by Jay-Z feat. Alicia Keys
by Alicia Keys
When The Blueprint 3 came out, I wrote a snotty dismissal of it for a paper in Vegas and figured that was that. I didn't take Jay-Z making another lousy album personally or anything—I'm no one's idea of a full-time head, just someone who likes hiphop as a genre among genres. That's pretty much Jay-Z's audience these days, anyway. It was no surprise at all when "Empire State of Mind" won the Pazz & Jop singles poll in the Village Voice three weeks ago. Big, big hook; coincidence with World Series; two huge stars: It's perfect for radio fans, I-like-the-occasional-pop-hit types, and everyone in between.
I understood, even if I didn't agree. That's partly because New York triumphalism is one of the most annoying justifiable things there is. Yes, we know how big and great it is; now STFU about it. Then I moved to Brooklyn right when the song was becoming harder to escape than Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" had been. Eventually it swayed me, because although I never purposefully play it, I never stop hearing it; it's like knowing Applebee's is never leaving Times Square. Because that's what "Empire State of Mind" is—not a song so much as a tourist trap. The way Alicia Keys sings "The lights will inspire you" is like a cloying child actor squinching her face for maximum adorability.
So I laughed like an idiot the first time I heard Keys's sequel. At first I didn't realize what it was, just some vague cocktail MOR. When the chorus horned in, it threw me hard—Wow, she's made it even worse! But once I calmed down, I realized what was happening in the song, which I honestly can't think of a historical precedent for: taking her sung chorus of Jay-Z's song and building new verses and a bridge around it. In other words, Keys reverse-sampled herself. I'm impressed—not because I like Keys as a songwriter, or because this is anything other than a stunt, but because she genuinely found a new angle, for probably the first time in her career. (I also like the way she sings "The lights will inspire you" better on "Part II.") Pop music: Even a song you don't like can have something to teach you.