JAY-Z “Empire State of Mind” Meaning

“Empire State of Mind” is a song by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys from Jay-Z’s album The Blueprint 3 (2009).

The song is about their love for New York City, also known as “the Empire State.” It mentions different places in New York and famous people from there, capturing the city’s vibe. The title is a nod to the Billy Joel song “New York State of Mind” and Nas‘ “N.Y. State of Mind.”

In this article, we’ll explore the lyrics’ meaning.

“Empire State of Mind” Lyrics Meaning

[Verse 1: JAY-Z & Alicia Keys]

Yeah, I’m out that Brooklyn, now I’m down in Tribeca

Right next to De Niro, but I’ll be hood forever

I’m the new Sinatra, and since I made it here

I can make it anywhere, yeah, they love me everywhere

I used to cop in Harlem, hola, my Dominicanos (Dímelo!)

Right there up on Broadway, brought me back to that McDonald’s

Took it to my stash spot, 560 State Street

Catch me in the kitchen, like a Simmons whippin’ pastry

Cruisin’ down 8th Street, off-white Lexus

Drivin’ so slow, but BK is from Texas

Me? I’m out that Bed-Stuy, home of that boy Biggie

Now I live on Billboard and I brought my boys with me

Say “What up?” to Ty Ty, still sippin’ Mai Tais

Sittin’ courtside, Knicks and Nets give me high fives

Nigga, I be spiked out (Come on), I could trip a referee (Come on)

Tell by my attitude (Come on) that I’m most definitely from

In Verse 1, Jay-Z mentions his transition from Brooklyn to Tribeca, two distinct neighborhoods in New York City, as he sings, “Yeah, I used to live in Brooklyn, now I’m down in Tribeca.

He mentions being close to Robert De Niro (“Right next to De Niro”), a famous actor, indicating his proximity to fame and success in the city.

Jay-Z compares himself to Frank Sinatra (“I’m like the new Sinatra”), a legendary singer associated with New York City, suggesting his own iconic status and influence within the music industry.

He reminisces about his past experiences in Harlem (“I used to cop in Harlem, hola, my Dominicanos (Dímelo!)”), specifically mentioning interactions with the Dominican community and visits to places like Broadway and McDonald’s (“Right there up on Broadway, brought me back to that McDonald’s”). 

Jay-Z references 560 State Street, a real address in Brooklyn, which serves as a metaphor for his roots and the foundation of his success. He also mentions being in the kitchen, symbolizing his hard work and dedication to his craft. He sings, “Took it to my stash spot, 560 State Street” “Catch me in the kitchen, like a Simmons whippin’ pastry.”

Alicia Keys adds to the narrative by mentioning her own connection to New York City, emphasizing the multicultural aspect by speaking Spanish (“Dímelo!”), which resonates with the city’s diverse population.

In the line “Me? I’m out that Bed-Stuy, home of that boy Biggie,” Jay-Z proudly declares his origins in Bed-Stuy, paying homage to the late rapper Biggie Smalls, who hailed from the same neighborhood. This reinforces his authenticity and ties to the city’s rich hip-hop history.

He talks about his current status, living on billboards and attending high-profile events like Knicks and Nets games, showcasing his ascent to fame and acceptance within the city’s elite circles. He sings, “Now I live on Billboard” “Sittin’ courtside, Knicks and Nets give me high fives.”

The line “Nigga, I be spiked out (Come on)” refers to Jay-Z’s flashy and stylish appearance, symbolized by wearing spiked jewelry or accessories. “Spiked out” implies being adorned with spikes, which was a fashionable trend in hip-hop culture. 

Jay-Z metaphorically suggests that his appearance and demeanor are so flashy and attention-grabbing that even a referee in a sporting event might get distracted or “tripped up” by his presence.

He asserts that his attitude, demeanor, and overall persona clearly identify him as a New Yorker (“Tell by my attitude (Come on) that I’m most definitely from”). His confidence, swagger, and assertiveness are emblematic of the city’s spirit and attitude, suggesting that his personality reflects the boldness associated with being from New York.

