This little ditty is a tribute to living in New York City, so it instantly has that aura of “we are automatically cooler than you because we live in a bustling metropolis with 876 billion other people and you probably live on a farm where you have hand-fed a goat”. This may or may not be true (I never reveal what I might have done with a goat), but I’m already prompted to ask this: When I walk outside my house, I can see trees and grass and flowers that I actually own. Can you?
Still, this isn’t my story, even though I often assume that all songs are about me in some way, so I suppose we should listen to what Jay-Z and Alicia have to share. After all, this song is theoretically about how the Big Apple modifies your genetics in a way that simply doesn’t happen in the fly-over states. Since I once took a few college courses in psychology, in between the frat parties and the raw nakedness of my desperate need to fit in, I suppose we can approach this video from a scientific viewpoint and hope that we somehow learn what makes New Yorkers so appalled when you ask them for directions.
The initial part of the video features montage shots of various buildings and street signs while the music begins to percolate. (Perhaps the street signage is a subtle hint that if we tourists would just read such things, we might be able to get where we need to be without interrupting the citizenry with inane queries.) The camera finally settles on Jay-Z, as he begins to sing in front of some building that I don’t recognize. But this structure must be important to him in some way, because merely being in proximity of this apparent landmark causes him to burst into a rap. (To be fair, architecture can have a profound influence on your musical talents. I always start singing “It’s Raining Closeted Men” every time I walk past the first gay bar I entered, about a century ago in Tulsa.)
Suddenly, Jay-Z is somewhere else, standing on a street corner. Based on the lyrics, it seems that he’s comparing himself to Frank Sinatra (really?) and making hand gestures that might possibly have deep symbolic meaning, or it might be that he just always wanted to be a traffic cop. There’s not any traffic, though. Since he’s supposedly in the middle of NYC and yet there’s not a car in sight, this is obviously a dream sequence. What that dream might be, who knows. I’m clearly not qualified to make a valid assessment, based on my birth city.
Jay-Z, now standing somewhere else that I don’t recognize, starts rapping shout-outs to the subway, Biggie Smalls, some guy from Texas, basketball, and the apparent fact that Jay-Z is the most famous person in the world. (I scribble in my notes: Perhaps the “Empire State of Mind” might have something to do with narcissism? Further research imperative.) Then the music gets a little more dramatic, and we are suddenly presented with aerial shots as we zoom over the city. It’s apparently time for a major change in the paper-thin story.
And it turns out that Alicia Keys is the plot twist. She’s on a street corner, wailing the chorus and pounding on a really cool piano, one that you will never find in locales where people hand-feed goats. This ultra-swank piano has the New York skyline etched around the sides, and there’s a replica of the Statue of Liberty plunked on top. I’m guessing that “subtlety” was not one of the buzzwords thrown around the conference table when they planned this video.
Speaking of planning, apparently somebody didn’t, in that Alicia doesn’t have a bench to sit on while she pounds on that keyboard with the over-dramatic intensity of someone who might want to look into medication options. This seems kind of rude to me, this no-bench angle. You’d think they’d have money in the budget for furniture, especially when it involves a guest star who would understandably expect to have a place to park her ass when she chooses to do so. Poor thing. Maybe this injustice will inspire one of the songs on her next album.
Then we’re suddenly back in the sky again, doing more fly-overs, with the buildings all lit-up and pretty, at just the right elevation so we can’t see the crime taking place down on the streets. I’m starting to think that these fly-overs are the go-to resolution when the video editors have no idea how to visually interpret certain segments of the story. (“People like looking at big buildings, and we have thousands of them. Do it!”) Of course, they might be showing us the same four buildings over and over, but we don’t have a clue because we don’t live there.
And then we’re back with Alicia at the piano, where she’ still wailing and still doesn’t have a place to sit. This time, there’s a suspicious white van driving slowly to her right. Does the Liberace estate need the piano back? Just then, Alicia really gets her groove on and starts making this rocking movement while she’s playing, which is enjoyable and all, but she keeps looking in the wrong place for the camera, so there are some focus issues. In all fairness, she’s being forced to perform an impromptu concert at the corner of Who Knows and Where the Hell, with an audience consisting of jaded New Yorkers who have been there and done that a hundred times. (“I was at the Simon and Garfunkel reunion in Central Park. This? Not so much.”)
Now Jay-Z reappears, rapping about the Yankees and the NYPD, with appropriate still shots of both themes. In the middle of all that is a shot of Spike Lee. I don’t know if this means he’s a big Yankees fan as well or if he’s in trouble with the NYPD for not doing the right thing. This probably involves another New York analogy that I don’t get because I live in a city that doesn’t have subways, a population bigger than most states, or pizza by the slice.
