Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

A Common Misunderstanding of the Lyrics of Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind"

jayz-yankeesIf you're like me (and the rest of America, according to the Billboard Hot 100), you love the Jay-Z song "Empire State of Mind." But here's the thing: there's apparently a frequently-misunderstood lyric regarding popular NBA players LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, one that seems to leave a number of people befuddled. Maybe you've heard this line? It's in the second verse and goes something like this, "I got it made/If Jeezy's payin' LeBron, I'm paying Dwyane Wade." A lot of people think this has to do with an NBA franchise, of which Jay-Z is a part-owner: the New Jersey-soon to be Brooklyn-Nets. Those people are wrong.

The lyric in question is usually misconstrued in one of two ways. Either:

1) It's misheard as: "If Jesus paying LeBron, I'm paying Dwyane Wade."


2) It's heard correctly, but taken literally, as: "If Jeezy's paying LeBron, I'm paying Dwyane Wade."

Here's how the different scenarios break down:

1) "If Jesus is paying LeBron, I'm paying Dwyane Wade." A lot of people assume that this means that there's someone named Jesus who owns a large equity stake in an NBA franchise who is vying for LeBron James (one of the best NBA players of all time, and close friend of Jay-Z) when James hits the market as a free agent in 2010. Well, you know what they say about happens when you assume, and that's just what you've done. No one named Jesus, pronounced like the son of God and not in the more commonly used Hispanic way, owns any part of any NBA team. Sorry.

2) "If Jeezy's paying LeBron, I'm paying Dwyane Wade." So now you might think, okay, maybe the popular rapper Young Jeezy owns a bit of an NBA team, just like Jay-Z does, and he's saying that if Jeezy signs LeBron, Jay-Z will then settle for Dwyane Wade. Again, you could not be anymore incorrect, I'm sorry. Young Jeezy also does not have any points in an NBA franchise. It seems weird that you even thought that.

The actual answer is a bit more complicated.

In Young Jeezy's song "24-23 (Kobe-Lebron)," Jeezy uses the players' jersey numbers to articulate the price he's paying of a kilogram of cocaine.

The chorus of that song goes, "I used to pay Kobe [24], but now I pay LeBron [23]." This means that he used to pay $24,000 for a kilo of coke, whereas now? He only pays $23,000, you see.

So. In "Empire," Jay-Z takes this one step further, so as to show his impressive status in New York. He suggests that, while Jeezy may be paying $23,000, Jay-Z is paying a mere $3000 (expressed as Dwyane Wade's jersey number) for a kilo of cocaine.

David Cho is the publisher of The Awl.

95 Comments / Post A Comment

So businessy.

When I finished reading that, NBC's "The More You Know" jingle (and shooting star) shot through my head. I feel so street-savvy now!

myfanwy (#1,124)

Or Paul Harvey. "And now you know…the rest of the story."

OhMaGa – reread that whole thing in the voice of Paul Harvey. Day is made!

Dave Bry (#422)

Thank you, Cho. I had wondered.

dado (#102)

I like the now apparent irony of rhyming "champion" with "ambien".

bmichael (#213)

Mr. Cho, you are a paradoxical Internet/'street' genius.

Andrew Dalton (#1,640)

Can we get a reading on Alicia Keys' part? I always heard it as, "The streets are paved with old bagels." Implying an African American takeover of traditionally Jewish neighborhoods.

David Cho (#3)

Concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There's nothing you can't do!
Now you're in New YOOOORRK
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you
Let's hear it for New YOOOOOOOORK

ProfessorBen (#1,254)

I always want to hear
'where green tomato'
for 'where dreams are made of'

tralafel (#1,221)

Where dreams are made of what? Old bagels of course.

hockeymom (#143)

I had that SAME question, so I went to an expert. My 12 year old explained it thusly: " This is what my friends think. It means that Jay-Z is BIGGER than Jesus. Which means he's bigger than God, because God and Jesus are the same thing. But this makes him SMALLER than New York, because the song is a tribute to New York. Because you can't be bigger than something you're praising."

Then he reminded me he didn't believe in God anyway and "it's probably just about basketball."

