Where were you the first time you heard "Empire State of Mind"? For most New Yorkers, it was in the fall of 2009, a time that signaled the promise of better days ahead. Earlier that year, a charming state senator from Illinois, who had campaigned on messages of hope, became the first African American president of the United States. The Great Recession, which caused 8 million Americans to lose their jobs and 2.5 million businesses to close their doors, was ending. And on November 4th, the new Yankee Stadium was christened with the team’s first World Series win in nearly a decade. The city was buzzing with pride, and seemingly every cab, bodega, radio station, and bar was bumping the same infectious song: “Empire State of Mind."
Jay Z and Alicia Keys’s cinematic record impacted New York like no hometown anthem had in years. After its release earlier that fall, the instant hit ascended to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 by November 26th, and remained there for five consecutive weeks. It was a victory for its creators, and for the city it repped. “It just sounds like a victory,” says Carl Chery, Head of Urban Music at Spotify. “What song has come out in the past 10 years that feels more celebratory, more like an anthem, or more aspirational than ‘Empire State of Mind’”?
“Empire” was actually written and produced nowhere near the five boroughs. New York songwriters Angela Hunte and Janet “Jnay” Sewell Ulepic were feeling homesick the day they went to Al Shux’s London studio, on what Ulepic calls a trip of faith. “It started in a very humble situation, with a shitty computer, little equipment and very few contacts in the industry. It was early days for all of us,” says Shux. Hunte and Ulepic immediately responded to one of Shux’s beats in particular, because it reminded them of home. “That track is some raw New York hip-hop shit. It isn’t overcomplicated or overproduced; it’s just simple elements done well and a big chorus,” says Shux. Four hours later, the new team had a demo.
Within months, it wound up in Jay Z’s hands. “We knew we had created something that would outlast us,” Ulepic says. “That’s why we were so particular about where it went. Jay Z understood it and was able to take it to the moon.” The track resonated with the born and bred New York rapper, who began working on it right away. Jay Z writes in his 2010 biography, Decoded: “When I first heard the track… I was sure it would be a hit. It was gorgeous. My instinct was to dirty it up, to tell stories of the city’s gritty side, to use stories about hustling and getting hustled to add tension to the soaring beauty of the chorus.”
While today it’s standard practice for a hit song to have six or more credited producers and writers, the song Shux made remained virtually untouched. Jay Z’s replaced Hunte and Ulepic’s sung verses with his own rhymes, and assigned Hell’s Kitchen’s finest, Alicia Keys, to sing the hook as written. In Decoded, Jay calls the beat and chorus “universal in their appeal,” and says “a dumbed down record actually forces you to be smarter, to balance art, craft, authenticity and accessibility.”
As Jay Z’s first number one solo record, “Empire” marked a significant career milestone. “It helped unlock a new phase of Jay-Z's career: stadium status,” says Zach Greenburg, author of the book Empire State of Mind: How Jay Z Went From Street Corner to Corner Office. “In being both a business and business, man, scale is of the utmost importance.” The track’s crossover pop appeal helped the hip hop legend expand his fanbase and bank account.
The week of the song’s release, 250,000 copies were sold. By August of 2012, that number exceeded 5 million. The multi-platinum record also landed in the top 10 charts in Australia, France, UK, Canada, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. Jay Z and Keys did an aggressive live performance circuit, debuting it at the “Answer the Call” benefit concert at Madison Square Garden on September 11th, followed by shows at the VMAs, AMAs and BRIT Awards. The Yankees boosted its exposure by adopting it as the soundtrack to their stellar season; Jay Z and Alicia performed it before Game 2 of the World Series and again at the Victory Parade. After a Saturday Night Live set in May 2010, it was soon parodied by College Humor and The Simpsons, covered on Glee and used in an advertisement for New York State. It was also featured in the trailer and opening scene of Sex and the City 2.
The song wasn’t just ubiquitous; it was critically acclaimed. The New York Times, Rolling Stone, MTV, the Village Voice, NME and Entertainment Weekly all listed it as one of the top songs of 2009. “Empire” was nominated for three Grammys and won two. It was the mark of a successful campaign. NYT critic Ben Sisario wrote in 2009, “Jay Z started spreading the news in September, and since then he has taken every prominent opportunity to remind us: he has a candidate for the New York anthem, and he wants our vote.”
As intended, “Empire” earned a reputation as the 21st century “Theme from New York, New York.” The song from Martin Scorsese’s 1977 flop of a film only became the theme to New York, New York when Frank Sinatra began performing it in 1980. “[Sinatra] felt it was a hit and he wanted hits, especially at this point in his career,” says James Kaplan, author of Frank: The Voice and Sinatra: The Chairman. “He also felt a strong bond with the lyrics. New York had always been magical to him. He grew up in Hoboken, staring out across the great water to the Emerald City, dreaming of succeeding there. And what’s that song about? The fulfillment of that dream.”
