Thursday, October 1st, 2009

Jay-Z ft. Alicia Keys – Empire State of Mind

And in this week’s NME, he gets to meet Ian Brown!…


Martin Skidmore: Is Jay-Z en route to becoming the first rapper to go Vegas, to become a mainstream entertainer? Is this what he wants? Despite my love for the likes of the Wu, I kind of want that to happen, and this will do no harm, despite some language not tolerated outside his genre. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Al Shipley: You’d think Jay would be able to pull a big crowd-pleasing NYC anthem out of his ass any day of the week, so it’s either restraint or distraction that’s kept him from doing so for the first half dozen singles of his post-retirement career. Shame this is one of the tracks where he decided to try out an incredibly awkward and unpleasant flow, but Alicia does all the heavy lifting with that stargazing chorus and perfect bridge anyway.

Chris Boeckmann: I can’t listen to this song without being reminded of the tragic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The crashing drums, echoing like that horrible day’s endless thunder. And Hov himself, soaring over the beat like an eagle, tear in his eye he still flies. Then the chorus comes in, with Alicia pointing us to the sky to remind us of that concrete jungle, fallin’. But she knows we cannot — no, we cannot — let that moment define our lives, our decade. And so, like the gorgeous, heroic firemen, this triumphant song not only lets us emerge from the rubble, it also reminds us to never forget the rubble. NEVER FORGET!!!!!!!

Jordan Sargent: There is something here that is stirring in a perfunctory way, and I think credit goes to Alicia Keys, who of course knows her way around a dumb, towering hook. But Jay here is as post-Black Album Jay does. His detached elitism is no longer obnoxiously charismatic. As a tribute to the city that he looms over (at least as much as the cast of Gossip Girl), “Empire State of Mind” is soulless and empty. He’s traced his rise up to his Tribeca penthouse many times before, and the rehash here is neither necessary nor illuminating, and thus the song has the same stench that usually emanates from a song commissioned for a big-budget movie that nobody really wants, and that’s kind of what Blueprint 3 is.

Matt Cibula: Okay, I’m a sucker for a good old NYC-based rap song, especially because I am missing the city a lot these days and dude covers a lot of it, not just Manahatto Isle. Not sure I like A-Keys’ background hookbellow, sounds kind of painful. Also it kind of sounds like Jay is opening himself up to charges of tampering from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Still though.

Chuck Eddy: Hey, I used to live in New York, too! Still have a subway map around here somewhere. Which means I could just as well have written this song. Gonna be a while before I miss the stupid place though.

Pete Baran: Is Jay-Z just pissed off that New York State Of Mind was already taken by Billy Joel? He shouldn’t be, cost his song is considerably better than Billy’s supper jazz. A really pleasant semi-list record, and Keys belts the chorus well too (though the “Big lights will inspire you” did initially sound like “Bit like swilling spider juice”, which created a significant aural double take).

Iain Mew: A lot initially passes by in a blur of unfamiliar name-drops, but the beat is bright and there’s definitely enough there to keep me hanging on to the chorus, at which point I’m sold. Absolutely bursting with pride and love, she could be singing to anywhere and it would sound like the best place in the world.

Doug Robertson: Jay-Z and Alicia work well together here, and if he’d turned his attention to something less navel gazing for his inspiration there’d be a lot more of interest here. Oh, and if Alicia had kept her involvment down to plinking on the piano and singing the chorus and hadn’t decided, for reasons best known to herself, to contribute her own godawful verse at the end of the track, this would be getting one whole extra point.

Alfred Soto: When U2 recorded a song about Miami they didn’t ask Mary J. Blige to add soul inspiration. That came later. As for Jigga, the Sinatra of his day gets by on speed and timbre rather than flow and inspiration. Maybe it’s time to resurrect Auto-Tune, as he’s done with his own career twice already.

Martin Kavka: The production tricks used on those opening seconds of Stacy Lattisaw’s “Love On A Two Way Street” are major enough to steamroll over any and all criticism. But I really can’t get past the fact that while the title promises a song about New York State, we get a lyric about New York City. Typical downstate imperialism. On the outskirts of Oneonta, the absence of lights enable you to see the stars on a clear night. Isn’t that inspiring too?

