Jay-Z’s “Young Forever,” a re-working of the “80s” Alphaville song “Forever Young,” opens with the same moody synthesizers one finds in the original and, then, (almost) the same romantic, Sting-esque vocals (the difference here being that the contemporary pop star Mr. Hudson fills in for the Marian Gold vocals in the original track).
As, then, the track continues to open, one settles into a schmaltzy, but compelling reverie as the vocalist muses:
Let’s dance in style,
Let’s dance for a while,
Heaven can wait we’re only watching the skies
Hoping for the best but expecting the worst,
Are you gonna drop the bomb or not?
Let us die young or let us live forever,
We don’t have the power but we never say never,
Sitting in a sandpit,
Life is a short trip,
The music’s for the sad man
Now, the hook of romantic lyricism like this is that the tragedy of it all—the fact that the singer’s prayer for eternal youth will never be answered—is known by the singer as he sings.
One falls for the fact that despite the certainty that his protests against death will go unheeded, he protests nonetheless.
It’s mad (it oscillates between the depths of depression and the heights of romantic ecstasy), but it’s pretty.
And one can almost imagine it to be true.
I wanna be forever young
Do you really want to live forever?
Forever and ever
Forever young I wanna be
Do you really want to live forever?
In Jay-Z’s version of the track, though, a shift in emphasis occurs as the words here are not hauntingly ironic, but seemingly literal:
The singer’s prayers will be answered.
Indeed, there they are—on contemporary pop radio more than twenty-five years after their conception and just as young.
In Jay-Z’s rap, he addresses the way in which media archiving allows the paradoxical situation of endless youngness to emerge.
The opening line (following an ad lib toast to the act of living in the moment), finds the artist declaring the following words:
So we livin’ life like a video
Now, this opening declaration could have two possible readings:
1. On the one hand, it could mean that he and his crew are living a life of expensive cars, beautiful young women, freely flowing champagne, etc.
That is to say, the sort of life depicted in cliché rap videos.
2. On the other hand, though, it could be read to mean that the way they’re living is like a video in the sense of its being indelibly captured in archival media.
That is to say, one’s body may age, but one’s bodily presence in the media archive is forever young.
The lines of the verse succeeding this opening nudge one, first, in the direction of (1.), and, then, in the direction of (2.).
Here it is in its entirety:
So we livin’ life like a video
Where the sun is always out and you never get old
and the champagne’s always cold
and the music’s always good
and the pretty girls just happen to stop by in the hood
and they hop they pretty ass up on the hood of that pretty ass car
without a wrinkle in today
cause there is no tomorrow
just a picture perfect day
that last a whole lifetime
and it never ends cause all we have to do is hit re-wind
so let’s just stay in the moment, smoke some weed, drink some wine
reminisce, talk some shit, “Forever Young” is in your mind
leave a mark that can erase neither space nor time
so when the director yells cut
I’ll be fine
I’m forever young
They’re living like a video here, then, in the sense that, if life is going too fast, then “all we have to do is hit re-wind” as life itself has been archived in video.
This makes a certain amount of sense to consider in the case of a star such as Jay-Z whose own life is lived in video to a non-negligible degree; no matter what happens to his body, “when the director yells cut,” he’ll “be fine” as the now exists indelibly printed in media storage—forever young, “neither space nor time.”
But, is it really him?
If not, than what is it exactly?
Before dismissing this question out of hand, though, consider the importance of the avatar—the media representation of one’s own self—which one increasingly manages as much as one manages one’s own physical body.
That’s just to say that even though one’s personhood may not intuitively mix with anything but a biological body, pragmatically speaking (and no matter how repulsive it may seem), one’s person is uncannily out (t)here in the infosphere.
(If it’s not you, who is it?)
That said, though, (and no matter its truth) there’s an anxiety:
Things—both biological things as well as media things—die.
There’s nothing guaranteeing that Jay-Z’s video representation (being it actually him or not) will itself actually be forever young.
Indeed, by glancing at the pop charts, one sees that Jay-Z’s version of the track has already peaked–at number ten.
So, whether immortalized in media or not (and whether this has any bearing on anything or not), the track will age.
Before one gets caught up here, though, let’s return to the rap to see how it addresses this very issue, developing its own philosophy towards it.
Fear not where, fear not why, fear not much while we’re alive
life is for livin’ not livin’ uptight
until you’re somewhere up in the sky, fear not die
I’ll be alive for a million years, bye bye
so not for legends, I’m forever young, my name shall survive.
What one might take from these lines is that, according to Jay-Z, if one is to be forever young in archival video media, then one must, it seems, live in the moment.
And one must continuously create one’s self every moment by existing fully in every moment, living life as if it will end not someday but in the very next moment.
The star–here–lives forever young by living life as if the opposite were true, as if nothing matters but the inhabitation of this moment.
And, for Jay-Z his star lives forever not just through video media, but through legend—oral history passed down through generations.
Through the darkest blocks, over kitchen stoves, over Pyrex pots, my name shall be passed down to generations while debatin’ up in barber shops
young slung, hung here showed that a nigga from here with a little ambition just what we can become here
and as the father pass the story down to his son’s ear, younger get younger every year, yeah
so if you love me baby this is how you let me know, don’t ever let me go, that’s how you let me know, baby
Now before going on, at the end of this verse—it should be said–an interesting moment of hesitation occurs.
To reiterate, Jay-Z raps:
So if you love me baby this is how you let me know, don’t ever let me go, that’s how you let me know, baby
That is to say, Jay-Z—at that moment—indicates his own knowledge of the possibility that his legend will not persist unless those that love him refuse to let him go.
His destiny is–it seems–in the hands of others.
Why would Jay-Z be basically begging for his fans to never let him go if he didn’t doubt his own existence as a “true” star?
But, once again, at that moment, Jay-Z turns the kaleidoscope.
As the timeline of the song is itself on its own last legs, he raps:
Less than four bars,
Guru bring the chorus in,
Did you get the picture yet?,
I’m painting you a portrait of young
“Did you get the picture yet?” he asks.
Did you see that all this talk about forever young and life in a video is not drawn out here for its own sake, but rather to create a broader picture?
And what is this picture?
A portrait of “young”—the last line of the song.
The endless same-ness of young-ness in which one does everything in their power and thinks through every possible angle to ensure their immortality, but only ends up in knots.