Behind the Meaning of Jay-Z’s NYC Anthem “Empire State of Mind”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

New York City has Frank Sinatra’s legendary “New York, New York,” Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” and the even more borough-centric tune with the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” among the many odes to the Big Apple.

Born and raised in the Bedford–Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York, along with classmates Busta Rhyme, and the late rappers The Notorious B.I.G. and DMX, New York City was also a natural filament in Jay-Z’s music, and in 2009 he released an homage to his hometown with “Empire State of Mind,” which hit No. 1 and earned two Grammy Awards for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration and Best Rap Song.

“I’m the New Sinatra”

“Empire State of Mind” is a worthy successor of New York City song classics, capturing its hidden corners, residents, celebrity, smells, and the glitz and glamour and grit of the city through Jay-Z’s scattered homages pulled from his own life—from Yankees games and gypsy cabs to the street he used to live on 560 State Street. He even references Sinatra’s great New York ode singing since I made it here, I can make it anywhere.

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
I used to cop in Harlem–hola, my Dominicanos (Dimelo!)
Right there up on Broadway, brought me back to that McDonald’s
Took it to my stash spot, 560 State Street
Catch me in the kitchen, like a Simmons whippin’ pastry
Cruisin’ down 8th Street, off-white Lexus
Drivin’ so slow, but BK is from Texas
Me? I’m out that Bed-Stuy, home of that boy Biggie
Now I live on Billboard and I brought my boys with me

Though the song specifically references people, places, and memories personally connected to the rapper, there’s also a clear message in the meaning that regardless of where one comes they should follow their dreams.

Early Form

Originally written by Angela Hunte, who coincidentally grew up in the same Marcy Projects building as Jay-Z, and her songwriting partner Janet “Jnay” Sewell-Ulepic as a tribute to their hometown of New York City, the song was initially submitted to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label. Jay-Z later rewrote the verses and kept the “New York” in the hook.

“When I first heard the track, I was sure it would be a hit,” said Jay-Z. “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.”

Alicia Keys v. Mary J Blige

Released on Jay-Z’s 11th album The Blueprint 3, the single features piano and vocals by Alicia Keys, who is also credited as a co-writer along with Angela Hunte, Alexander Shuckburgh, Bert Keyes, Janet Sewell-Ulepic, and Sylvia Robinson. Jay-Z was seconds away from calling Mary J. Blige to sing on “Empire State of Mind” but thought of Keys when he was listening to the piano loops. Once on board, Keys also ended up reworking the bridge of the song.

In New York
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There’s nothin’ you can’t do
Now you’re in New York
These streets will make you feel brand-new
Big lights will inspire you
Let’s hear it for New York 
New York, New York

Samples

The piano running throughout the song features a sample of The Moments’ 1970 single “Love on a Two-Way Street,” written by Sylvia Robinson and Burt Keyes.

New Anthems

Today, the song is played at various sports events, benefits, and other NYC events, still igniting the spirit of the Empire State.

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