Thanks largely to the popularity of Jay-Z's now ubiquitous New York-loving anthem "Empire State of Mind," the top song on Billboard's Hot 100 chart this week and on which she sings the chorus and gets credit as a co-writer, Alicia Keys is on a roll these days. Now, with the release on December 15 of her fourth album, The Element of Freedom, and the cut "Empire State of Mind, Part II," the singer-songwriter and actress brings her own voice to the "concrete jungle where dreams are made of. " While both versions of the song narrate their respective roads to success, Keys' take, in addition to adhering to conventions of melody throughout, pays homage to the struggle of hard-working women, something of a flipside to Jay-Z's riffs on girls going bad in the big city.
Both songs, judging by the responses to the video variations on YouTube, have touched many people deeply (excluding New York Yankees haters). Some often-jaded New Yorkers grow misty-eyed upon listening to the lyrics and the soaring refrain. Beyond the surface, though, it's tempting to read in the sequence of these musical urban autobiographies an important moment in the city's cultural history. The city may be losing part of its soul with the closing of family businesses and the rise of the cookie-cutter chain stores, but as "Empire State of Mind" trumpets, the mythology of success endures. The important part, however, is not what is being sung here, but who is singing it.
Born Alicia Augello Cook (changing her name later), Keys was raised by a single mother in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York. She watched her Italian American mother, a part-time actress and paralegal, work hard to support her. Her African American father, a flight attendant, was not part of the picture. A gifted classically-trained pianist, she attended Manhattan's Professional Performing Arts School, graduating early. Choosing a music career over Columbia University, Keys met with early music success, with her debut album, Songs in A Minor (2001) winning five Grammy Awards.
Alicia Keys will play to a sold out concert at the Nokia Theatre in Times Square on Tuesday, December 1, a benefit on World AIDS Day for her Keep a Child Alive charity.* On the next evening, Wednesday, December 2, she will be a featured performer on NBC's Christmas in Rockefeller Center.
The live version here was recorded on November 17, 2009 at the P.C. Richard & Son Theater in Tribeca for www.iheartradio.com. (For those outside New York, the "BQE" she refers to in her opening remarks stands for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.)
From an interview with Reader's Digest:
"RD: What was it like growing up in Hell's Kitchen?
Keys: It was like a big world of everything. I grew up around prostitutes, drug dealers, pimps, strippers, needles on the ground. Yet right there was Broadway, with the big lights and Theatre Row. I grew up with dreams, in a place that from the beginning told me you can go this way -- or you can go that way."
Notes: The tree lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center takes place December 2, with festivities beginning at 6:45 p.m. The tree lights up at 8:55 p.m. Many thanks to fellow Twitterer @EverythingNYC for pointing out the existence of this video in the first place. *Alicia Keys's concert at the Nokia Theatre will be streamed live on YouTube (Mashable).