Whether you’re a Brooklyn native or a distant admirer, it’s impossible to ignore the significance of New York City in contemporary America. The iconic cityscape stands equal to Mt. Rushmore and the US flag as a visual pillar of American culture, whilst artistically, it has performed as the principal muse in a countless number of creative ventures.
Take music, for example. No other city on earth has featured so prominently or perpetually as a metaphor, thematic foundation or musical landscape than NYC. For whatever reason, it continues to inspire an inexhaustible number of interpretations from artists operating on all parts of the musical spectrum. Sometimes it’s the towering recipient of a tender ode, and sometimes it’s just the bitterly cold home of heartbreak. Either way, New York isn’t going anywhere – and nor should it. To a degree unlike any other place on the planet, it has become synonymous with musical expression. Here are five examples that help prove it.
NYC – Interpol
‘I’m sick of spending these lonely nights, training myself not to care’ claims Paul Banks in his trademark baritone, during an epic, barren ode to our titular city. It’s a song bursting with hauntingly sordid imagery, (‘the subway’s a porno, and the pavements they are a mess’) that affirms, unlike anyone else, New York Cares. In all of its sky-scraping formidability, it seems to watch over its inhabitants with a maternal gaze. If you’re there, you’re part of the city’s beating heart – and it isn’t letting you go.
The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
For each time New York is your friend, it also manages to be the instigator of your loneliness – or at least that’s what CYHSY’s Alec Ounsworth finds. ‘I will try on New York City’ he announces, moving from his native West Virginia, bad dental hygiene and all. The track documents the meandering through his new adopted home, from tedious upstate parties to a spontaneous, sporadic longing for the ocean waves. Fundamentally, it’s a song about alienation, and struggling with transition. For all its beauty, the city can be an unforgiving, intolerant place.
NY State Of Mind – Nas
For a different side to New York City, let Nas take you on a tour. The Brooklyn rapper released Illmatic at the age of 21, a gritty sprawling debut, of which NY State Of Mind was the graphic stalwart. ‘I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind’ he raps during this anecdotal confessional, citing gunfights, drug dealing and a penchant for new trainers as his supporting evidence. For Nas, the city both informs and enables him. It’s his delinquent playground, whilst his indigenous relationship with his home dictates that it has become an intrinsic part of his personality, too – a streetwise cutting edge that allows him to survive and flourish.
Brooklyn – Mos Def
Hip-hop has always had a particularly special relationship with New York, and much like Nas, Mos Def (also a Brooklyn native) employs this relationship to rap about his experiences and relationship with the city. In an eclectic, unconventional structure, Brooklyn contains three acts, each distinctively different both formally and thematically. The one recurrent feature that links them, however, is the fondness they display for the rapper’s home. Brooklyn is a proud and vocal shout-out to what Mos believes to be the best part of the best city in the world. It’s a musical amalgamation that successfully captures the heterogeneity of a mad and beautiful urban jungle.
New York, I Love You But You’re Letting Me Down – LCD Soundsystem
Whilst the previous tracks tend to exist as either black or white in their relationship with NYC, LCD Soundsystem’s melancholic hymn pensively makes it home within the grey. Whilst much of the song contains frontman James Murphy declaring that reality has usurped romanticism and he’s disillusioned with the city, he can’t quite seem to tear himself away; ‘you’re still the one pool where I’d happily drown’ he admits, mournfully. Sound Of Silver’s closing track is a gorgeous, devastating declaration that accuses and accepts in simultaneous conjunction. New York is excessive, strange and unforgiving – but you wouldn’t have it any other way.
Words by Niall Flynn