I first heard “Empire State of Mind” in a basement. It was Christmastime 2009. Bundled in scarves and sweaters, all my high school friends were home from college. We were stoked to be reunited, high on youth, and ready to explode with energy.
“Jay-Z and Alicia Keys teamed up on a huge track while you were gone!” My friend Yamila beamed, solo cup in hand, as the crew danced, hugged, and laughed around us.
I had returned from traveling in Costa Rica and Nicaragua the week before. I couldn’t really handle college, so I took time off, worked, and then charted south. After going through a real loss of hope, Central America restored my spirit and I was ready to reconnect with the United States, my community, and myself.
Yamila led me to the stereo, cued up her new iPod Mini, and pressed play. As soon as the beat dropped, I knew we had something.
”Empire State of Mind” is that perfect tempo where it’s not slow enough to be a ballad, but there’s enough space where you can really live inside the curves of the beat. The way the overlaid tom drums bounce around the beat evokes something tribal or ancient—befitting the “concrete jungle” theme. It feels like you’re stepping into the ring. It gives the song gravitas.
And then the piano enters the stage and suddenly the sun comes out. This is in part because the verse features major 7 chords—which is musician for ‘dreamy sound.’ Definitely an inspired choice for the genre. These chords conjure the fantasy of New York while the hits at the end of the phrase reflect the persistent toughness that is needed to succeed on the biggest stage. And shouts to the shimmering tambourine, which offers just enough ‘party’ to make it feel like everyone’s invited.
Then, the turn chord leading to the chorus is like getting the rug pulled out from under you. I can’t help but see scenes of eye black being applied or announcers introducing the home team. That chord—a major III for those counting—is a call to arms. And you better fall in line because Alicia is at the head of the charge.
What can I say about Alica’s performance?
When I was 13, I was having dinner with my older cousin who played guitar and I said, “What does Jimi Hendrix do harmonically that other guitarists don’t?”
My cousin replied, “not that much.” So I asked, “Then why is he so good?” And my cousin looked at me disappointedly and basically implied, “If you’re asking that question, you don’t get it.”
Alicia on this song is that idea. If you don’t get it, this essay isn’t going to convince you of a damn thing. She has it. She owns it, and she owns us while she’s singing. If we did an “Anthem Singer Power Rankings”—and we should—she’d be on any top five.
When she reaches for the harmony on the fourth chorus at 4:10, I honestly think that moment is my musical singularity. It is everything I love about music fit inside one instant.
[Quick timeout for music theory corner: Saving the V chord for the chorus is simply *chefs kiss*. The verse bounces between the I and the IV. When the chorus arrives and Jay and Alicia give you that V chord over the words “nothing you can’t do,” the song lands, and the harmony supports the message in the most soulful way.]
From Jay’s side of the aisle, it’s just an iconic set of verses. This is how GOAT’s open hits:
Yeah, I’m out that Brooklyn, now I’m down in Tribeca
Right next to De Niro, but I’ll be hood forever
I’m the new Sinatra, and since I made it here
I can make it anywhere, yeah, they love me everywhere
Me? I’m out that Bed-Stuy, home of that boy Biggie
Now I live on Billboard and I brought my boys with me
I love the storytelling, and, beyond that, at that time, bringing my boys with me was everything. These ideas of making it together defined our identity.
Say what up to Ty Ty, still sipping Mai Tais
Sitting courtside, Knicks and Nets give me high fives
Nigga, I be spiked out, I could trip a referee
Tell by my attitude that I’m most definitely from
Not sure how to address the basketball references without being self-referential… And, of course, Jay pulls on my heartstrings with the double meaning ‘spiked out’ also referring to MSG superfan Spike Lee sitting courtside.
Someday I want to write a thesis on this couplet:
Eight million stories out there in the naked
City, it’s a pity half of y’all won’t make it
Me? I gotta plug Special Ed, “I Got It Made”
If Jeezy’s paying LeBron, I’m paying Dwyane Wade
For today, regarding the last line:
- Can we get a ding for every crossover mention?
- Jay is referencing LeBron (6) and Wade’s (3) jersey numbers and saying, if you’re paying 6x for drugs, I’m paying 3x—basically, I’m paying half of what you’re paying.
- Dwyane Wade has been retired since 2019 and is currently doing this.
- Crazier, LeBron is still averaging 29.4 POINTS PER GAME! He’s 37!
- Adding complexity, for years after this song came out, LeBron changed his number back to his inaugural 23, blurring the clarity of the metaphor. But this season he returned to 6, thusly returning balance to the “Empire State of Mind” universe.
I’m not sure a song can be bigger. And I don’t mean popular, which of course it was, but more like its sonic mass. “Empire State of Mind” feels like a giant. Listening to it is like putting on a joyous suit of armor.
That winter night in 2009 we danced to this song four times and there were nights that followed where four plays were on the low end. The basement in that house had low ceilings. Low enough you could reach the ceiling if you jumped. I remember us all jumping up, high-fiving the ceiling, and screaming, MDMA got you feeling like a champion, City never sleeps better slip you an Ambien!
Now, we were not taking MDMA at the time, but there is a mix of being in a certain moment in your life + the early years of weed and booze that are better than the stronger alternatives.
On that note, I believe youth’s greatest attribute is making time and possibility feel boundless. This song was that power incarnate and when I listen to it now, embers of that feeling still ripple through me. “Empire State of Mind” was our battle cry, armed with the hope of a new face in office, and tasked with taking on a recession, this song was our moment.
This song is imprinted on my life. “Empire State of Mind” will always represent the invincibility I felt at that time; coming back home, both physically and mentally, and feeling like Alicia and Jay were talking directly to me and saying, “anything is possible.”
But I don’t care.
Forget Yamila bursting to play this for me on her iPod. Take away the Christmas lights sprinkling color into the basement. Erase jumping on backs, twirling friends while holding them bridal-style, and collapsing on the floor.
Like Jim Carey in Eternal Sunshine, disembody my connection with this song and it doesn’t matter. It’s not the nostalgia. This song is a classic.
The time has passed, but the ‘state of mind’ endures.