You can’t really look like much of a plonker if you’re just yammering at a piano. The hypothesis could be in danger…
John Seroff: Not unlike being held down and smeared with black-and-white cookie icing by Mr. Met, Donald Trump and Eli Manning. As a ten year resident, I <3 NY as much as the next guy, but come the fuck on already.
Anthony Easton: It’s a collection of well modulated clichés that have not been fresh since the 50s, but her voice sells them, and the song has an aching longing and an eroticised melancholy that makes the city as small as a lover who will disappoint and inspire in equal measures.
Mordechai Shinefield: Pretty moments abound that Jay-Z didn’t sample, especially “Even if it ain’t all it seems / I got a pocketful of dreams,” which despite dabbling in cliche sounds hopeful and determined. Maybe more importantly, stripping away Jay-Z from the song illustrates just why the big hook works so well in the original. Alicia Keys really does sound “brand new” and “inspired” by New York, and Jay-Z just kinda sounded tired. Certainly not a hopeful singer getting off the train for the first time. It may be well-covered ground, but it sounds great when Keys re-covers it.
Michaelangelo Matos: Why the hell would you take a cab from Harlem to the Brooklyn Bridge when you can get there faster on the 4? (I know, I know: Because you’re Alicia Keys.) If those women on the street are working hard at what I think we’re supposed to infer they are, is it touching that Keys sounds so uncomprehending mentioning them? But she also reverse-samples her own chorus, which is the first time I’ve ever heard that particular trick, so respect, if not pleasure.
Alex Ostroff: Given that Alicia’s epic wailing chorus was the best part of the original track, I expected to love this. But absent the contrast between the smooth vocals, the syncopated piano chords and the boom-bap backdrop, the sequel is a bit too saccharine for its own good. Lyrics that rhyme “Brooklyn Bridge” with “empty fridge” don’t do Keys any favours.
Tom Ewing: I rolled my eyes as “Part I” turned up in poll after poll last year but “Part II” is the best argument for it yet. Yes, Jay-Z’s flow is halting, stiff, way beneath him; yes, the chorus is the song’s big moment; but it turns out when you replace him with more Alicia it diminishes that moment, and her supper-club arrangement doesn’t help. It casts the original “Empire State Of Mind” as a song that pushes through against its flaws: “Part II” simply gentrifies them away – in pop, as in cities, a false improvement.
Pete Baran: It is not as if Jay-Z’s take on New York was exactly frenetic, but there is a real sense of menace below the ballady sheer class displayed in part II. So what if the piano seems to be on loan from Bruce Hornsby, and the echo is Randy Crawford’s? Like its prequel, it is an audio postcard which makes me miss the Big Apple.
Alex Macpherson: Jay-Z’s awkward, flinch-inducing flow was the strongest argument against the original “Empire State Of Mind” – what, one wonders, were its boosters doing during his verses? Ignoring them? Keys’ solo “Part II” solves that problem, but as undeniable and forceful as her chorus is, its power is still essentially hollow and as genuinely evocative as a picture postcard and some tourist tat. It doesn’t help that we’re reviewing this alongside “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart”, the real masterpiece in Alicia’s recent output.
Doug Robertson: If you’re the sort of person who thought that Alicia’s bits were the best bits in the original track and not just a chance for Jay Z to take a breather then this is for you. Other things that are also for you include carpet, screws, supporting walls and other essential but ultimately dull things.
Matt Cibula: I might like this a little better than the original but I don’t like the original very much. Also, really, Alicia Keys, with the “concrete jungle” and the other recycled phrases here? We’re supposed to think you live in the real New York?
Martin Kavka: After listening to this, New York was no longer able to say that it was a city that never sleeps.
David Moore: The track’s offhand melancholy turns the former anthem into something more somber and ambivalent. Perfect soundtrack for the hangover that follows screaming along to Part 1 last night. In front of your bleary eyes, the city takes its drab, common shape as a claustrophobic daily commute rather than the glossy, expansive montage of highlights-via-helicopter you’ve never really visited yourself — despite living there for how long now? Why didn’t you take advantage of the city, Dave, it was right there… (Note: Alicia Keys’s wail not actually recommended for a hangover.)
Iain Mew: Alicia’s verses are much more obviously just filling space than Jay-Z’s and there are plenty of other issues to pick at, not least the way it just fizzles out at the end. Months on, though, that chorus is still enough to carry it all and then some.
Kat Stevens: Alicia gets the chance to fully let rip on that massive chorus, but she still sounds like she’s just finished a 4 hour DDR/chain-smoking marathon.
Edward Okulicz: To my mind, and maybe nobody else’s, no artist in the last ten years has got such a critical free-pass as Keys; what’s her selling point? What does she give you that nobody else can? Her voice has one trick, and her songs no longer bite or draw out emotion, and this takes the now-familiar hook and adds nothing to it – if anything, it smooths out that song’s overbearing but powerful character to no improvement. It’s just an empty shell, a lot less interesting and fun than the (admittedly overrated) Pt I and with no need to exist at all.
Alfred Soto: The pyrotechnics are so intense that the telethon studies burst into flames. Keys’ cold heart beats on.
Martin Skidmore: Still a nice chorus, though.