NEW YORK — It has been nearly impossible lately to surf the radio without hearing Jay-Z rapping about his gritty-to-glamorous ascent in the big city as Alicia Keys swoons about the “concrete jungle where dreams are made of ...”
The song “Empire State of Mind” was the biggest hit at Yankee Stadium this fall, and then, just days before Jay-Z turned 40, it gave the rap legend his first No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 list. And if it wasn’t already ubiquitous, its beat blaring from the radio in almost every corner store, last month Keys issued her own version on her new album and has been regularly performing this salute to the aspirations of native New Yorkers.
For the last three decades, Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” from the songwriting team of Kander and Ebb, has ruled as the city’s sentimental favorite — in ballparks, at weddings and to signal determination. Over the same three decades, hip-hop grew to be the dominant force in pop music and culture and Jay-Z one of its leading citizens. Like any good New Yorker, he has made no secret of his ambition to topple what came before him; and since there are few left to take on, he’s trying to elbow aside the Chairman of the Board with an anthem reflective of a new generation.
But can any hip-hop song prove as universal and enduring as Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” (written by Billy Strayhorn) or Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “Manhattan”? Or, for that matter, that other easy-to-whistle “New York, New York,” by Leonard Bernstein and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, which explains, “the Bronx is up and the Battery down, the people ride in a hole in the ground”?
The answer is maybe, maybe not.
From the very start of “Empire State,” Jay-Z’s lyrics sum up his rise from street kid to celebrity as well as his vision of New York in line with anthems that precede him:
Yea I’m out that Brooklyn
Now I’m down in TriBeCa
Right next to DeNiro
But I’ll be hood forever
I’m the new Sinatra and ... since I made it here
I can make it anywhere.
Even the idea of a “new Sinatra” feels wrong to Jonathan Schwartz, a radio personality from New York with an encyclopedic knowledge of the singer. During a phone interview, Schwartz hums one of his favorite ballads of the city, the 1934 slow-tempo “Autumn in New York,” by Vernon Duke, who composed “April in Paris.”
“These songs are ... for everyone, forever,” he says, complaining that the street music of today “won’t last because it has no melody and very little that even rhymes. Words like ‘home’ and ‘alone’ don’t rhyme and yet that’s what these rappers use. That never would have been with a Vernon Duke or Oscar Hammerstein ...”
But composer John Kander, who with the late Fred Ebb wrote the musical “Cabaret” as well as Sinatra’s enduring anthem, is intrigued by Jay-Z’s ode to the big city.
“I thought it was kind of interesting because it juxtaposed totally different styles of music,” says Kander, 82, explaining it was first brought to his attention by another musical theater star, 29-year-old Lin-Manuel Miranda, who mixed rap with other styles in the Broadway hit “In the Heights.”
Other than suggesting that an anthem usually embodies some measure of hope, Kander could not — and would not — attempt to explain what makes a city connect with a certain song; he merely pointed out that “Empire State of Mind” has as much of a chance of enjoying another 30 years of popularity as his did 30 years ago. “It doesn’t matter what I think or what the critics say,” says Kander. “It’s what people think and feel and hang on to.”
Kander and Ebb wrote and then rewrote “New York, New York” for a 1977 Martin Scorsese movie of the same name. (Robert De Niro, who costarred with Liza Minnelli, didn’t think their first version was “strong enough,” so out of sheer anger of being told what to do by an actor, they reworked it in 45 minutes.) But even that version didn’t go anywhere until Sinatra remade it a few years later.
“He rearranged it for his more limited range and botched the lyrics,” Kander recalls with a chuckle (there was no “A Number One” in Ebb’s lyrics), “and when I first heard it, I thought, ‘Oh gosh, shouldn’t we fix it for Sinatra?’ But it became huge without us. So who’s to say?”
Sinatra first performed “New York, New York” at an October 1978 concert in Radio City Music Hall. He was 62 with a voice that wasn’t what it once was. But he still had the timing and the feral excitement of the kid from the mobbed-up Hoboken waterfront you could just imagine looking across the river thinking, “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.”
There are generations of songs that capture New York’s magic and allure, its extremes of wealth and poverty, of uptown and downtown, of private misery and public joy. Most date themselves by casting the city in a moment; others hang onto enduring ideals. Bob Dylan, in “Talking New York,” reveals it through the eyes of an outsider; Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” is about a native coming home.
The songwriting duo Rodgers and Hart invented a tune for almost every New York: their classic references pushcarts at the same time it portrays a city as “a wondrous toy, just made for a girl and boy.” But in “Give It Back to the Indians,” they complain how New York has gone to hell: “We tried to run this city, but it ran away.”
“It’s classically New York that it would inspire a song for every mood and era,” says Tony Fletcher, a music historian who recently published “All Hopped Up and Ready to Go” about the city’s music scenes 1927 to 1977.
Growing up in Yorkshire, England, Fletcher, 45, got to know New York through the lyrics of the Ramones and Blondie, which romanticized (at least for him) the grimy Lower East Side and obscure areas in the boroughs.
“When I was coming in from JFK for the very first time, when I moved here, I was stunned to see a sign for ‘Rockaway Beach,’” Fletcher says of the Queens area, also the name of a Ramones song. “It was a thrill to find out these places weren’t fictional.”
There are any number of hip-hop odes to specific neighborhoods, mostly in the spirit of yours-versus-mine, Queens vs. the Bronx vs. Brooklyn vs. the 212. On his albums, Jay-Z often returns to the Marcy Houses projects in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn where he grew up. In “Where I’m From,” he explains, it’s “where the pimps, prostitutes, and the drug lords meet; we make a million off of beats, cause our stories is deep” and says you can forget about tomorrow “as long as the night before was sweet.”
In “Empire State of Mind,” however, he expands his community pride to cover the whole city and a wide spectrum of New Yorkers, including the late rap superstar Notorious B.I.G. and Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour. Jay-Z also samples broadly for this song — for the title from Billy Joel, for the backing track from the 1970 hit “Love on a Two Way Street.” Two lesser-known New Yorkers, Angela Hunt and Janet “Jnay” Sewell-Ulepic, wrote the lyrics for the chorus, or hook, which Keys, a New Yorker herself, reworked for a more introspective version on her new album, “The Element of Freedom,” which was released on Dec. 15.
It’s the hook that many see as Jay-Z’s bid to make this The One — that once-every-few-decades song about New York that catches on and becomes an anthem. “Empire State” pulls in a broader audience by tapping into classic mythologies with lines that revere a city where:
There’s nothin’ you can’t do ...
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you
Let’s hear it for New York.
For now — at least in New York — this song has become something of a cultural phenomenon. The lyrics are mapped in the blogosphere and have been translated into a suburban boast by Stephen Colbert disguised in a hoodie. The local Madison Square Garden Networks re-aired Jay-Z debuting the song at the venue on Sept. 11 at a concert in memory of the victims of the terrorist attack back-to-back with a performance there by Sinatra in 1974; the concerts were promoted together as “Two Generations of Cool” or “Bada Bling!”
Not that any of this is a guarantee that Jay-Z’s song of the city can live past its moment and beyond its generation the way Sinatra’s did. But Al Shux, who created the backing track for “Empire State of Mind,” will know when it has gone from a blip on the Billboard chart to a beloved entry in the American songbook.
“When someone says, ‘Start spreadin’ the news,’ you know exactly what they’re talking about and what comes next,” says Shux, a British producer and a Sinatra fan even at the age of 27. “Someday I hope when someone anywhere in the world says ‘I’m out of that Brooklyn,’ the whole world will know what comes next.”
// Notes from the Road
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