Today sees the UK release of Alicia Keys's Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down, but you'll already know the song. Jay-Z's original version appeared on The Blueprint 3 last year (as Empire State of Mind, featuring Alicia Keys) and I've been addicted to it ever since. Who wouldn't be? With its huge hook, grandiose orchestration and shout-out to New York, the song isn't just an instant hip-hop classic, it's one of the best pop songs of the last 10 years.
But more than that, Empire State of Mind proves that Jay-Z's blueprint is still working. By keeping to old-school rules and pushing rap to commercial heights, The Blueprint 3 is an amazing statement on the renaissance of east coast hip-hop by one of its leading statesmen.
The track not only reflects New York's rich musical heritage, it also charts Jay-Z's unstoppable rise from the Marcy projects of Bedford-Stuyvesant to global star. "I'm the new Sinatra/And since I made it here/I can make it anywhere," he raps, reflecting on his career trajectory. The subtle nods to hip-hop history are brilliant; Empire State of Mind pays tribute to the city's instigation of rap: "Home of that boy Biggie ... Welcome to the melting pot/Corners where we selling rocks/Afrika Bambaataa shit/Home of the hip-hop."
It also concludes his widely publicised feud with Nas. The title alludes to Nas's 1994 track NY State of Mind, from his acclaimed debut album Illmatic, which helped establish the New York hip-hop revival after years of west coast domination. Its success is mirrored by Jay-Z's new anthem.
Nas was scheduled to contribute vocals to Empire of State of Mind, and it's a shame that he didn't. Not only would a collaboration have been a victory lap for both artists, it would have ensured the pair's feud was buried for good.
Alicia Keys's answer song offers soulful respite from Jay-Z's bombastic tribute and has already enjoyed a turn in the charts, despite that fact it hasn't been officially released until today. It's good, but for me the original wins out because it best summons the spirit of the city. It's as New York as the opening line of Woody Allen's Manhattan, the Bramford in Rosemary's Baby, or Travis Bickle's cab.
Because of this, Empire State of Mind belongs in the pantheon alongside the Velvets' I'm Waiting for the Man, Frank Sinatra's New York, New York and Notorious BIG's Where Brooklyn At.
© Words – Alan McGee (Original article appeared in The Guardian – Used by Kind permission)