In 2009, Jay-Z rolled, grabbing his first number one record and–to the rapper’s own surprise–a victory in our 37th Annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. “When I got the call from the Village Voice I was like, ‘Are you sure?'” Jay told our interviewer. “I thought they don’t like me over there. They only like guys you never heard of.” Not this year: “Empire State of Mind” cruised over Phoenix and Animal Collective, claiming spots on 89 of 697 total ballots filed by critics all around the country. Sean Fennessey’s dissection of what it all means can be found here, but we figured since it’s not every day Shawn Carter sits down to talk about his own life and work, we’d run the whole transcript of their conversation, too. Have at it:
How did the song first come to you?
Big Jon [Platt], the first publisher I ever had, at EMI, I think in like 1997. Whenever I’m making an album we’re always back and forth on the phone and he called me and said, “Man I think I got this song and this idea for you. So he sent me the song on a Sunday. I walked in the house and I played the song. I called him and said “Send it now.” And he said “Yeah, it’s in your email.” And I said “no, send the Pro Tools now.” As soon as I heard it, I knew what it was gonna do.
Was it just a guide vocal?
It was the hook as it is now, and Alicia added that second chorus, the little bridge after the third verse, “put your lighters in the air,” she wrote that part. But everything else was there, it was an entire song. It just had to be structured correctly and I structured it. I called Alicia and I said “Man, I got this song, it’s gonna be around for 30 years.” I know that’s bold. She came to the studio, she heard it and she said, “Can you play that again?” Played it again and that was it.
Was it already a New York song when you received it?
Yeah, the chorus was done and it had different verses, different structures.
What did you think you needed to add to it to make it your own?
When I heard it, and I think why it relates to places outside of New York is the inspiration, the inspiration coming from nowhere and making it somewhere. I just inserted a story, inserted my story that could resonate for people. I wanted to show a journey. I really homed in on that. I loved the fact that it was talking about New York, but if I was from Atlanta it would have been about Atlanta. I also didn’t want to paint this perfect picture. Sometimes you don’t make it. And that’s why the third verse is dark, because at the same time the city is intoxicating. It can sweep you up and you can get sidetracked. You get caught, you come here and you take the city for granted, nightlife, things like that.
And that was from personal experience?
I’ve seen it a million times. I’ve seen people come into the city–new girls come into town, and next month they’re gone.
You worked with songwriters and a producer you’d never worked with before, as well as Alicia on the song. When you were making the song, did it feel like you were trying to make a number one record?
No. No, I didn’t know that–I hope and prayed that everyone would get the inspiration in the song, but in the beginning I had fears that it would be a regional record because it’s talking about New York. And I didn’t know how people–well not people, I’m talking about radio guys, I didn’t know how they would react to that and if it could be a number one song, for them to play the song 106 times a week, because that’s what you need for a no. 1 record. You know, they played it 110 times in L.A. And that’s the thing. Look, I didn’t know whether the radio guys would get out the way of their own biases and just let that song be about inspiration. So I didn’t know if it would be a number one record, I just knew it would be here forever. I put Alicia on the record simply because of the [makes ding ding ding sound], the pianos on it and her voice is so classic that it adds to it. I was two seconds–I’ve never told this story–I was two seconds away from putting Mary [J. Blige] on the record. But the piano and that sound just said Alicia. She took the song to another level.
You and Alicia never worked together before this, right?
No. We always had a cool relationship, we always spoke and it wasn’t like I was talking to somebody I was unfamiliar with.
Would you say that in the past not having a number one record was a badge of honor for you? And do you look at things differently now that you have one?
Well, I think to have that type of staying power and to put up the type of numbers that I put up without a number one record says a lot about the albums. It was a sense of accomplishment. But you know, as you make your music, to have a number one record is kinda cool, it’s kinda cool. But it doesn’t define what I do, obviously.
Do you know where you were when you got wind of that news?
I thought “Run This Town” was gonna be number one, that was almost a foregone conclusion because we was already gearing it for it to be number one. But it was the bridesmaid, it was number two. But this one, as soon as we put it out, it rocketed. When I found out, it was already done. I already knew. I remember exactly where I went. We were at the Spotted Pig, with Alicia, and we did a shot of Patron–you know we celebrated.
Is it surprising to you that critics like the song as much as fans?
Yeah, when I got the call from the Village Voice I was like, “Are you sure? I thought they don’t like me over there. They only like guys you never heard of. I thought that was their type of action.” [LAUGHS] So, yeah, I knew it was a timeless record the minute I heard it. You know, some records are big, like “Run This Town” is a big record and it sounds like it should be a big record. But I don’t know if they’ll be playing that 30 years from now. What was it like performing the song at the World Series?
It was the most…I compare it to winning your first Grammy. I’m a huge sports fan, and all these years I’ve sat at Yankees games and I’ve never been on the field, ever. So walking out, I almost felt like Mariano Rivera, walking out of the fences like that. The stadium looked extra beautiful, the lights were brighter, the grass was extra green. It was a special experience.
Did you have any apprehension about the Yankee hat line?
