Features | Awards

The Macbeth Award for Shakespearean Hubris

By Joel Elliott | 17 December 2009

Jay-Z f/ Alicia Keys :: “Empire State of Mind”
from The Blueprint 3
(Roc Nation/Atlantic; 2009)

You know that McDonald’s in Harlem Jay-Z reflects on fondly from his pusher days? I’m pretty sure that’s the exact one that I exited about a month back on a weekend trip to Manhattan, only to run headlong into an hour-long conversation with a vet who had his leg blown off in Fallujah, whose desire to unload all of his life story (none of it particularly pretty) was so intense I had no choice but to just stand there and take it all in.

When Sinatra first performed “New York, New York” in 1978 the downtown was, supposedly, a war zone. Scorsese must have got depressed with the whole “gritty realism” thing and tried to make an ode to the more antiseptic qualities of the classic Hollywood musical. He failed but Sinatra succeeded with the theme song, so I guess the desire for some form of escapism was in the zeitgeist somewhere.

Sinatra’s voice had been arguably shot for several decades before, and while Carter isn’t that old, he has had a coming-out-of-retirement phase, and he’s certainly had better flow than he does on “Empire State of Mind.” If the track is a conscious inversion of “NY State of Mind,” it’s not all his fault: I never saw pre-9/11 NYC, but I’m guessing its underbelly has since been sufficiently swept under the carpet for the city to import social problems from somewhere halfway around the world.

But good for Jigga if he wants to declare himself king of the hill at a time when it seems like no one is really battling for the title.

[Actual, almost literal transcription of Jay-Z’s interview on Oprah:

O: So I know you claim to have sold crack-cocaine growing up in Brooklyn. Did you ever actually try it yourself?

J: No I didn’t (cough).]

There is a banality to Jigga’s kingdom that would be overwhelming were it not for how he attempts to reclaim controversy, if not outright struggle. The city still never sleeps, so maybe it needs an Ambien so it can stagger, pie-eyed through Times Square. His depiction of the city/himself veers into the delusional (nobody on the Nets is high-fiving anyone, but if fantasizing about bringing in Dwyane Wade, the dude who shattered your team’s dreams of not having the worst start in NBA history, helps you “sleep at night,” by all means), and reprehensible (the whole “the city is a Virgin/Eden corrupted by loose women”), but it’s the audacity that remains intriguing. Seeing that bull in Bowling Green, brass balls shining, signifying “unwavering economic progress” or some such (and appearing in the first couple frames of the “Empire” video), at a time of economic downturn (and in the very place where supposedly the Dutch bought Manhattan from the Natives for $24) is, for a Canadian and most importantly a Torontonian, like being on another planet. I expect that’s why I’m so drawn to this track: it’s absolutely unheard of to be so proud of my city, let alone claim to rule it.

But why is it that rappers like Nas can fade humbly into obscurity while it remains inconceivable that Jay-Z would go out in anything less than a supernova? He’s clearly at the top of his “game” here, whatever that means, and so by some haunting negative presence, “Empire State of Mind” unwittingly forecasts his downfall. The track is exhilarating, sure, like the dude from Man on Wire, where audacity fuels precariousness and vice-versa in an endless, self-destructive loop; even more so coming at a time when this kind of psychology has ultimately been proven to be so deleterious.

But hey:

Be lion-mettled, proud; and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:
Jay-Z shall never vanquish’d be until
Brooklyn bridge to high Central Park
Shall come against him.