I don't really know what's wrong with the world today, but here's a place to start:
Ugh. I've listened to this song a couple times since it came out and I've largely avoided it because it makes me very depressed. I didn't really know why, I just felt a pain in my gut when I heard those lyrics and that pseudo-R&B beat and poor old Alicia Keys' voice. Unfortunately, I'll analyze this a bit.
First of all, let's talk about Jay-Z. Yeah he was kinda cool way back when and I'm very happy he made a song that rails against the proliferation of autotune in contemporary "hip-hop". (Man, that awful clarinet just kills me every time.) However, he's gone down the same dark path that Kanye West so valiantly rushes headlong: that of trite and vulgar lyrical masturbation. For the few of us young people who do listen to the vocals beyond just the chorus, I cannot imagine any words more grating to listen to than those of an artist espousing their own spectacle. It's one thing when they're rapping about how many people they've killed. It's another when they're just talking about how cool they are and how they've "revolutionized music" and "rewritten history without a pen". Why do people keep buying these albums?
Other than the needless almost Twitter-style self-promotion, the song barely touches upon what it's supposed to be about: New York City. You know, the place with the big lights that will "inspire you". (I thought for awhile that she was saying "expire you" and that made me okay with the song.) So not only is this song contain the abysmal tonality of Jay-Z jerking himself off, but it has the overused and outdated motif of choking an entire city's chicken. At one point in the song (and in a few other songs) Jay-Z compares himself to Frank Sinatra, calling himself "the new Sinatra". Well, no. Sorry. You can't do that. Just fucking can't. There really has been no need for another "New York City is awesome" song since Sinatra's own "New York, New York".
Let's compare the two songs, just because I'm a dick. First of all, Sinatra's song is not masturbatory at all. In fact, it's from the perspective of someone outside of the city looking in: being beguiled by its seemingly endless excitement. Really, his song is simply a dream, a wish, an assumption: "if I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere". Jay-Z's song, on the other hand, is about having already "made it". It's about Jay-Z high-fiving Knicks players and shit. Hanging out with famous people and seeing beautiful women all around. Probably having sex with them. It's self-congratulatory, he compares himself to DeNiro, making the Yankees popular, and "rest in peace Bob Marley"? What the fuck? I bet you've never even heard a Bob Marley song. Hell, Miley Cyrus hasn't heard a Jay-Z song. (Good for her.)
And fuck songs that are about how awesome cities are. Fuck right the fuck off. Unless you're going to make it a fun, stupid, silly, danceable song, just don't fucking make it at all. Your city is not that awesome. NYC especially. Sure, it has a shitload of people and it generates a lot of culture, but it's just too fucking big. But these songs are basically saying that the city is full of pretentious assholes. Really, NYC doesn't need that. You're already enough of a target, dude, you don't need to encourage people to hate you.
ANYWAY, another song I'd like to compare it to, on a more broad measure, is NWA's "Express Yourself". Listen to this goddamn amazing song:
You better listen to that, it's fucking awesome. Back when hip-hop was actually hip-hop and it had defenders and leaders and reality. In "Express Yourself" we have a collaboration of artists speaking their minds, and the prevailing notion is simple and effective: express yourself! Frankly, it's an odd song coming from the same guys who made Fuck tha Police, but that's another reason why it's amazing: the need for artistic expression transcends violence to form a song that is not only articulate but danceable. Can any mainstream rapper make the same claim? I know, I know, this is like comparing a Rembrandt with some shitty unknown contemporary artist, but that's the point. Kanye and Jay-Z are shitty.
Okay, okay, and finally Alicia Keys. Was she tricked into doing this? Was she paid a lot? She's a classy lady, she can do better than this. Her whole contribution is a roll of piano notes and the banal chorus. I mean, she can play classical and gospel piano, she has a potentially iconic female R&B voice. Part of the reason why the song is depressing is because she's so out of place in it. Her voice has quality and it soars, but the message doesn't deliver, it only deflates. Maybe I'm wrong about her and my expectations are too high. It's as if Luke Wilson started doing AT&T commercials, or like if J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek. These are all terrible ideas that shouldn't happen. As an audience, we should recognize their folly and firmly reject them.
I thought Jay-Z wasn't making any more studio albums. That'd be nice.