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"You have to get in a space where you can't even all-the-way listen to your friends, because they love you so much that they have places they want you to be." So says Jay-Z, on the subject of "Empire State of Mind," the song that finally put him atop the Billboard Hot 100. "They have moments in time that felt great for them — 'Oh, I wanna hear "U Don't Know" again,'" he continues. "But we done that already. I can't."
Everyone loves Jay-Z — not just his friends. And so everyone wants a unique, time-specific version of him. "Empire State of Mind" is the closest we've come to consensus. It's hard to believe, a dozen solo albums and countless playlist staples later, but it's true: This is his first number one single. Now we have the quintessential Jay-Z song. It might not be the most lyrically penetrating or sonically progressive. It might not be the best. In fact, it isn't. But what it does is unite: At some point this summer, the song was booming from every car in every state in the nation.
Deciding to record "Empire State" was a shrewdly calculated decision, with a Broadway melody and chorus scientifically engineered for mass consumption, and a malleable narrative that could be bolted onto anyone's life. It was penned by two unheralded songwriters, Jane't "Jnay" Sewell-Ulepic and Angela Hunte, and orchestrated by an equally anonymous UK producer, Al Shux.
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And it's an odd duck on an otherwise aggressive and sometimes confounding album, The Blueprint 3. It gleams while the rest groans. But when Jay received a call from his first publisher — EMI's "Big Jon" Platt, a confidant with whom the rapper confers during the making of every album — he knew he had to jump.
"He called me and said, 'Man, I think I got this song and this idea for you,'" Jay recalls. "So he sent me the song on a Sunday. I walked in the house and played the song. I called him and said, 'Send it now.' He said, 'Yeah, it's in your email.' And I said, 'No, send the Pro Tools now.' As soon as I heard it, I knew what it was gonna do."
His most important decision was calling Alicia Keys next. Her brassy, soaring chorus is the song's heartbeat — without it, it's hard to imagine "Empire State" as more than a nice local hit. And it almost was. Jay-Z, now 40 years old, admits he was "two seconds away" from calling Mary J. Blige, his reliable longtime collaborator, to supply the chorus, a move that would have been safe and true to his heritage. But something about the piano sound and melody (and maybe the commerciality) struck him, and so it was.
It's a blessing, really, because "Empire" is hardly an emotional dynamo without Keys, her ululating voice rising on each word, grasping for the grandeur Jay sometimes misses. He says the song is meant to be inspirational, initially tracking his transition from "out that Brooklyn" to "down in Tribeca," a familiar trope for Hov.
But in the second verse, things get strange: Jay adopts a granular, scrunched flow ("Rest in peace, Bob Marley!") while engaging in some deeply insular cocaine-rap talk. "If Jeezy's payin' LeBron/I'm paying Dwyane Wade," he raps, invoking the semi-obscure Young Jeezy mixtape song "24-23 (Kobe-LeBron)," which details the premium street price for coke.
That a song with such deep-seated and confusing criminal mythology — attention: Jay-Z no longer deals drugs — has enjoyed such mainstream success is a testament to the feats of ignorance. "Things are for different people, and that's not really for them," Jay says elusively. This made his performance of "Empire" at Yankee Stadium during the 2009 World Series doubly dizzying. Here was the alpha rapper for all times, repping for New York City, certainly, but also laying Easter eggs about the dope game and denigrating the Yankee cap in Yankee Stadium. Well played.
Oh, and besides his own songs, of course, what was Jay-Z's favorite single of the past year? Well, it was a tie. "I think my number one favorite is the Kings of Leon, 'Use Somebody,' " he explains. "Actually, it's a tie between the two singles they had this year. 'Sex on Fire' too. [Caleb Followill's] voice, and the heart and soul in that, was incredible for me." Still, rap music will never die.