So you can't go anywhere in New York these days without hearing Jay-Z & Alicia Keys's "Empire State of Mind" blaring from a window. Naturally they performed it last week at Game 2 of the World Series, causing Derek Jeter to nod his head very slightly, as if skeptical but willing to give it a chance.
The song is packed with allusions to New York's culture and history (at least as experienced by Jay-Z), giving it a very specific appeal for the city's residents and aspirants. The Brooklyn-born rapper even drops the actual address of his former State Street "stash spot," which NY Mag's Vulture looked into recently. But what about the lines that are, well, a little more difficult to unpack for those of us who didn't grow up in the Marcy Houses, or even in New York? "Catch me in the kitchen like a Simmons with them pastries"... what? Russell Simmons makes pastries--who knew?
Actually, he doesn't, as the ingenious new website Rap Genius ("A semi-decent rap song is better than 1000 Bibles combined. So why does the Bible get all the exegesis?") will patiently explain for you. It'll also call your attention to some charming metaphorical math that would've slipped right by me. How is this website only just getting started? Where was it when I arrived at college from a rural farm town and was shocked--shocked!--to find out that lots of intelligent people listened to rap? Not only listened to it but seemed to understand it! To me, the lyrics sounded like transmissions from another planet.
Rap Genius is young, but there are a lot more exegeses in progress than there were when I first clicked on the site. Also, they seem to be recruiting contributors from the comments section, so if you have encyclopedic knowledge of rap, get to it.
My ear is a more educated now than it used to be, but this is still a supremely useful site, even in its infancy. In fact, by the time I was a senior, they were teaching a college seminar called "Hip Hop Music and Culture"--Rap Genius should be on the syllabus. I just spent a while reading through the sharp, comprehensive exegeses of other songs (some of the best are Lil Wayne's "A Milli", Ghostface Killah's "Big Girl", and The Notorious B.I.G.'s "10 Crack Commandments.") So much for beating my Wikipedia addiction. Now I'll never finish my thorough research on People Who Have Mysteriously Disappeared.