Friday, October 9, 2009

The Empire State Rebellion

A plague of biblical proportion has descended on the city of New York. I could deal with locusts, boils, a first born son if I had one to sacrifice, but I can’t hear “Empire State of Mind” ever again. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, a mild fail. The jaunty Moments interpolating beat by no name Al Shux on an album filled with the best production money can buy is harmless enough with its cocktail riff and lingering tambourine rattle, it’s in philosophy that this song achieves epic levels of awful. “Empire State of Mind” sounds like what might happen if the kids from that performing arts high school in “Fame” tried to make a New York Rap anthem. A Big Apple ode for the “High School Musical”/”American Idol” set, marinated in schmaltz, deep fried in out of towner cliché and topped liberally with powdered sugar. It's offensive.

Alicia Keyes’ abrasive hook is where it begins but Jay’s bubbly, fuzzy flow is the real egregious sin. It’s somehow worse because two seasoned artists with chops conspired on this atrocity. Thank God Nas took a pass to finish his “Best of Both Worlds” project. How ubiquitous is this song? At the moment in New York, you can’t cross the street at a red light without hearing it, seemingly always around the part where Jay talks about taking Molly just before Keyes launches into another ungodly howl. This is the worst song I’ve ever heard receive this level of endorsement on a grand scale. I would rather be shackled to an uncomfortable chair as “It’s goin down” is pumped through those Maxell commercial speakers on repeat with my eyelids scotch taped open being forced to watch Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS than ever hear this song again. A friend spotted Jay-Z and a camera crew suspiciously close to State Street two weeks ago so it doesn't look like it's going away anytime soon.

For your consideration here are 5 takes on this city I prefer, not necessarily anthemic or as explicit in subject matter (though I don’t know if Sinatra himself beat his point to death as brutally as Keyes does) or covered on UnKut’s excellent list from last year, but are truer to the New York I know and love in both content and feel.

(Honorable Mention: "Verbal Intercourse". This list isn’t ordered or in anyway definitive but I just couldn’t justify this as a New York song. Still, Nas brings his inherently gotham Illmatic era imagery and slyly references the Tombs while Ghost brags about his New Lots real estate. Doesn’t get more City oriented than that.)

Cam’ron feat. Jay-Z & Juelz- Welcome to New York City

Just Blaze provides slightly garish backing for this post 9-11 tribute. Both Cam and Jay sound like broken 40 bottles and snack cake wrappers lying around corners between Martin Luther King Jr. Place and 125th. Jay recycled a few concepts for “Empire State” from here (the whole Spike courtside at the Garden thing) except, you know, he doesn’t sound like a faggot.

Robbie dismissed this one, probably because it isn’t obscure and 17 years old, which is a shame because it’s a pretty great song. Probably could’ve done without Fat Joe, and maybe would’ve been better off had Ja relegated himself to hook duties, but a banger nonetheless. It’s an honest to god anthem that has a gritty feel and inspires regional pride whether you want to acknowledge it or not. Also started the stupidest beef in the history of Hip Hop and probably killed Styles’ once promising solo career.

A classic very little needs to be said about. Smif & Wessun continue to envelope us in their dark paramilitary Brooklyn where it’s us against the state in uniform on a song loosely about their borough (Read this again just for fun). That sax loop I will never tire of actually sounds like a trip between Canal and DeKalb on the Q train.

Capone & Noreaga ft. Tragedy- Top of New York

Couldn’t leave Queens out of the conversation. Everyone’s favorite Puerto Rican Muslim rambles around in quintessential New York, Rza influenced darkness, Capone moves weight across the Verrazano and Tragedy takes a trip to Central Bookings. Do yourself a favor and stay away from the cheese sandwich my friend.

BlackStar Feat. Common- Respiration
Embedding was disabled and I didn't post a strip because if you haven't seen this video in a while it's time to revisit. Hate on this for featuring a Brooklyn transplant, downgrade the major label contributions of Mos and Talib (get your Noisemaker tix now New York) because you’ve listened to their seminal albums so many times you forgot how neck breaking they were the first time and you hate everyone who loves them, call this song pretentious, abstract and the embodiment of everything that was wrong with the Rawkus movement. This dense, writerly anthem puts the intangibility of New York to words. The creeping sense of emptiness and disappointment, the daily hypocrisies, the crush of humanity as well as its joys, the warmth around every worn corner and the pursuit of that warmth, the simultaneous togetherness and loneliness. It’s a song that speaks to my experience, “Empire State of Mind” is a fever dream conceived by Jay-Z as he napped through the opening credits of “All That Jazz”. It’s a lie and a really bad song.


david viola said...

That song isn't getting any spins in L.A. yet. Kind of amazing that a Jay-Z/Alicia Keys song now qualifies as a "regional" hit.

tray said...

In other news, Citizen Kane was a great film. No, the songs you mention are great, of course, but a slightly less obvious list would be nice. Like what's the last time someone wrote about how great 'Walk In New York' is? Or 'The Bridge' or Jay's 'Where I'm From' or 'The Place Where We Dwell'? Or maybe you could go out on a limb and make a case for 'Ground Zero.' As for Jay's song... I don't know, it's quite schmaltzy but I think it would be alright if not for Alicia. Not good - I mean, I'm someone who hates post-retirement Jay so much I shake my head at drivers stopped at red lights playing this very song - but okay. Sometimes schmaltz can work, you know. Not every song about New York has to be grimy. The song's vision of NY is very much one of a guy who spends most of his time in the city being shuttled around in limos and has for years, and I feel like that sort of nostalgic detachment from on-the-ground realities is not necessarily an illegitimate approach. Oh and who actually doesn't like 'Respiration'? I'm not too crazy about Rawkus in general, but that's a very clear-cut classic. Maybe I don't get out enough but I've never actually met anyone revisionist enough to find fault with that song.