Hillary Brown: Yes it’s dated, but you could also call it a return to form; a soothing, gliding ode to a city that certainly isn’t mine, it cuts through the water like a power boat in slo-mo, spilling not a drop of champagne. It could be more adventurous, but if it’s between this and yelling tunelessly at T-Pain, I’ll take this anytime.

23 Responses to “Jay-Z ft. Alicia Keys – Empire State of Mind”

  1. This song is kind of a black hole, but <3 Chris' blurb.

  2. having just walked from bowery and lafayette to 42nd and 8th while listening to this on repeat, i gotta tell you this don’t inspire.

  3. A thousand apologies for my failure to make subject and verb agree in my blurb. Absence enables. Sigh.

  4. Martin, I’m pretty sure it’s the Moments’ much better version of “Love On A Two Way Street”* that he’s sampling; the reason I didn’t review this was that the opening set me up for the combination of majesty and intimacy of the Moments’ song and I was inevitably disappointed, and never did come to grips with Jay-Z’s track on its merits. (But Jay-Z sounds weary, and I’m probably no higher than 5 on this, though as I said, I might simply be sad that it’s not up to the Moments.)

    *Produced by Sylvia Robinson (at least that’s what Wikipedia says)

  5. Moments’ version

  6. Hmmm…”Love On A Two Way Street” is one of my favorite soul songs ever, but I didn’t even notice that sample! Must not have been listening too close. Had no idea that Sylvia had produced the Moments’ version either. But it turns out, according to Joel Whitburn, that “Sylvia and the Moments” actually had a #39 hit in 1975 called “Look At Me (I’m In Love).” And the Moments actually put out a 12-inch single on Sylvia’s Sugarhill Records in 1980 called “Baby Let’s Rap Now (Parts 1 and 2),” a copy of which I found for $1 in Brooklyn last year. Despite being on Sugarhill, it was a “rap” only in the old Isaac Hayes/Millie Jackson sense (though the Moments were much less raw than those two), not in the new Sugarhill sense. And then they turned into Ray, Goodman, and Brown.

  7. ha, cant believe i was the lowest by two points!

  8. i’m kind of embarrassed cuz it makes it seem like i hate this song more than i do. i just think it’s pointless & unnecessary like all new jay-z songs.

  9. I’d have been down with you lowering the score, Jordan.

    When I first heard this, blurbing it on poptimists, I was struggling with the sample, knowing I’d heard it somewhere but flailing about trying to remember where.

  10. Works for me, John. It’s been my walking-home-from-work track for a few weeks now.

    Set aside the autobiographical bragging (old news, Jay) and it’s just a montage of quick cuts from image to image — Brooklyn, Tribeca, Dominicans outside the McDonald’s on Broadway, a gleaming white Lexus on 8th St., Knicks/Nets at the Garden, a sea of blue at the Yankee game, drug dealers on the corner, the gang kids dreaming about hip-hop, yellow cabs in Midtown, gypsy cabs in Washington Heights, dollar cabs coming back from the airport, dice games out on the stoop, red white and blue parades, the Statue of Liberty, September 11th — hurtling you from one edge of the island to the other, from the buoyant and vivacious to the sinister and grieving, from poor to rich and back again, moving fast and disorganized and detached like a subway ride, with that feeling when you emerge aboveground that the place you are has nothing to do with the place you were, and that you’ll be leaving this spot just as quick as you left the last. And yet I made it here, so I can make it anywhere, you can tell by my attitude that I’m from New York, there’s eight million stories out there in the naked city and it’s a pity half of y’all won’t make it. Half the stories here are tragedies, but not mine, so build up and bring in the big soaring hook, for fuck’s sake: these streets will make you feel brand new, these lights will inspire you.

    But then there’s that vignette about little girls in the big city — the same lights that inspire you can blind you, will have you shutting your eyes and ducking your head each time they flash over your face in the club, giving in to temptation, just out of curiosity, just became some guy told you to. Champagne, money, guys behind your back talking about how they want to ride you, and you’re half-naked in a miniskirt standing on the curb outside the club, shivering in the mid-January wind and waiting for him to hail you a cab, taking drugs to keep you up all night, taking drugs to bring you down. You’re probably one of the half who won’t make it. You probably thought you weren’t, when you first got here. And the in-crowd / in style / in the winter / in vogue bit? Take the lyrics as written, and he’s just continuing to paint the picture: those girls you see cold and underdressed outside the big clubs. Now take the lyrics as they sound, and it adds another layer: they’re models, or they want to be, they’re just fashionable accessories who aren’t allowed to have names or voices. Bonus points for magazine title wordplay in a song about New York, which can feel like it lives and breathes magazines and models.