Lyrically, “New York, New York” and “Empire” bolster New York’s foundational myths of opportunity, freedom, and mobility—and the assumption that good things come to those who hustle. While “New York, New York” is a more general story of “come up” and ambition, “Empire” delves into Jay Z’s biography. The rapper geographically maps his rags to riches story, from “copping in Harlem” and “stashing at 560 State Street,” to counting De Niro as his as Tribeca neighbor.
Early in the “Empire” rise, Jay Z happily cited the two songs’ similarities, often playing parts of “New York, New York” before “Empire” in sets. In his first verse, Jay Z boldly and prophetically dubs himself “the new Sinatra.” Both self-made men share histories of entanglements with crime and gangsterism (Jay Z was a drug dealer and indicted for stabbing, while Sinatra fraternized with—and even idolized— the mob). As members of historically disenfranchised groups (Italian Americans like Sinatra occupied a racial “middle group” in the early-mid 20th century), their shadowy pasts are seen as markers of authentic struggle. “Gangsterism in America isn’t just about crime and money, it’s about the triumph of the weak over authority and adversity,” says Kaplan. Their street cred cemented their status as city icons, because in the quintessential New York narrative, the hustler is the hero.
While “New York, New York” is blindingly positive and hopeful, “Empire” doesn’t shy from discussing the city’s seedier underbelly. “Darker moments are more relatable than glitz and glamor,” Chery says. “The message to the common man is a lot more powerful. I think he packaged it in a way that makes it relatable and aspirational.” Songwriter Angela Hunte, who cut that first demo before it hit Jay Z’s desk, is a first generation Trinidadian American who grew up in a community of immigrants. She says “Empire” isn’t just about overcoming challenges, but about the challenges themselves. “We’ve all had that moment on the train, when you’re broken and alone and surrounded by a complete bustle and you think ‘I don’t have it’ or ‘I don’t know how,’” she says. “And somehow, someway, you figure it out because that’s what this city makes you do.”
Though “Empire” isn’t without some winking Uptown, Downtown references—Anna Wintour, gypsy cabs, and the South Bronx native Afrika Bambaata all walk into a bar—its lyrics intentionally focus on the New York of postcards and billboards. Jay Z’s shoutouts to the Statue of Liberty, the melting pot and big lights make it appeal to a more general audience. It’s why you’re just as likely to hear it blasting in Boston bars as you are in Brooklyn backyards. In both songs, New York City becomes more of a symbol for ambition and achievement than a physical place.
“Empire” is an effective piece of New York propaganda that does little to mask its neoliberal agenda. It’s a textbook American Dream narrative, based on an exceptional tale of social mobility and success. Hell, even Liz Lemon remembers the song incorrectly on 30 Rock: “It’s like Jay Z says: concrete bunghole, where dreams are made up. There’s nothing you can do!” Being bright-eyed about New York can be fun—we’ve all had that moment, walking down these streets, pinching ourselves—but most New Yorkers can also (happily, vocally) attest to the fact that hard work doesn’t always pay off.
Politics aside, “Empire” is a certified banger with a substantial emotive cache. It’s the kind of song that’s impossible to ignore, and that forces you to stop feel something (even if all you’re feeling is sick of hearing it). “You can be the drunkest person in the club and that song comes on and you have a moment of clarity,” says Hunte. Like the musical equivalent of a primal scream, “Empire” basically begs you to sing along, and doing so (no matter how terribly) provides some kind of release. In public spaces, “Empire” transforms strangers into choruses and can make even the most mundane moment feel profound, regardless of the listener’s connection to the city.
Though it dropped like a bomb in 2009, its longevity was to be determined. “It takes more than shoutouts—to make a true New York anthem—a song that embodies the spirit of a city and burns itself into the collective consciousness,” Sisario writes. “Yet who but Jay Z could pull it off, if he can at all?” To no one’s surprise, he did. The past decade has proven that nothing is out of reach for hip-hop’s first billionaire. And it doesn't hurt that “Empire” is now the 15th biggest hit by two recording artists of all time.
“Empire” is a generational anthem that will remain relevant as long as it still captures the hopes (and fears) of its listeners. And the New York dream—which is, in a way, everybody's dream—has no expiration date. “It’s not just about getting out of Brooklyn or over the bridge,” says Hunte. “It’s about being the best that you can be, where you are, with what you have.” Let’s hear it for New York, either way.
Originally Appeared on GQ