David Cho (#3)

Well, Jay-Z also used to call himself "God MC". So, I guess that's something!

iwantyrskull (#1,706)

this is, more or less, the meaning i had ascribed to it as well – that j was saying he's bigger than jesus. i, however, am not a 12-year-old (sadly).

hockeymom (#143)

As long as you're not wearing Axe body spray, you're probably OK.

SeanP (#4,058)

@hockeymom So if Jay-Z is bigger than God, and New York is bigger than Jay-Z, then… New York is bigger than God. Whoah.

Rod T (#33)

Dude, people just sing the Alicia Keys part and bob their heads to rest.

KarenUhOh (#19)

I'm paying Gilbert Arenas to pay any attention to the Nets.

JGP (#1,686)

+ (Agent) 0

Bettytron (#575)

What I want to know is why Alicia Keys sings "concrete jungle where dreams are made of" when she could just as easily sing "that dreams are made of" and be more grammatically sound! I'm not even worried about that preposition at the end, I just want the line to make sense.

mathnet (#27)

Let's hear it for Bettytroooooooooooooon

NominaStultorum (#1,638)

You can get creative with the punctuation and make it:

Concrete jungle where dreams are made of "there's nothing you can't do"

where "there's-nothing-you-can't-do" is the object of the preposition, and somehow abstractly represents the content of the dreams.

Whereas in other cities, dreams are made of, I don't know, "your-options-are-finite."

Bettytron (#575)

Oh yes, I like that. And in the meantime I'll just keep singing "that" and hope the recording will change by the sheer power of my will.

NominaStultorum (#1,638)

If you will it, it is no dream, Bettytron.

Emily (#20)

Gold fucking star over here!!

Oh! That was wondrous!

I firmly believe that Alicia Keys is an avowed Enemy Of Grammar. Why else would she remake the lovely, and perfectly grammatical, "If I Were Your Woman" and POINTEDLY TAKE OUT THE SUBJUNCTIVE??!!



garge (#736)

Eight years ago I won a bet about the lyrics of big pimpin. I am going to track down those same cads and take them for another Jackson with this, thanks.

afarerkind (#379)

Did your bet concern "Spinin' the Gs / cheese"?


garge (#736)

IT DID! It is CHEESE, but spendin', not spinnin', and this was before you could settle an argument at the mall by just going to the Apple store or whipping out a smartphone–

JGP (#1,686)

WORSE!!! The line "Big pimpin' on B-L-A-Ds." He means "blades," or rims, but doesn't spell it right, he just pluralizes it to fit the rhyme scheme. Holy fucking shit that kills me, still.

runnr_az (#1,689)

Jesse Thorn asked Bun B about that line on the Sound of Young America. His response was pretty much, "Believe me, we don't want to get into the many, many grammatical errors in rap music."


sox (#652)

Thanks for the explanation. I was hoping this would be about the part where he says "MDMA makes you feel like a champion" and that he's actually saying something about the NBA.
Don't get me wrong, MDMA does make you feel like a champion, but a close friend OD'd last month (uh, I didn't realize you could?), and I love this song, but what bad timing… also, can you say that on the radio?

maebefunke (#154)

Cho, will you marry me?

David Cho (#3)


maebefunke (#154)


Babysit me!

Leon Neyfakh (#1,346)

Can I ask a question about a line in DOA?

This one:

Hold up, this shit need a verse from Jeezy
I might send this to the mixtape Weezy

What? "The mixtape Weezy"? What is he talking about? Lil' Wayne does make mixtapes, it's true. But no one calls him that, right? I also just don't understand what he means by "send."

David Cho (#3)

He's commenting on the fact that hip-hop has gotten so contrived/insincere that rappers need to bring it back to its more genuine roots.

Some people think it's a "subliminal", a passive aggressive insult, to Lil Wayne because he's implying that the "Mixtape Weezy" was the more hip-hop and less Top 40'd version of Lil Wayne out there. In later live performances he would change that line to, "sent this to DRAKE AND WEEZY".

I think "send" means send it via e-mail or post.