[Chorus: Alicia Keys & JAY-Z]

In New York (Ayy, uh, yeah; aha)

Concrete jungle (Yeah) where dreams are made of

There’s nothin’ you can’t do (Yeah, okay)

Now you’re in New York (Aha, aha, aha; uh, yeah)

These streets will make you feel brand-new (New)

Big lights will inspire you (Come on) (Okay)

Let’s hear it for New York (You welcome, OG; uh)

New York (Yeah), New York (Uh, I made you hot, nigga)

The chorus begins with Alicia Keys proclaiming, “In New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of.” This line depicts New York City as a bustling urban landscape filled with opportunities and aspirations. The phrase “concrete jungle” symbolizes the city’s towering skyscrapers and fast-paced environment.

Alicia Keys continues with, “There’s nothing you can’t do,” emphasizing the inclusivity and endless possibilities that New York City offers to its residents and visitors alike. 

The chorus then transitions with Alicia Keys singing, “Now you’re in New York,” signaling a sense of arrival and accomplishment. This line signifies the realization of one’s ambitions upon reaching the city.

Alicia Keys further sings, “These streets will make you feel brand-new.” Here, the bustling streets, diverse culture, and vibrant energy of the city are depicted as invigorating and rejuvenating, instilling a sense of freshness and renewal in those who experience it.

The chorus concludes with Alicia Keys declaring, “Big lights will inspire you,” emphasizing the electrifying atmosphere and bright lights of New York City’s iconic skyline. This line suggests that the city’s grandeur and spectacle serve as a source of inspiration and motivation for dreamers and achievers alike.

[Verse 2: JAY-Z & Alicia Keys]

Catch me at the X with OG at a Yankee game

Shit, I made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can

You should know I bleed blue, but I ain’t a Crip though

But I got a gang of niggas walkin’ with my clique though

Welcome to the meltin’ pot, corners where we sellin’ rock

Afrika Bambaataa shit, home of the hip-hop

Yellow cab, gypsy cab, dollar cab, holla back

For foreigners, it ain’t fair, they act like they forgot how to act

Eight million stories out there in the naked

City, it’s a pity half of y’all won’t make it

Me? I gotta plug Special Ed, “I Got It Made”

If Jeezy’s payin’ LeBron, I’m payin’ Dwyane Wade

Three dice cee-lo, three-card Monte

Labor Day Parade—rest in peace, Bob Marley

Statue of Liberty, long live the World Trade (Come on, come on)

Long live the king, yo (Come on)—I’m from the Empire State, that’s

Jay-Z begins the verse 2 by mentioning being at the “X” (likely referring to Madison Square Garden, often abbreviated as “The Garden”) with OG at a Yankee game. He then asserts his influence by claiming to have made the Yankee hat more famous than the team itself, showing his impact on popular culture.

Jay-Z expresses his allegiance to New York City, stating, “You should know I bleed blue, but I ain’t a Crip though.” This line metaphorically refers to his loyalty to the city (represented by the color blue), while also clarifying that he’s not affiliated with the Crips gang.

The line “Welcome to the melting pot, corners where we sellin’ rock” acknowledges the various ethnicities and communities within New York City and references the street hustle and entrepreneurial endeavors often associated with urban life.

Jay-Z pays homage to New York City’s role as the birthplace of hip-hop, mentioning Afrika Bambaataa and dubbing it the “home of the hip-hop.” 

In the lines “Yellow cab, gypsy cab, dollar cab, holla back, For foreigners, it ain’t fair, they act like they forgot how to act,” Jay-Z mentions different modes of transportation in the city and touches on the challenges faced by immigrants, noting that “it ain’t fair” how some foreigners struggle to adapt to the city’s customs.

As Jay-Z reflects on the realities of life in New York City, he mentions “eight million stories out there in the naked city,” acknowledging the diverse experiences and narratives that exist within the city’s population.

