Following a season with episodes dedicated to music heavyweights Lady Gaga and Madonna , “Glee” seems to be continuing its “go big or go home” approach this fall. So it makes sense that during Tuesday night’s season-two premiere of the pop culture phenom, the show opted to cover one of 2009’s biggest songs by two of the industry’s biggest names: Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ rousing New York anthem “Empire State of Mind.”
The cast filled in for the piano at the song’s outset, bop-bop-bopping the song’s now-iconic opening bars (originally sampled from the Moments’ “Love on a Two-Way Street”). Jay-Z’s dedications to his hometown were left in the hands (or pipes, rather) of Kevin McHale, Cory Monteith and Mark Salling, while Amber Riley and Lea Michele belted out Keys’ loving declaration to the “concrete jungle where dreams are made of.” While it didn’t quite have the same gravitas as the original, it certainly had us tapping our feet like some of their McKinley High classmates.
“Empire State of Mind” was released on Jay-Z’s 2009 platinum LP The Blueprint 3, which included other hit tracks like “On to the Next One,” “Young Forever” and “Run This Town.” But the song about “street lights, big dreams, all lookin’ pretty,” which became Jay-Z’s first #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, had some rather humble beginnings.
As Billboard reported in December, Angela Hunte and her writing partner Jane’t “Jnay” Sewell-Ulepic wrote the first version of the track when they were feeling homesick for their native New York. The two were in London when Hunte said they realized, “We complain so much about New York — about the busy streets, about the crowds and the pushing, about the subway system — but I would trade that for anything right now. … Before we left the hotel that night, we knew we would write a song about our city.”
When they sent the track off to Roc Nation they initially received negative feedback, but EMI’s Jon “Big Jon” Platt eventually heard it at a barbecue and thought the song would be perfect for Jay-Z. And, it turned out, Shawn Carter loved the song too. Jay-Z (who, along with Hunte, once lived in a Brooklyn building that gets a shout-out) and other credited writers wound up making new verses inspired by the original lyrics. When Hunte and Sewell-Ulepic were asked who should take over their singing part, they suggested Alicia Keys . The rest is history.
“Empire State of Mind” was officially released on October 20, 2009, but the duo performed it at a bevy of events before then, including Hov’s “Answer the Call” 9/11 benefit concert and the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Perhaps most memorably, Jay-Z and Keys sang it at Yankee Stadium (despite Jay-Z’s boast in the song that he can “make a Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can”) for Game 2 of the 2009 World Series.
“Empire” has now entered a new chapter with its “Glee” treatment, and it’s already garnered some positive responses from those nearest to the song. On her official website, Keys, who included the follow-up song “Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down” on her 2009 album The Element of Freedom, posted, “The kids from ’Glee’ did an amazing version of ’Empire State of Mind.’ “