From Frank Sinatra to the Beastie Boys, from the Pogues to Taylor Swift, artists have been showering New York City with musical praise for decades. Yet there’s never been an ode to the Big Apple quite like “Empire State of Mind,” Jay Z and Alicia Keys’ 2009 anthem to the tiny details of NYC’s sweeping mosaic that explodes into one of the biggest, most irrepressible hooks of all time.
With Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” chorus making the Top 10 in Billboard’s list of the 100 greatest choruses of the 21st century, the singer-songwriter shared her thoughts on the meaning of the song, and its sing-along centerpiece.
“When we first finished ‘Empire,’ we all wondered if it would be too ‘New York,’” Keys tells Billboard in an email. “We wondered if everyone would be able to understand it. Little did we know EVERYONE would understand it because it’s not just about New York, it’s about the HOPE that New York represents; the possibility. The chance to follow your dreams no matter who you are or where you come from.”
“Empire State of Mind” spent five weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2009, becoming a live staple for both Jay Z and Keys, as well as one of the biggest hits to date for each veteran artist. Of course, New York City has greatly changed in the eight years since the song was released, but Keys — who was born and raised in Manhattan — believes that “Empire’s” mission statement remains the same.
“When people sing the lyrics to that chorus they are reminded to dream as big as they possibly can!” she says. “That’s what ‘Empire’ is about! It gives me chills! In these crazy times, I hope we stay a city (and a country) where that remains true.”