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Guest Introduction

This post is a guest article written by Paul Martin. Paul is an English teacher who’s from New York and is currently based in Buenos Aires. A music lover, he tries to incorporate music from all different genres into his lesson plans. He teaches with Listen & Learn, which offers English courses in New York, in addition to other foreign-language classes all over the world. You can check out his Facebook page or email him at for more information.

Now take it away, Paul!


Empire State of Mind” is a single from Jay-Z’s 2009 album “The Blueprint 3”, which was a collaboration (something done together) Jay-Z and singer-songwriter Alicia Keys. The song is a tribute (something that shows respect or affection) to New York City, where both Jay-Z and Alicia Keys are from. New York state’s nickname is “The Empire State”, and state of mind is a synonym for “attitude” or “mood”. Therefore, “Empire State of Mind” means “New York attitude”. The song deals with some of the positive and negative aspects of living in New York, and is filled with useful vocabulary and New York-themed slang.

Now you’re in New York!
Concrete jungles where dreams are made of.
There’s nothing you can’t do!

New York Slang and Vocabulary

In “Empire State of Mind”, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys make many references to various places in New York City. If you’re interested in slang from many different cities in the United States, check out this American slang map.

  • Brooklyn – Brooklyn is one of the five boroughs of New York, where Jay-Z was born.
  • Tribeca – Tribeca is a neighborhood in New York where Jay-Z currently lives. The word “Tribeca” means Triangle Below Canal Street”, which refers to its location within New York.
  • (Frank) Sinatra – Jay-Z makes a reference to Frank Sinatra, who recorded the wildly popular song “New York, New York” in 1977.
  • Harlem – Harlem is a historically and culturally important neighborhood in Manhattan. It’s the birthplace of the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic and musical movement that gave rise to famous musicians such as Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong.
  • The Knicks and The Nets – Jay-Z makes reference to the New York Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets, which are two professional New York-based basketball teams.
  • Yankees – The Yankees are one of New York’s two major-league baseball teams (the other is The Mets).
  • yellow/gypsy/dollar cab – A cab is a casual term for a taxi. In New York, yellow cabs are official, legal taxis. Gypsy cabs are illegal, unlicensed taxis. Dollar cabs refer to a certain type of illegal taxi that operates in Brooklyn at night.
  • Labor Day Parade – The Labor Day Parade takes place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn every year.
  • Statue of Liberty – One of New York’s most famous landmarks, the Statue of Liberty was completed in 1886.
  • World Trade – The World Trade Center is another one of New York’s most famous landmarks, which was destroyed in 2001.
  • The city that never sleeps – New York is often called the “the city that never sleeps”, referring to the fact that there are always people awake and doing things, even late into the night.

Other Useful Words and Phrases

  • to make it – If someone “makes it”, they have achieved fame or success. When Jay-Z says that he “made it here”, it means that he achieved success in New York.
  • most definitely – “Most definitely” is an adverbial expression that signals intensity. For example, if you strongly agree with something, you can say that you “most definitely agree”.
  • Let’s hear it for + nounWhen Alicia Keys says “Let’s hear it for New York!”, she’s speaking in praise of New York, and asking for applause. It’s a way of saying, “Let’s cheer and applaud New York”.
  • brand new – If something is brand new, it’s not just new, it’s completely new. A brand-new car, for example, is one that has just been produced.
  • It’s a pity – If you say that something is “a pity”, it means that it has caused you sadness or disappointment. For example, if you can’t see a Jay-Z concert because tickets are too expensive, you can say, “It’s a pity that Jay-Z tickets cost so much”.
  • to step out of bounds – Literally, “to step out of bounds” is used in sports, and means “to step outside the area where a game is played”. However, you can also use the expression to describe situations in which somebody is behaving inappropriately. For example, a teacher might warn you that cheating on a test is “out of bounds” and will result in a failing grade.
  • act like + noun/sentenceThe phrasal verb “act like” can mean two things: “behave” or “pretend”, depending on context. For example, if your brother is “acting like an idiot”, he’s behaving stupidly. If your friend is “acting like he doesn’t understand”, she’s pretending that he doesn’t understand something, even though she does. As you can see in the previous examples, “act like” can be followed by either a noun or a sentence.
  • addicted to + noun If you’re “addicted to” something, you’re unable to stop using it. It usually refers to harmful substances like drugs.

Writing Task

Jay-Z and Alicia Keys are from New York. We’ve heard their song, so now, let’s hear it for wherever you’re from! Where are you from? What are some of the positive and negative aspects of your hometown? Leave a comment below!

The post New York Slang with Jay-Z appeared first on ESL Hip Hop.

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