There's an entire Sunday Styles item on Jay-Z's nu-New York anthem, which has now been performed at the VMAs, the World Series, City Hall, your son's bris, and everywhere else. Should Hova step off, or should Sinatra step over?
Penned by one Mr. Ben Sisario—whose writing is typically quite wonderful—the song is broken down as such:
...roughly 50 percent rote Jay-Z chest-beating ("I'm the new Sinatra"), 30 percent tourist-friendly travelogue ("Statue of Liberty, long live the World Trade") and the rest a glorious Alicia Keys hook.
Which is true! Jay-Z goes from the Bronx to Tribeca and back; most people who live in the West Village like Jay-Z think they get nosebleeds above 14th Street and apply for visas every time they cross the East River. For all intents and purposes, Jay-Z has probably visited more locales in New York than Sinatra ever did, even goddamn Williamsburg. Sinatra was from Hoboken, Hov is from Marcy. And Jay-Z can even get the hardest reservation in New York, a tabled at famed mobster hangout Rao's (as evidenced by his D.O.A. video), something only someone like Sinatra could pull off back in the day. And Sisario makes a great point, noting that when you're Jay-Z, who do you beef with? Where do you go from here?
But there's a more basic explanation for this new rivalry: If you are the king of rap, and you've already topped all the charts, trounced all other M.C.'s, and even run a major record company, what's the next challenge? Where do you go? Answer: You start beefs with pantheon heroes, thus muscling your way into their realm. And it seems to be working pretty well: "The Blueprint 3" has sold 1.2 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and after eight weeks it is still in the Top 10.
Let's be honest: Jay-Z's stature, at this point, is a little absurd. He could've had a fighting chance against Bloomberg if he were on the ballot; he surely would've gotten a more ringing endorsement from this website than Billy Talen, for one thing. But he needs to catch paper, and he needs the mayor in his pocket to do that, and the only rapper trying to start fights with him is Beanie Siegel, who, exactly. So who does Jay-Z beef with? Sinatra. Obviously. But is Jay-Z's anthem as utilitarian as Sinatra's?
"New York, New York" is built around a handful of memorable phrases ("I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps") that resonate with a universality perfect for a baseball stadium. Ms. Keys supplies that ingredient in "Empire State of Mind," singing somewhat trite slogans ("These streets will make you feel brand new") in a huge, rousing voice. Yet like all Jay-Z songs, "Empire" is, in the end, solely about Jay-Z. And while his personality may fill Yankee Stadium more persuasively than any other pop star, would 50,000 fans ever have the timing, or the memory, to recite "Say what-up to Ty-Ty, still sippin' Mai Tais/Sittin' courtside, Knicks and Nets give me high-five"?
For better or worse, I'm willing to bet that there's a significant difference in the number of people who can rattle off four out of five members of the Rat Pick as opposed to the number of people who can tell you what a Ty-Ty is, though both groups of people definitely have no idea why they should care about Joey Bishop.
Then again, rap is crossing over into audiences who'd never listened to it before—primarily, more adults, who were once the kids that grew up on it—and was "New York, New York" ever a song of the people, or was it always a song of rich privilege? Sure, there's a peasant's, hustler's tone to it, and sure, as Sisario makes clear, Sinatra came from the 'hood, too.
Real talk (oh yes): more people have heard "New York, New York." But what Sisario only hints at is that Sinatra's song will only be heard on one kind of radio station. Jay-Z's will be heard on at least three.
Derek Jeter, a person, walks out to Jay-Z's song. The Yankees—the rich, evil organization with an administration even Yankees fans detest—play "New York, New York" when games end. Rap like Jay-Z's is becoming more accessible to more people, while kids and adults alike aren't exactly going to be (and have never been) bumping Sinatra. Some people will call this a shame. Others will call it progress. I call it a win-win situation.
[Photo via Getty Images]