Leon Neyfakh (#1,346)

Wait so you're saying this whole verse is Jay-Z impersonating a lame rapper who thinks thoughts like this? Or is the Jeezy line that and the Weezy line actually Jay-Z? That SORT OF makes sense to me but I still don't really get why this would be a subliminal.

Leon Neyfakh (#1,346)

Plus Lil' Wayne uses the drop on the DOA remix on No Ceilings. I guess that doesn't mean it's not a subliminal but like, it probably means Lil' Wayne didn't see it as such?

David Cho (#3)

The Jay-Z verse is in line with the theme of the whole song, bringing hip-hop/rap to the more "street" place. And because of that, Jay-Z wants the more street rappers to participate, hence the mixtape Weezy (and not the current rock-n-roll Weezy).

I think the thing with Jay-Z is, he says these things that are kind of insults, but at times it's unclear. So it's like when someone insults you about something that's sort of rooted in truth, but then is like "jk!!!". I love Hov, but it's sort of a dick move on his part.

Leon Neyfakh (#1,346)

Can you give another example of him doing that?

David Cho (#3)

To Weezy F Baby or in general?

Leon Neyfakh (#1,346)

I suppose either.

Leon Neyfakh (#1,346)

Not a challenge btw, just curious!

David Cho (#3)

A lot of Beanie Sigel's current problems have to do with this idea. "Already Home" off of BP3 has a lot. There were Jim Jones ones, a few Dame ones. I can't come up with a list of songs, just because I'm bad at that, but it's a pretty widely accepted Jay move.

You can almost see that in how people flip out whenever he says something that's similar to a subliminal (see: T-Pain, Game, "Combat Jack", etc), because they're so used to him doing that, that even when he's not they assume he is. And all the while he just denies it in press.

raf_oh (#1,296)

This of course comes from Mr "if skills sold… I'd probably be lyrically Taleb Kweli."

Nas did 'hip hop is dead' and Jay-Z was on that album. And that song kicked ass (black republican). It's all seems so wrong to me.

mattmorrison (#2,548)

Jay-Z wasn't taking a swipe at Lil' Wayne at all. It was actually a compliment.

He was rapping about how great the beat to "D.O.A." and said "I might send this to the mixtape Weezy" since Lil' Wayne is well known for remaking popular hip-hop tracks on his mixtapes.

I think the line is sometimes changed to "Drake and Weezy" because Drake is on Lil' Wayne's "Young Money" record label and has somewhat taken over Lil' Wayne's spot as the current mixtape king.

Sablesma (#1,244)

Oh that's good. Very good, indeed.

katiebakes (#32)

WHOA! What a written-just-for-me post because that's my favorite line in the whole song like, aural-aesthetically! That doesn't make sense, does it, because I'm sure the Latin root of aesthetic has something to do with seeing or some shit. Pleasing to my ear? I like the syncopation? Is syncopation the right industry parlance or can you only use that word when you're discussing the Maple Leaf Rag? Oh god, I should just stop writing this comment right now, but I won't.

Anyway, with all this in mind it might not surprise you to know that I always heard it as "Jesus".


Brian (#115)

The adverb tho?

Ha, YES, indeed. Euphonically, it is. (OR euphoniously!)

iplaudius (#1,066)

If he's paying Dwyane Wade, he isn't getting the good shit.

Mary HK Choi (#1,469)


garge (#736)

Either this, or it is the unfair phenomenon that people who can afford things actually pay much less (or nothing) than us poors for the same, if not better, stuff.

Antonia Capet (#2,372)

New York is about getting a bargain.

mathnet (#27)

Are you saying the song has nothing to do with Kadeem Hardison?

jfruh (#713)

Oh, what a naif I am! I heard "paying" as "playing" and was assuming that this involved using the digitized version of a popular NBA star as an avatar when playing one of the video games so popular with the young people today. (Yes, I am aware that Jay-Z is five years older than I am, but never mind that for the moment.) Thus, I had visualized a casual afternoon when rap superstars Jay-Z and Young Jeezy got together to play NBA 2K10 on their XBox or whatnot.