Jay-Z continues to highlight New York City’s cultural significance by mentioning specific cultural icons and events associated with the city. He mentions Special Ed’s song “I Got It Made,” which is a classic hip-hop track.

He also references Jeezy paying LeBron and himself paying Dwyane Wade (“If Jeezy’s payin’ LeBron, I’m payin’ Dwyane Wade”), which could be interpreted as a nod to the influence of hip-hop culture on professional sports and the close relationship between athletes and musicians in the city.

The lines “Three dice cee-lo, three-card Monte” and “Labor Day Parade—rest in peace, Bob Marley” acknowledge street games like three dice cee-lo and three-card Monte, as well as the Labor Day Parade and Bob Marley’s influence. These references speak to the vibrant street culture and traditions that contribute to the city’s dynamic atmosphere.

Jay-Z also mentions iconic landmarks and symbols associated with New York City, such as the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center. These references serve to underscore the city’s enduring legacy and resilience, especially in the face of significant historical events like the September 11 attacks.

In the end, Jay-Z reaffirms his pride in being from the Empire State, emphasizing his connection to New York City and its cultural heritage. He sings, “Long live the king, yo—I’m from the Empire State, that’s.”

[Verse 3: JAY-Z & Alicia Keys]

Lights is blinding, girls need blinders

Or they could step out of bounds quick, the side lines is

Lined with casualties who sip the life casually

Then gradually become worse—don’t bite the apple, Eve!

Caught up in the in-crowd, now you’re in-style

Into the winter gets cold, en vogue with your skin out

City of sin is a pity on a whim

Good girls gone bad, the city’s filled with them

Mami took a bus trip, now she got her bust out

Everybody ride her, just like a bus route

“Hail Mary” to the city, you’re a virgin

And Jesus can’t save you, life starts when the church end

Came here for school, graduated to the high life

Ball players, rap stars, addicted to the limelight

MDMA (Come on) got you feelin’ like a champion (Come on)

The city never sleeps (Come on), better slip you a Ambien

Verse 3 begins with Alicia Keys describing the “blinding” lights of the city, sings, “Lights is blinding, girls need blinders.” The metaphor of “blinders” implies a need to shield oneself from the temptations and distractions that can lead one astray. 

In the following lines “Or they could step out of bounds quick, the side lines is, Lined with casualties who sip the life casually,” describes the casualties of city life, referencing those who initially embrace the excitement and opportunities of New York but gradually succumb to its darker temptations. This reflects the harsh realities of urban living and the toll it can take on people.

The phrase ‘sip the life casually’ suggests that some people take life too lightly, as if casually sipping a drink, without recognizing the risks involved.

In the lines “Then gradually become worse—don’t bite the apple, Eve!” Alicia Keys alludes to the biblical story of Eve and the forbidden fruit, cautioning against giving in to temptation. This metaphorical reference underscores the moral dilemmas and ethical challenges faced by those living in a city known for its allure and excesses.

The verse “Caught up in the in-crowd, now you’re in-style,” reflects on the transformation of people who are drawn into the “in-crowd” and the pressures to conform to societal norms. Here, Alicia Keys also critiques the superficiality and transient nature of fame and popularity in the city.

She comments on the commodification of women and the objectification of their bodies, highlighting the dehumanizing effects of the city’s consumer culture, as expressed in the line “Good girls gone bad, the city’s filled with them.”

In the end, Alicia Keys reflects on the loss of innocence and the realization that salvation cannot be found in material pursuits, as she sings, “And Jesus can’t save you, life starts when the church end.”

[Bridge: Alicia Keys]

One hand in the air for the big city (Oh)

Street lights, big dreams, all lookin’ pretty (Oh)

No place in the world that could compare (Nah)

Put your lighters in the air, everybody say

“Yeah, yeah” (Come on, come on)

“Yeah, yeah” (Come on)

In the Bridge, Alicia Keys encourages listeners to raise one hand in the air as a gesture of celebration for the big city (“One hand in the air for the big city (Oh)”)

She uses evocative imagery to paint a picture of the city’s streets illuminated by streetlights, and describes the dreams of its inhabitants as “big dreams” that look pretty, singing “Street lights, big dreams, all lookin’ pretty (Oh).”