    Say what you will about him losing his edge, and yeah there’s some weak shit and misogyny on this track in particular (Does he say he’s up in Brooklyn before heading down to Tribeca? Is there any portion of 8th Street that it’s possible to cruise down? That good girl gone bad comes out of nowhere — and if the city never sleeps, why does he want to slip her an Ambien? Wouldn’t that make it even more difficult for her to keep up with the godless life that’s current running her into the ground? Does he want her out of it and unable to defend herself? Or is he just concerned and telling her to take a nap? And how come it’s cool, it’s just a step to bigger things, when a guy gets caught up with the wrong crowd — but when a girl does it, there’s no redemption? Oh, because any girl who has sex with multiple partners is used like a bus route) but he’s still one of the finest lyricists in mainstream hip-hop.

    If I had managed to pull this shit together enough to make a blurb out of it, I probably would have given this a nine.

  11. I was torn between a 5 and a 6, fwiw. (Though if I had noticed the Moments sample, I may have been less torn, tbh.)

  12. Thanks, Frank, for the sample correction. I see exactly your problem, having heard the Moments’ version. I s’pose I have to track down Lezli Valentine’s original now.

  13. I actually love the song, by the way! The chorus is HUGE and totally inspired!

  14. I don’t know, I know that Alicia went for HUGE! EPIC! ANTHEMIC! chorus but to me it’s just painful. Jay acquits himself nicely on this, though.

  15. This song is just embarrassing. [3]

  16. I’m being self-promotional, I know, but if I’d got around to reviewing this, I’d have given it an [8] and made 200 words out of this:

  17. Lezli Valentine “Love On A Two Way Street

    Pretty much the same intro, though in a different key. Her singing doesn’t achieve anything like ethereal unhappiness of the Moments.

  18. Belated proofreading:

    Anything like the ethereal unhappiness of the Moments.

  19. And this from Lezli Valentine in the YouTube comment thread:

    I also led Sally Go Round? The Roses as a Jaynett

    Holy moly, that’s one of my favorite records too. (Wikipedia: “The Jaynetts name was conceived by adding the ‘J’ in ‘J&S’ to “Anetta”, which was the middle name of Lezli Valentine, a session vocalist who sang on the group’s 1957 debut, ‘I Wanted To Be Free,’ as well as on other J&S releases. The lead vocal on this Jaynetts track was by Justine ‘Baby’ Washington, who regularly performed on the Hearts’ releases in 1956-57.)

    (Also, Wikipedia quotes Valentine as insisting that she wrote most of the lyrics to “Love On A Two Way Street” but was denied credit.)

  20. This is what happens when rock critics try to review rap, I guess. I mean:

    “Is Jay-Z just pissed off that New York State Of Mind was already taken by Billy Joel? He shouldn’t be…”

    Why, it’s almost as if Mr. Baran is unaware that the first song on arguably the greatest rap album ever is called New York State of Mind. And that that, not some Billy Joel junk, is why the song is called what it’s called, so as not to invite comparisons with a stone cold classic. I mean, it’s scary to think that there are people out there who have listened to Blueprint 3 but have never heard Illmatic. And then think they can opine on the likes of post-retirement Jay without ever having heard enough really good rapping to know what it sounds like, and know that this is not that. Anyway, Jordan is quite right – this is one of the more respectable songs on Jay’s latest dud, but only in a very perfunctory way. Just a list of boroughs, little feeling, Jay can’t rap anymore, etc. etc. See ‘Welcome to New York City’ or ‘Where I’m From’ for some vastly better work from him in this vein. See the former particularly for a good Jay post 9/11 N.Y. anthem.

  21. Tell it like it is.

  22. “Baby Let’s Rap Now” is a great R&B record by the MOMENTS. The MOMENTS went on to become Ray, Goodman & Brown. Grand Master Flash is in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, so why not the MOMENTS!

  23. too bad the real writers & the good guys never get paid!!!!!!