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Imperial blather

On Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind".

Like any self-made man, Jay-Z didn't get where he is today without a lot of hard graft. It has certainly paid dividends, with the rapper named this month by Forbes magazine as half of "Hollywood's top-earning couple" along with his wife, Beyoncé. But, musically speaking at least, Jay-Z's distinguishing moments have been when he plays the role of a drone bee, lazily surveying his domain while female counterparts do all the work. This relationship has its exemplar in Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love", where he supplies a deflating rap interlude to a song of otherwise pneumatic proportions.

Let's turn our attention to Jay-Z's biggest hit to date: "Empire State of Mind". In this paean to the city of New York, the lusty bellowing falls not to his wife, but to the pop polymath Alicia Keys. Her catchy refrain has been seeping out of speakers across Britain since last autumn, eliciting a collective sigh of "I'd love to visit New York one day" from listeners. What's more, we do not seem to tire of its appeal - nearly five months after its release, the single is still gracing the Top 20.

Jay-Z is not the first songwriter to pay tribute to his home city, nor is he the first, by any stretch, to salute New York. In particular, the song's title immediately recalls "NY State of Mind" by his fellow rapper Nas. That track, released in 1994 on Illmatic, one of hip-hop's defining albums, was a deftly rhymed crime story. By contrast, its 21st-century successor boasts a theme one imagines would be more palatable to the city's elite.

At first listen, Jay-Z's lyrics seem like a simple tour of the city: Brooklyn, Tribeca, Harlem, Broadway; all these and more are mentioned during the first verse. But on closer inspection, it is an account of his rise to fame ("I'm the new Sinatra and since I made it here/I can make it anywhere"), where the down-at-heel locations of the rapper's youth are contrasted with his current upmarket haunts. The landmarks of New York are converted into symbols of Jay-Z's own success. This is an analogue to the Renaissance oil paintings that John Berger writes about in Ways of Seeing: Dutch merchants, pictured in their living rooms, surrounded by the commodities they have accumulated. The difference here is that Jay-Z prizes his ability
to shape our perception, rather than the material objects themselves: "I made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can."

So much for New York; what might the song feel like in such far-flung corners of the globe as our own? The hook is a looped sample from the Moments' 1970 R'n'B hit "Love on a Two-Way Street". Crucially, the sample comes from the song's opening bars - making "Empire State of Mind", in a sense, all intro, rather like the entrance to a vast colonial mansion: high-flung piano notes tinkling at the top of the dome; huge bombastic columns provided by the punchy guitar chords; the hint of aggression from the "Eye of the Tiger"-like chugging that sends the chorus into lift-off. What's more, all this can be yours, Keys tells us in the chorus, again consciously echoing Sinatra.

Many pop songs have doubled as tourism campaigns, but "Empire State of Mind" adds a new element: like Peter Pan, the song that (apparently) never grows old is now dancing around its own shadow, competing for space in the Top 20 with "Empire State of Mind (Part II)". The latter is Keys's wistful solo version of the track, backed by her own dreamy piano-playing. In effect, we are being presented with both the excited anticipation and the fond memory of a journey all at once. That, one might say, indicates an imperial state of mind appropriate to the 21st century - just as American military power is increasingly exercised by remote control, so, too, do its monumental structures travel through the ether.

There's no need to visit New York at all, in fact. We are being told to marvel at the Big Apple wherever we are. Cor.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war