On Empire State of Mind, New York Anthems, and The King of New York

NOTE: This is not a completed treatise, just a collection of thoughts for the moment. I certainly plan on revisiting this subject once I’ve organized my mind a bit better, but I just wanted to get this out. It is by no means an all inclusive statement on any of the topics discussed in the title. Enjoy. UPDATE: Extended thoughts on the subject here

My Macbook’s dictionary defines an anthem as:

a rousing or uplifting song identified with a particular group, body, or cause

It is impossible to fully explain why any song becomes an anthem. The elements are amorphous–context is as important, if not more so, than the music itself. And who’s presenting the whole thing? At its heart, no matter the particular circumstances or sound of anthem, its job first and foremost is to inspire. This definition is the very heart of Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.”


When Alicia Keys belts out that chorus, it seems that all of New York agrees there’s nothing they can’t do. This song is entirely inescapable on the streets of New York. It has provided a rallying call for the every day New Yorker to get up and go, to push through the chaos of the city that never sleeps. It will probably be the theme music of the Knicks for the next 20 years. “Empire” is an anthem par excellence, bringing together New Yorkers under the banner of love for our city and the opportunity it represents.

And I had no idea we needed such a song.

This is the magic of an anthem, the power not ascribed to it by the dictionary definition. An anthem can be from any genre. It can really be about anything (most great rock anthems are largely misinterpreted). But it must strike at a certain time.

Sometimes a vacuum exists without the knowledge of those living in it. It’s arguable that New York hasn’t had a truly unifying anthem since Ja Rule’s “New York” in 2004. (NOTE: If I’m wrong about this, please call me out. I can’t recall anything lighting up New York radio and cars the way “New York” did in the time since then). It’s possible we haven’t had one in even longer.

“Empire State of Mind” is the New York anthem Jay-Z had, for one reason or another, never written.

Now, Jay-Z has always been a wonderful predictor of trends. The Blueprint set the template for popular Hip Hop’s sound over the next few years, showcasing a young Kanye and Just Blaze as producers extraordinaire. Since Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life, Jay has jumped on Timbaland’s future funk for a number of hits (and let us not forgot Jay and Timbo collaborated on “Big Pimpin,” introducing the wider world to the marriage of Hip-Hop and Middle Eastern music). Jay made retirement hot.

But Blueprint 3 seemed like a middling statement, as if Jay had finally admitted he didn’t exactly know what was going to hit (even on his dreadful comeback album, Kingdom Come his collaboration with Chris Martin predicted or at least highlighted the love heavyweight Hip Hoppers hold in their hearts for Coldplay). The lead off single–though expressing a commonly felt sentiment–did little to actually attack its namesake, stepping around sharp barbs in favor of light jabs and superficial posturing. “Run This Town” was a shot in the dark, a collaboration between three current industry titans that hit but didn’t really matter. Timbaland’s contributions to the album are largely tepid, shadows of the glorious and forward-thinking work he contributed to past Jay albums (there still isn’t a beat around as nasty as “Hola Hovito”). Kanye’s production represents both vintage Kanye (“Already Home”) and nouveau fashionable electro Kanye (“Hate”). None of Kanye’s contributions really get my blood going, though I’ll definitely let “Run This Town” ride out when it comes on. The less said about Swizz Beatz the better.

Somewhere in the process of recording BP 3, I can only assume it became evident that Jay-Z needed to make a statement about his city. Perhaps it was to provide closure to the saga Jay opened with the largely confrontational and tense soul-searching of “Heart of the City” on Blueprint. Perhaps he just said New York needs an anthem. Perhaps this is to be the implied crown jewel in the crown of the King of New York, a title once hotly disputed and now assumed to belong solely to Jay. Indeed, the one thing he was missing from his catalogue was a true anthem about New York. Whatever the case may be, Jay was right again, and “Empire State of Mind”–with its booming, propulsive beat and home-run chorus–has left its grand stamp on his city.

The king and his crown.

The king and his crown.

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