair to think of each core aspect of the song, then—the melody, the harmony, and the rhythm—as being somewhat unoriginal, or at least appropriated from earlier sources. In fact, thinking about rap as an art form of memory that necessarily alludes to other rappers and singers—as when Jay-Z quotes Sinatra's, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere" and Young Jeezy's song "24 & 23"—the source of most of the song's material isn't really the singer or the producer. It's the past.
This is by no means necessarily a bad thing, however. The whole idea of "pop music" is that the music is "popular." How can something be "popular" if it's entirely unfamiliar?
Most every piece of pop music copies something else. What makes a piece of music interesting isn't really its authorship so much as the recombination of these unoriginal elements into something fresh and new, even if never wholly original.
"Empire State of Mind" is a collage of sounds in this way, and appropriately so. Because New York is the city that it is, with "eight million stories" to be told, how can Jay-Z even attempt a definitive New York anthem without reinventing and recontextualizing the stories, lyrics, and music of others?
The phrase "Empire State of Mind" alludes to a couple of well-known earlier songs about New York.
Most obviously, there's Nas' "NY State of Mind," one of the rapper's best-known songs, if not indeed the best-known song in his catalog.
Making the allusion here more interesting is the history between Nas and Jay-Z. For years, the two carried out one of hip-hop's most famous feuds before eventually reconciling. Nas was originally rumored to be up for a guest appearance on "Empire State of Mind," although he didn't end up appearing on the final track.
Interestingly, though the two songs have similar titles, the raps couldn't be more different. Nas raps about "the smooth criminal" and Jay-Z raps about his incredible commercial success and how he owes it, in part, to New York City.
Billy Joel also has a song called "New York State of Mind," and it's not as big of a stretch as you might think to connect Billy Joel to Jay-Z, considering how much both artists connect with the idea of Frank Sinatra's New York.
Like most great rappers and poets, Jay-Z uses many types of rhyme to make his flows so memorable.
In "Empire State of Mind," Jay-Z's rhymes come and go, rising in frequency until he slips into an unstoppable flow just before the chorus, when he shifts to focus on fewer, but stronger, rhymes.
It seems like with each successive verse, Jay-Z shows himself up, weaving in more rhymes, better rhythms, and cleverer metaphors. In looking at Jay-Z's lyricism in the song, a few important issues – the importance of African-American dialect and "inner rhyme," for example—come to the surface. Let's look at the third verse as an example:
Lights is blinding, girls need blinders
So they can step out of bounds quick, the sidelines is,
Lined with casualties, who sip the life casually
Then gradually become worse; don't bite the apple, Eve
We can split up the first four lines into two couplets, that is, pairs. Looking at these lyrics printed on the page, there might seem to be some rhyming problems, though.
"Blinders" is made to rhyme with "-lines is," and "casually" is supposed to rhyme with "apple, Eve." And there's also the inner rhyme of "casualties" with "casually."
Those rhymes don't look beautiful. Maybe, they don't even look like rhymes. But don't forget that hip-hop is primarily an aural art form. The lines sound a lot better than they look. In part, this is due to Jay-Z's use of African-American vernacular English. In this English dialect, rooted in the nation's Black communities—though in cities and in the entertainment industry, it's becoming more commonly associated with hip-hop culture, regardless of race, like with Justin Timberlake—it's common to deemphasize the last sound of a word, or remove it completely, while stressing the initial syllable.
"Door" might become "doh," for example, or the second-syllable emphasis in a word like "police" might be moved to the first syllable. So, for "blinders" and "-lines is," it doesn't matter so much that "blinders" ends with an "-ers" sound and "is" ends with a "z" sound. These last syllables aren't emphasized.
What's more important to the ear is the similarity of the "blin-" in "blinders" and the "line" in "-lines is." In poetics, this is called feminine rhyme, the rhyming of the last two syllables with an often-unstressed final syllable.
But it gets better. Rhyming couplets isn't enough. Rappers have to string these rhymes together more rapidly than once every ten-or-so syllables. The next few lines of "Empire State of Mind" demonstrate this:
Caught up in the in-crowd, now you're in style
End of the winter gets cold, en vogue, with your skin out
City of sin, it's a pity on the wind
Good girls gone bad, the city's filled with them
One of our more technically skilled rappers, Jay-Z uses what's called inner rhyme countless times in this song, something other rapid-flow MCs like Eminem are known for as well. This section of "Empire State of Mind," no doubt one of the best raps in the song, is filled with inner rhyme.
How many instances of inner rhyme can you see just in the first two lines?
In the first line "in the," "in-crowd," and "in style" are all feminine rhymes, with the "in"s rhyming. We get more of this in the next line. "End of," which you hear as "in dove," "en vogue," and the "-in out" of "skin out" all continue Jay-Z's march of feminine rhymes. It's a beautiful and highly-skilled rhyming scheme.
This isn't, of course, to say that this is original or especially innovative, lest we forget the centuries upon centuries in which poets like Alexander Pope demonstrated expert use of all rhyming techniques. And an earlier musical example might be found in Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues."
In other words, Jay-Z's working in a rich poetic and musical tradition here.
P.S. Yeah, that's right. We just compared Jay-Z to Alexander Pope and Bob Dylan. Deal with it.
Now, you might be thinking that a few of these rhymes are kind of weak. And maybe some are. "Casually" and "apple, Eve" don't rhyme amazingly. But Jay-Z makes sure he gets some powerful, definitive sounding, lines in at the end of each verse. Look at the last four lines here:
Came here for school, graduated to the high lifeBall players, rap stars, addicted to the limelightMDMA got you feelin' like a championThe city never sleeps, better slip you an Ambien
These lines aren't overflowing with rhymes, but the two rhymes, "high life" with "limelight" and even better, "champion" and "Ambien," are great.
Why are they so strong, though? In the previous section, Jay-Z's feminine rhymes didn't often rhyme the final syllable. But here, "champion" and "Ambien" clearly completely rhyme. Often in poetry, clear, straight rhymes like these have the effect of halting verses. Have you ever heard a limerick read straight through?
Here, Jay-Z doesn't need to show off how good he is at rhyming. He has to close off the verse and transition into Alicia Keys' soaring chorus. So, these definitive-sounding rhymes wrap up Jay-Z's verse while still declaring his skill.