No! I’ve had this conversation with Yankee fans before. Not at all, because I believe it to be true. Not in the way that I’m bigger than the Yankees, but in the way where when I tour London and Canada and there’s a whole crowd full of people wearing Yankee hats, they don’t have Yankee hats on their because it’s Yankees, they have Yankee hats to show they’re rolling with me that night. When I was in Canada and I turned on ESPN it was soccer, soccer, soccer, arena league football, soccer. The World Series was on! And it’s not on TV. In Canada, they know the Yankee hat because of me.
You still managed to get some Easter egg lines onto the song, like “If Jeezy’s paying LeBron, I’m paying Dwayne Wade…” When you know a song is going to be memorable like this, do you think about how a larger audience is going to perceive things like that?
Things are for different people, and that’s not really for them. That’s for the people, that’s one of those Easter eggs for hip-hop. And even everyone in hip-hop don’t understand that. You have to really know the records and know the songs and know what’s going on in the culture at that time to really understand that line. It just had a little bit of everything for everybody.
How do you feel about the album now that’s it’s been released?
I think it’s great. I wish I had put this album out in 1998. I was talking to [Universal Music Chairman] Doug [Morris], he said, “If this album comes out it’s 14 million!” I said, “Don’t tell me that, you just broke my heart.” I was happy with it until he told me that.
He’s not wrong.
But that’s fine. The overall reception of the album, I’m happy with it. That’s all I can ask for.
Did leaving Def Jam change the way you approached the music at all?
This album is unlike any other album. This was a long one. My thing in hip-hop is how do you expand your audience? How do you talk about things that are relevant as you mature? So I had to go to a space where there’s no blueprint, for lack of a better word, ror what I was doing. And that’s difficult because you have to get in a space where you can’t even all the way listen to your friends, because they love you so much that they have places that they want you to be. They have moments in time that felt great for them. “Oh, I wanna hear ‘U Don’t Know’ again.” But we done that already. I can’t. That’s not exciting to me. We need to go somewhere else and expand the audience at the same time. So it was a very peculiar situation for me. But now that I’ve done it, I can really see it and I’m excited to get back in the studio now. I see it real clear now.
You worked with a lot of younger artists on the album. Did that have an impact on you?
I just wanted… I didn’t want to alienate hip-hop. That’s a difficult balance. You want hip-hop to grow but you don’t want to alienate. You talk about that, it sounds like Bill Russell talking about Michael Jordan. I don’t want to be in that phase. Because I love it and I love the new guys. I love what they’re doing, but as a whole, if we’re stuck on these gimmicks and trends, I believe that’s a dangerous thing for us. It’s dangerous because we’re not pushing it forward, it becomes stagnant. It becomes like rock music was in the ’90s. And then some other boys come along and take it over, like indie rock or something. Then we’re really in trouble. It’s a very difficult balance to push it forward and acknowledge you like some of what’s going on now.
A lot of people paid attention when you mentioned that you liked Grizzly Bear last year. What were some of your favorite songs of the year?
Wow. I think my number one favorite is the Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody.” It’s a tie between the two singles they had this year, the other one I can’t think of right now, I’m playing myself.
“Sex on Fire”?
“Sex On Fire.” That, too. Just his voice and the heart and soul in that was incredible for me. I just love the Grizzly Bear. That project was great. It sounds like these church cathedral chords–it’s just sick what they’re doing. Pick a song off the Drake mixtape. For me it’s the intro [“Lust For Life”]. And the one where he’s rapping over the Kanye track [“Say What’s Real”], it said so much, it just feels so honest. And Alicia Keys’ “Sleeping With a Broken Heart” is… I don’t even know what to say. It’s one of the most amazing records I heard the past couple years. I could go on and, I listen to music everyday, those are the ones that come to my head.
Those are interesting.
My playlist is like that, it’s weirdest thing ever.
Kings of Leon, Drake and Alicia?
Well, not those three. It exposes you to different shit, but it all has the same thing in common, it all has this sense of emotion and truth and melody and groove.
What was it like working Kanye so closely again? Has he changed since the Dynasty and Blueprint days?
Definitely. You know, on the first Blueprint and Dynasty he was new. And he was like, it was almost like, on The Black Album he was giving his opinion, but in the beginning he was just playing tracks. He’d play the track, I’d lay a song on ’em, he’d take ’em away and you know, we came up with what we came up with. This time, he was involved in the whole process and it was pushing and pulling and discussing records and arguing about lines on “D.O.A.” “That’s too far, you can’t say that!” It was fantastic and I love that type of moviemaking. So it was different, but it was a great dynamic.
Is it safe to say ‘Empire State of Mind” is your favorite song on the album?
Yeah, oh yeah.
Where does it rank for you in the history of songs you’ve made?
Oh man. That’s difficult. Because if you put a song…if you ask anybody else, if you put a song like “Empire” next to a song like “D’Evils” they’d be like “Yo, what are you talking about, ‘Empire’s a way better record.” I mean, if you take that to a poll, “Empire” might shut “D’Evils” out 99% to 1%.
But are you in the 1%?
Yeah, I’ll be in that one percent. I’ll have a tough time deciding. There’s a million songs that. There’s “Can I Live.” There’s “Where I’m From.” There’s “Hard Knock Life.” So many different records, it’s difficult. It’s easier on the album. I dunno. Is “Empire” better than “Can I Live”? I don’t think so.
Not for me it isn’t, but you know, different strokes.
Yeah, yeah! My man….