Instead, I learn that it's about the prices of illegal narcotics. YAWN.

This is from his Turnstiles album, right?

zekeft (#2,488)

is the awl for old white people? i didn't know …

Baboleen (#1,430)

How bout old black people? There was no Oprah stressin for impressin JZ in her interview.

Aatom (#74)

I haven't understood any hip hop lyrics since "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo."

balsa_wood (#465)

This just reminds me of the idiotic decision to have Alicia Keys stand at a grand piano for most of the video. Constipationy awkwardness, and the diagonals are all wrong.

semiserious (#2,430)

While we're on the subject, "now you're in-style,
and in the winter gets cold en vogue with your skin out," is a total shout out to Anna Wintour, right?

tralafel (#1,221)

I think there might actually be an "Anna" in there. At least the way I hear it.

alo (#2,620)

i immediately recognized this is an anna wintour name drop (and was like "wtf? i hope jay z watches the city!").

"now you're in style, anna wintour gets cold in vogue with your skin out" …in style is also a magazine :D

David Cho (#3)

Oh definitely.

tralafel (#1,221)

I hear "Anna the winter gets cold in Vogue with your skin out." Is this correct or incorrect?

Basketball (#2,501)

Are you sure about this? I thought it was the former – Jesus not Jeezy and that made me think of Larry Bird, who is often referred to Basketball Jesus.

Larry Bird is now the president of basketball operations for the Indiana Pacers. Someone needs to track down Jay-Z and ask him for clarification.

hallie (#2,505)

Have to say I respectfully disagree with this assessment. You've got a lot of the pieces right, but I believe the meaning goes a step further– Jay is basically saying, yes Jeezy, you may get a good rate on a kilo, which is cool for what it's worth, but I have moved on from the game to a whole nother level and am now in the business of drafting free agents to play on my basketball team. It's a mixed metaphor and one that expresses a similar sentiment as "And i don't wear jerseys, I'm thirty plus Give me a crisp pair of jeans n***** button ups".

David Cho (#3)

This also seems potentially very spot on. The mixed metaphor is a Hovi specialty. It seems like if the Dwayne Wade thing was true though, he might make that point even more clear? Drive it home more?

Blerg. (#2,564)

Co-sign! I don't think Hov would try to drive home a point like the one mentioned. Sometimes, he likes to feed info to the masses and let them "do with it as they will," while he sits, amuses and denies. Oh Jiggaman, "why you treat us like animal?!"

Antonia Capet (#2,372)

Excellent assessment. This sounds like truth.

Meretrix (#2,521)

Originally, I heard it as "If Jesus's payin' LeBron, I'm paying Dwayne Wade" and understood it to mean, "If LeBron's got Jesus in his corner, Dwayne's got me…and they're both forces to be reckoned with as a result."

Then I figured he probably was saying "Jeezy" and decided it didn't need understanding.

I like your interpretation.

Any thoughts on the "Catch me in the kitchen like Simmons whippin' pastry"? Is that just he's making dough like Russell Simmons?

Pastry is the shoe company designed by Angela and Vanessa Simmons, Rev Run's daughters. Just another metaphor or clever filler that when analyzed seems so lame, but its pretty genius to sneak that in there.

hov_fan (#2,572)

It's actually a double metaphor. That whole verse he's talking about when he used to sell drugs.

"I used to cop in Harlem." => I used to get the drugs I sold in Harlem.
"Took it to my stash spot, 560 State Street" => That was the apartment he used to hide his merchandise.
“Catch me in the kitchen like a Simmons whippin’ pastries” => He's slipping in his knowledge of Rev Run's daughters shoe line, but more importantly it relates to his drug dealing in that he used to make crack (metaphor is whippin' pastries) in the kitchen of his stash spot.

alo (#2,620)

i'm wondering why he's even mentioning pastry since those girls are in LA

hov_fan (#2,572)

Pastry is incorporated in NYC. So technically it is a NY company regardless of where the girls operate.

rapfrom88to94 (#2,685)

Mr. Cho,
First of all. THANK YOU for clearing up a dispute between my boyfriend and i regarding these lyrics! We had a brief presentation of sides…with the boyfriend believing that there was some secret/ slient partner named "Jesus" (or Latin Jesus) in the NBA owner ranks.