In the line “No place in the world that could compare (Nah),” Alicia Keys contrasts the grandeur of the city with the idea that there is no other place in the world that can compare. This comparison reinforces the idea of New York City as unique and unparalleled in its cultural richness, diversity, and energy.

The bridge concludes with Alicia Keys urging everyone to put their lighters in the air and join in saying “Yeah, yeah.” This call to action fosters a sense of camaraderie and unity among listeners. 

Music Video

The “Empire State of Mind” music video, directed by Hype Williams, features black-and-white shots of New York City along with color footage of Jay-Z and Keys performing in Times Square. Filming began on September 29, 2009, in Tribeca and Ground Zero, and the video was released on October 30, 2009. Keys praised it as a homage to her hometown.

The video starts with black and white images of NYC landmarks followed by Jay-Z performing on a street. It then switches between scenes of Jay-Z in various outfits singing the song and Keys playing a Yamaha piano with the Statue of Liberty image on it. Aerial views of skyscrapers, Yankee Stadium, and NYPD are shown. The duo performs together wearing sunglasses, and the video ends with them on the TKTS pavilion in Times Square, interspersed with shots of Keys playing piano and the NYC skyline.

Deeper Meaning Behind “Empire State of Mind”

“Empire State of Mind” was first written by Angela Hunte, a singer, songwriter, and producer from Brooklyn, along with her writing partner Janet “Jnay” Sewell-Ulepic. Hunte grew up in the same building where the rapper and hip-hop artist Jay-Z lived—560 State Street, which is mentioned in the song.

The idea for the song came to them when they were in London in February 2009, feeling homesick. Hunte was sick during that summer, and Sewell-Ulepic’s mother was also ill. Hunte remembered:

“We said to ourselves, ‘we complain so much about New York — about the busy streets, about the crowds and the pushing, about the subway system — but I would trade that for anything right now.’ Before we left the hotel that night, we knew we would write a song about our city.”

They wrote the song to express their love for their hometown, hoping Jay-Z would record it when they sent it to Roc Nation the following month. Despite receiving a negative response initially, Jon “Big Jon” Platt of EMI Music Publishing heard it at a barbecue that summer and believed it was perfect for Jay-Z.

Though hesitant because of their previous rejection, a Notorious B.I.G. figure fell over when they played the track for Platt, which they saw as a sign. Encouraged, Platt sent it to Jay-Z, who loved it and recorded it that same night.

Jay-Z mentioned in an interview that upon hearing the piano loops of the track, he instantly thought of Alicia Keys and wanted her to be part of it. Initially, Mary J. Blige was considered for Keys’ role, and Jay-Z was close to asking her. However, he was drawn to Keys’ sound and piano skills, which resonated with him. Keys commented on being featured in the song:

“There was a first phone call, and Jay hit me up like, ‘I feel like I have this record that’s going to be the anthem of New York. The piano, the way the style [is], the whole flow, and it couldn’t be the anthem of New York without you.’

“Empire State of Mind” starts by mentioning various locations in New York City and highlights notable neighborhoods and the city’s vibe, from Knicks basketball games to its famous residents. It includes drug dealing references, “N-words,” and profanity.

The song portrays the city as a place of opportunity and ambition, where individuals strive to make their mark and achieve success. It pays homage to iconic landmarks, cultural influences, and the hustle and bustle of urban life that define the city’s identity.

The lyrics reflect the pride and resilience of New Yorkers, acknowledging the challenges they face while emphasizing their determination to overcome obstacles and thrive in the face of adversity. 

Ultimately, “Empire State of Mind” is a love letter to New York City, expressing a deep sense of belonging and connection to its streets, people, and spirit. It captures the energy and excitement of living in the city that never sleeps, where dreams are pursued with passion and perseverance.

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