Pazz & Jop Bonus #2: The Voice Jay-Z Interview, Uncut

"I just love the Grizzly Bear. That project was great. It sounds like these church cathedral chords--it's just sick what they're doing."

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In 2009, Jay-Z rolled, grabbing his first number one record and--to the rapper's own surprise--a victory in our 37th Annual Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll. "When I got the call from the Village Voice I was like, 'Are you sure?'" Jay told our interviewer. "I thought they don't like me over there. They only like guys you never heard of." Not this year: "Empire State of Mind" cruised over Phoenix and Animal Collective, claiming spots on 89 of 697 total ballots filed by critics all around the country. Sean Fennessey's dissection of what it all means can be found here, but we figured since it's not every day Shawn Carter sits down to talk about his own life and work, we'd run the whole transcript of their conversation, too. Have at it:

How did the song first come to you?

Big Jon [Platt], the first publisher I ever had, at EMI, I think in like 1997. Whenever I'm making an album we're always back and forth on the phone and he called me and said, "Man I think I got this song and this idea for you. So he sent me the song on a Sunday. I walked in the house and I played the song. I called him and said "Send it now." And he said "Yeah, it's in your email." And I said "no, send the Pro Tools now." As soon as I heard it, I knew what it was gonna do.

Was it just a guide vocal?

It was the hook as it is now, and Alicia added that second chorus, the little bridge after the third verse, "put your lighters in the air," she wrote that part. But everything else was there, it was an entire song. It just had to be structured correctly and I structured it. I called Alicia and I said "Man, I got this song, it's gonna be around for 30 years." I know that's bold. She came to the studio, she heard it and she said, "Can you play that again?" Played it again and that was it.

Was it already a New York song when you received it?

Yeah, the chorus was done and it had different verses, different structures.

What did you think you needed to add to it to make it your own?

When I heard it, and I think why it relates to places outside of New York is the inspiration, the inspiration coming from nowhere and making it somewhere. I just inserted a story, inserted my story that could resonate for people. I wanted to show a journey. I really homed in on that. I loved the fact that it was talking about New York, but if I was from Atlanta it would have been about Atlanta. I also didn't want to paint this perfect picture. Sometimes you don't make it. And that's why the third verse is dark, because at the same time the city is intoxicating. It can sweep you up and you can get sidetracked. You get caught, you come here and you take the city for granted, nightlife, things like that.

And that was from personal experience?

I've seen it a million times. I've seen people come into the city--new girls come into town, and next month they're gone.

You worked with songwriters and a producer you'd never worked with before, as well as Alicia on the song. When you were making the song, did it feel like you were trying to make a number one record?

No. No, I didn't know that--I hope and prayed that everyone would get the inspiration in the song, but in the beginning I had fears that it would be a regional record because it's talking about New York. And I didn't know how people--well not people, I'm talking about radio guys, I didn't know how they would react to that and if it could be a number one song, for them to play the song 106 times a week, because that's what you need for a no. 1 record. You know, they played it 110 times in L.A. And that's the thing. Look, I didn't know whether the radio guys would get out the way of their own biases and just let that song be about inspiration. So I didn't know if it would be a number one record, I just knew it would be here forever. I put Alicia on the record simply because of the [makes ding ding ding sound], the pianos on it and her voice is so classic that it adds to it. I was two seconds--I've never told this story--I was two seconds away from putting Mary [J. Blige] on the record. But the piano and that sound just said Alicia. She took the song to another level.

You and Alicia never worked together before this, right?

No. We always had a cool relationship, we always spoke and it wasn't like I was talking to somebody I was unfamiliar with.

Would you say that in the past not having a number one record was a badge of honor for you? And do you look at things differently now that you have one?

Well, I think to have that type of staying power and to put up the type of numbers that I put up without a number one record says a lot about the albums. It was a sense of accomplishment. But you know, as you make your music, to have a number one record is kinda cool, it's kinda cool. But it doesn't define what I do, obviously.

Do you know where you were when you got wind of that news?

I thought "Run This Town" was gonna be number one, that was almost a foregone conclusion because we was already gearing it for it to be number one. But it was the bridesmaid, it was number two. But this one, as soon as we put it out, it rocketed. When I found out, it was already done. I already knew. I remember exactly where I went. We were at the Spotted Pig, with Alicia, and we did a shot of Patron--you know we celebrated.

Is it surprising to you that critics like the song as much as fans?

Yeah, when I got the call from the Village Voice I was like, "Are you sure? I thought they don't like me over there. They only like guys you never heard of. I thought that was their type of action." [LAUGHS] So, yeah, I knew it was a timeless record the minute I heard it. You know, some records are big, like "Run This Town" is a big record and it sounds like it should be a big record. But I don't know if they'll be playing that 30 years from now.



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