I thought that Jigga was somehow suggesting that he was of diety status (i.e.–Jovah/Hov/etc etc) and that jesus would get lebron and he'd take the next best.

The boyfriend concluded that Jigga was not that smart/clever. We agreed to disagree and moved on.

Now you've not only proved us both wrong with our analysis, you've confirmed MY belief that Jay-Z IS just that witty/clever. It often disappoints me that he uses this gift to make correlations or coded entendres about nonsense…how great if his wordplay led us to some sort of profound information and not the cost of drugs…

I digress.


rapfrom88to94 (#2,685)

One more thing. I need your expert lyrical knowledge for an art project I'm working on. I'm looking for clever rap double entendres and/or metaphors that make reference to sexual prowess or conquests of women…or could be just plain sexist. Anything on the spectrum. The referent lyric (to give you a sense of the level of skill I'm seeking) is Biggie's "Girls pee-pee when they see me, Navajos (Nava-hos) Creep Me In They TeePees."

Biggie had a unique gift for setting up vivid and fantastical imagery…the lyric is brilliant and insulting on multiple levels (Navajos live in Hogans)…the image of Biggie crawling into a TeePee, TeePee as a metaphor for women's genatalia, Navajo/Nava-ho, etc. etc.

Anyway, any songs (past/present) that match this level of witty wordplay involving women and male prowess would be much appreciated.

slyswagga (#2,948)

Mr.Choo u got things mixed up a bit man. First of if ur pushing kilos a thousand dollars is club money at that point. So to go on record and say how u get a kilo a 1000 cheaper is ridicolous. Trust me if ur moving kilos bro u have 1000 bucks layin around the house. Its something u find in ur pants on laundry day. Which leads me to my next point….

…the 24-23 track has nothing to do w kilo prices at all. Its a swaggalistic diss track directed towards Gucci Mane and OJ Da Juiceman. Jeezy basically sayin: compared to u little dudes(Gucci & OJ) i was already Kobe but now i'm even Lebron. "kobe,lebron,kobe,lebron i used to play kobe now i play lebron"….now what jayz was exactly talkin about i'm not sure. What it sounds like though is since Lebron and Wade are both gonna be free agents at the same time,if Lebron is unavailable he's puttin Wade on his payroll. Since he's the next best thing available at that point.

Talese Navidad (#2,497)

Rap Exegesis is now Rap Genius

(cf. explanation of Jay-Z's "A Star is Born"

jmdeleon (#3,575)

If Jay-Z's payin' D-Wade, I'm payin' Robert Parish.

Justin Freid (#3,584)

Very impressive close read, I now agree with your interpretation, but previously took the line literally.

Chris Truslow (#4,950)

one very small detail that I must add…… how can that be the corect translation to his line when empire state of mind came out before jeezys….. just cus it sounds like an out of the box viewpoint doesn't make it correct…. but. I guess jay z already knew what jeezy was gunna say! Idiots

Moss Da Boss (#5,818)

I feel sorry for all u guys thats why ill break it down for all you lames an i mean dat in a good way lmao! Jeezy says "i used to pay kobe now i pay lebron" that means he used to pay $24,000 per kilo of coke which is kobes number now he pays lebron james number which is $23,000 do u follow me>? An than Jay-z says "if jeezy pays lebron than i pay dwayne wade" Which means people if jeezy pays $23,000 per kilo i pay $3,000 kilo which is dwayne wades number, So Jay-z is making fun of jeezy by saying jeezy does not pay that price cause if he did jay-z would pay super low price which means he had to be columbian or mexican an lets get it staight no commercial rapper sales anything but cds an ringtones they just rap about what there friends do!!!

JoJo Perez@facebook (#219,384)

Well actually Lebron is king James from the bible there fore he's is say jesus son of god payin Lebron and making himself a god by saying he's payin Dwayne wade u went to far its pretty simple. If any of u watch the nba u will see this

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