There are so many memories attached to Jay-Z’s pivotal record “Empire State of Mind” featuring Alicia Keys. For starters, the anthemic tribute to New York became a worldwide smash, charting in the top ten on many charts in various countries. It was also Jay-Z’s first number-one record on Billboard’s Hot 100, where it resided for five consecutive weeks atop the chart. And we can’t forget Lil’ Mama’s infamous stage-crashing moment at the VMAs when the pair performed the song to close the show. Alicia Keys has now spoken up about the song’s creative process, including that she had to record the song a few times to please Jay!
The 2009-released hit had a long-lasting effect on listeners, and it stemmed from the work ethic of its creatives. Admittedly, Alicia Keys was not the rapper’s first choice for the hook. The Brooklyn-native had the intentions of securing Mary J. Blige to sing the song’s chorus, but the piano-driven chorus motivated Jay to ask Keys to deliver.
The rest as we know was magical. The “You Don’t Know My Name” singer shared with MTV News in 2009 that Jay-Z called her to express his desire to have her on the song. “He’s like, ‘The piano, the way the style is, the whole flow, it couldn’t be the anthem of New York without you,'” she told the outlet.
A “grateful” Alicia Keys also confessed at the time that she had to attempt recording the hook on more than one occasion to make sure the feeling and energy of the record were properly captured. “With the way I sang it the first time, I was actually kind of sick,” the singer shared. “And I knew that he needed the record. So I was like, ‘Let me get to it.'”
In Keys’s recent appearance on Drink Champs, Keys gave more of a deep dive into the song’s process. According to the Grammy Award-winning singer, she almost did not get a chance to be on the song, and that’s not because she was not Jay’s first choice. “For whatever reason, the people that [represented] me at the time did not tell me about the record,” she revealed to N.O.R.E. and DJ EFN. After going the respectful route and attempting to contact her representation to no avail, Jay-Z reached out to her personally.
Alicia Keys was aware that Mary had also been considered as Jay expressed that they were the only two that he envisioned singing the record. She also spoke on the song’s energy and spirit, from its chords to the melodic approach of the chorus. “It was emotional for me and I felt it. It’s my city,” she proclaimed. “I loved it, and I just felt attracted to it. So, I went for it.”
Then, the vocalist touched on her having to record the song multiple times in order to get it right. “The first time I recorded it in LA. The s**t just didn’t work,” Keys admitted. She opened up in her belief that she thought she nailed the performance, but she would learn that she was mistaken after a phone call from Jay-Z himself.
Keys continued, “He called me and was like [pauses for effect], “You think you’re going to be able to do them vocals again? And I was like, “What? What’s wrong with my vocals? My vocals are fresh!” After laughing with the show’s hosts, Keys states her belief that she’s “sure he really didn’t want to call” with that request. But she reveals her reasoning for the poor performance. “To be honest and to be fair, I was sick. And, you know, I was trying to turn the record around for him. He asked me for it by a certain time.”
Keys admitted that she was initially mad at Jay-Z’s request for a redo, but she completely understood and agreed. She also shared another request from Mr. Carter for her to include the staple adlibs that she usually places in her other recordings.
The re-recording took place in New York, where they all agreed was perhaps the better place for it to have taken place. “You can’t do a New York record in LA, that’s just like, wrong,” she stated.