Then I guess somebody handed Jay-Z an energy drink, because he is suddenly really invested in his rapping, letting loose with a blow-your-hair-back stream of words while Alicia tries gyrating faster and faster at the piano to keep up with the gusher. Some of the words in this section were annoyingly bleeped in the video version that I reviewed, so there might be something lost in translation, but Jay-Z sure knows a lot of names for taxi cabs and things that can be sold on the streets.
Next, we’re treated to a brief shot of what appears to be a pregnant man, sporting a facial expression that indicates he just broke water while stepping off a curb. This is followed by Jay-Z spouting another bushel of words that were not bleeped but I didn’t understand a single one of them. I think I heard “Jesus“ mentioned in there, so perhaps Jay-Z was spreading the gospel, not sure.
Anyway, here comes Alicia with the chorus again, and this time she’s joined on the street corner by Jay-Z and his hand movements. But the piano is gone. See, you turn your back for two seconds in this city and people take things, even when cameras are rolling. During the “these streets will make you feel brand new” part of the chorus, Alicia starts bucking her hips like she’s got a really bad itch. Apparently “brand new” equals “horny” in Alicia’s world. She looks good, and the hair is rockin, but honey, take care of that itch.
Then Jay-Z is in a high-rise office with a view, looking all Ivy League. Based on the words, he’s letting people know that this city can turn you, so be careful with your life choices. Interestingly enough, all of the images during this part of the song are women, and the words are all about women going bad and turning into whores. Not a peep about what the men can turn into. Hmm.
Chorus again. This time Alicia and Jay-Z are gyrating around on a giant staircase lit up with red lights. (Are they warning lights? Is Alicia about to get turned bad by the city?) No, guess not, the two of them are waving their hands in the air like they just don’t care how much something costs anymore, because they have solid record contracts. Maybe this segment is a tribute to Broadway plays, or at least the kind of plays that close after a two-night run at a coffee shop in the Meatpacking District.
More aerial shots of the city. (More “not sure what to put here”.)
Oh look, the piano is suddenly back, plopped back down in that one intersection, and Alicia’s singing something besides just the chorus. And she has quite a bit to say, along with lots of arm choreography and hair swinging. Still no bench, though. Regardless, Alicia is a professional, and she ignores the lack of seating just like she’s ignoring the jaded New Yorkers who are glaring at her and her piano for causing a disruption in their evening plans. “Why do they always have to do a video shoot right in front of the exact sushi restaurant that I want to go to so I can take selfies of me being trendy? Jesus.” (In this biblical reference, we’ll assume that the gospel is not being spread.)
Alicia goes on for quite some time with this “featured” performance. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely example of artistry, especially since her contribution has been deemed standing-room-only by some fool in management. But it does make me wonder about Jay-Z’s commitment to the project. He’s been basically AWOL for the second half of this video. Sure, we’ve had a few glimpses of him making those cryptic hand movements, and a couple quick-shots of him watching Alicia do things with her pelvis that he probably shouldn’t be salivating over unless he plans to put a ring on it. But really, Alicia’s been singing way more than him at this point. Shouldn’t this be an Alicia Keys song featuring Jay-Z? Then again, I don’t really know the rules, having spent more time with farm animals than with music executives. (Or are they the same thing? Text me.)
Finally, years later, after an entire generation of kids has been once again underserved by the public education system because Republicans hate learning and love to slash budgets, Alicia finishes up with her mammoth soliloquy and moves on with her life. (The one guy who was all bitchy about the sushi interruptus? He rushes into Phee Phi Pho and manages to upload a photo to Instagram of him shoving a dragon roll in his mouth just before the counters reset at midnight, thereby upping his traffic stats for the day. Good for him and his overcompensation for having a tiny appendage.)
We roll into the final chorus, and we’re back on the giant lit-up staircase that even drag queens would shun, with both of our stars doing some hand choreography. Jay-Z throws his arm around Alicia (had they even met before this point?) while she assumes what she hopes is a street pose, but really looks like something Salt N Pepa did back in the day, and they did it better. As the music begins to fade, Jay-Z raises one hand in the air in what might be a victory sign or some type of fight the power gesture, but really looks like “this is how you stand on the subway if you don’t want to fall on a homeless person as we careen our way out of the Meatpacking District.”
Moral of the story? If you move to New York City, be prepared for it to change your life even if it doesn’t need changing, make sure you bring your own bench because nobody is going to just give you one, keep an eye on your piano at all times, and make sure your agent fully understands the extent of your singing responsibilities before you sign anything. Word.
Click here to watch this video on YouTube.
Oh wait, you can’t click there. The video is no longer available on YouTube. I guess you’ll have to trust me that the video existed at one point. (Insert awkward moment.)
Originally published on 12/04/09, revised and updated with extra flair for this post.