Jay-Z’s #1 Hit ‘Empire State of Mind’ Was Created Nowhere Near New York City

Rap superstar and entrepreneur Jay-Z is easily one of the most recognizable artists in the world. With over a dozen #1 albums and millions of records sold, his name is ubiquitous with Hip-Hop. His long history of success in the music industry has brought him some of the finest things in life, including an $88 million mansion and a net worth of over $1 billion

A large portion of Jay-Z’s success can be attributed to his ability to craft moving records that touch people emotionally while generating mainstream appeal. His biggest record, “Empire State of Mind”, does just that. However, many people will be surprised to find out that his ode to New York City was actually not originally written in New York City.

Jay-Z came from humble beginnings in New York City

Jay-Z’s story began in 1969 in Brooklyn, New York. Born in extreme poverty in the Marcy Projects, drugs and violence surrounded him from an early age, and things looked bleak for him. Forced to adapt to the rough and tumble environment, Jay-Z became involved in drug dealing during his teenage years and began to make a name for himself.

Although he always had an interest in rapping, it wasn’t until he began to move up in the streets that he started taking rap more seriously. Seeing that the only two outcomes from drug dealing were prison or death, he began to invest more time in the craft, crafting lyrics while on the street corner and later recording them when he got home. 

Things changed dramatically for Jay-Z when he took a trip to London with his mentor, Jaz-O, to record music, according to an interview the rapper did with Forbes. During his trip, authorities conducted a sting operation that saw dozens of Jay-Z’s associates get arrested, including his best friend Emory Jones. Narrowly escaping a 16-year prison sentence, Jay-Z knew it was time for him to make some life changes. 

Jay-Z worked his way up the music industry

Jay-Z’s music career began to take off in 1996, after he formed an independent record label Roc-A-Fella Records, with business partners Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke. The three released his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, shortly after, and began the long journey of turning Jay-Z into a rap superstar.

Jay-Z became more commercially successful as his career progressed, releasing hit singles such as “Hard Knock Life,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” and “99 Problems,” but none were quite as big as his chart-topping record “Empire State of Mind.” The smash-hit became his first #1 single and topped the charts in several countries, cementing Jay-Z as a global icon. 

“Empire State of Mind” was not originally written in New York City

Jay-Z
Jay-Z | Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Land Rover)

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As hard as it may be to believe, the original version of “Empire State of Mind” was actually not written in New York City. The Hip-Hop ballad was actually written by two homesick songwriters, Angela Hunte and Janet “Jnay” Sewell Ulepic, in London. The two had gone to the studio and stumbled across the song’s beat, instantly knowing it had huge potential.

The record started from almost nothing, according to Ulepic’s interview with GQ. “It started in a very humble situation, with a shitty computer, little equipment and very few contacts in the industry. It was early days for all of us.”

However, after recording the song’s demo, they knew exactly who to send it to. 

“We knew we had created something that would outlast us,” Ulepic said. “That’s why we were so particular about where it went. Jay Z understood it and was able to take it to the moon.”

Jay-Z loved the record, and the rest is history

Apparently, Hunte and Ulepic’s hunch was correct. Jay-Z heard the record and instantly got to work on it, changing the song’s verses and putting Alicia Keys on the hook. In his autobiography, Decoded, he explained his infatuation with the record:

“When I first heard the track… I was sure it would be a hit. It was gorgeous. My instinct was to dirty it up, to tell stories of the city’s gritty side, to use stories about hustling and getting hustled to add tension to the soaring beauty of the chorus.”

After it’s completion, the song was released as a part of Jay-Z’s Blueprint 3 album. It held the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for five weeks and has since sold over 5 million copies in the United States.