The concepts of time and place are both of paramount importance to the listening experience.
In other words, when and where you hear some shit drastically affects how you receive said shit.
Case in point: JAY-Z's “Empire State of Mind.”
On Friday (September 15), I made the trek from my humble Brooklyn surroundings to The Meadows, a four-stage asphalt oasis of Bud Light, teenagers dressed in clothes I can't afford, art and music.
Rap-wise, day one was mostly perched between the festival’s New York City homestead and the Southern-fried traps of Atlanta—from 21 Savage and Migos to Joey Bada$$ and JAY-Z, with Run The Jewels slotting in seamlessly as the politically-charged embodiment of the duality.
For all the face-palming fun of watching what looked like 15-year-old white kids mosh to “Deadz” during a riotous Migos performance, though, it was the night’s headliner who obviously and righteously stole the show.
Donning a wrinkled Beatles tee and Nike x Off-White Blazers (maybe a statement on bridging old and new, maybe just the first items he grabbed out of his closet), JAY-Z delivered an iconic performance alongside Jeff Koons’ four-story balloon dog, the prodigal NY son returning home after a three-year concert absence.
For nearly two hours, Jay shuffled between smash hits from his two-decades-plus career and spirited live takes from his latest opus, 4:44. He came out to “Run This Town” and the opening applause was enough to prove he still does. He dedicated “The Story of O.J.” to Colin Kaepernick and Dick Gregory, and “Numb/Encore” to fallen Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington, but mostly he let the music do the talking.
The hits were massive as they were numerous, but it was “Empire State of Mind” that will forever paint my memory of the night.
The cheesy pop crossover that became the biggest single of an illustrious career. The landmark moment of arguably JAY-Z’s worst album. Overplayed to the point it’s hard to stomach. A mostly good song that became too ubiquitous to enjoy. “Empire State of Mind” is all these things, such that when Vulture recently named it as JAY-Z’s fourth-greatest song ever, the most common response I read was that it was the number-one reason the list was invalid.
I too hated “Empire State of Mind,” not for how it sounded but for how many times I heard it, which if I'd had to guess is approximately 29,140,937 times.
I never heard it live at Madison Square Garden, though. I also never heard it at the ’09 VMAs at Radio City Music Hall, either, though I remember watching at home. I’ve never been in the crowd at Yankees Stadium to hear it, and I definitely wasn’t there when it was performed at Game 2 of the World Series. I’ve never heard it at Barclays Center, or 30 Rock, or Times Square.
Before last night, I'd never heard it live anywhere in the entire state of New York.
Looking around at cell phone lights held high, hearing the crowd emphatically sing the chorus, and realizing when and where I was when I heard it, it was as beautiful and clichéd a moment as I’ve ever witnessed in my life. Last night was yet another reminder of the powers of time, place, and live music, one that forced a smile so genuine I couldn't believe it had come from a song I'd grown so tired of.
“That was really fucking beautiful,” JAY-Z said as the song ended.
It really fucking was.