September 8, 2009
I’m in the middle of reading the book Cultural Amnesia by Clive James while I’m lying on the beach right now writing this. There’s no real need to mention that I’m on the beach right now while I’m writing this except that I’m on the beach right now while I’m writing this and the sun is out and the big, fluffy clouds are drifting through the sky and the blue water looks ray-traced, almost, and it’s just generally fairly lovely with a slight chance of late morning showers and all of that seems worth mentioning to you. To the right of my towel, a mother is helping her young daughter find pretty shells among the clumps of dried seaweed and driftwood and other trash and detritus littering the beach. To my eye, there aren’t many pretty shells on the beach and this beach isn’t really known as a particularly pretty beach (it isn’t really known at all), and yet despite all of this the little girl is not seeming to have any problem at all finding pretty shells in the sand. She picks them up by the handful and puts them in a bucket; she’s collecting them.
Cultural Amnesia is a book of around eight hundred and fifty pages which purports, according to the cover, to offer “necessary memories from history and the arts.” The author says that he will offer the reader “a sum of appreciations that includes an appreciation of their interdependence…If I could put it into a sentence, I would say that it relies on the conviction that nothing creative should be excluded for the sake of any other conviction.” The way these apparently necessary creative memories and appreciations are arrayed through the eight hundred and fifty pages is inside a series of short (7 – 10 page) essays about important writers and artists and people (mostly people from the twentieth century, it seems like). These essays are arranged alphabetically, from the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova through Stefan Zweig who, well, who I don’t know who he is yet because I’m not actually in “the middle” of the book, I’ve only read the entries for the letters A and B so far (I’ve stopped before the entry for Camus in order to reapply sunscreen and write this). Each essay begins with a perfunctory nod to biographical fact (“Born in Odessa, educated in Kiev, and launched into poetic immortality as the beautiful incarnation of pre-revolutionary Petersburg, Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) was the most famous Russian poet of her time…”) but they then quickly veer into strongly-held opinion (“…but the time was out of joint.”) and then often explode off into arcades and avenues of digression, not in an ostentatious or pretentious way but in the way a clever and passionate friend who is telling you a story as the two of you walk from one place to another or sit at a cafe nursing refills might slip away from her narrative for a second to tell you any number of entertaining anecdotes or theories that she holds inside of her. If this is not the kind of friend (or writer) you want, then this is not the book for you (also you should probably stop reading this essay, as it will not make you happy). James’s diaphanous connections and intellectual high wire walks between thoughts are sometimes embarrassing (like when, in the essay about the French sociologist and writer Raymond Aron, he includes a brief parenthetical reference to a Kate Bush song and then returns, in the same sentence, to delineating the distinctions between various leftist positions on genocide and nuclear weapons during the Cold War) and are sometimes strikingly, bitterly contrarian (his takedown of Walter Benjamin is so devastating that you start feeling bad for old Walter, even as you find yourself mostly agreeing with the reasons for his evisceration) but are never boring and always well wrought, gilded with beautiful cadences and turns of phrase.
This is not about Cultural Amnesia, though. To my right, the little girl’s mother is asking her doesn’t she want to go back to Daddy, down the beach? Actually, what the mother is doing is not so much asking as the gentlest possible form of telling, but the little girl says that no, she wants to keep looking for shells, she doesn’t want to go back. The mother sighs and plops down onto the sand, telling the little girl that when she fills up her bucket (which will not be so long, anyway), they’ll have to go back to Daddy in order to save all the pretty shells that she’s found. The little girl doesn’t seem to say anything to this but just continues hunting for glistens and gleams. To my left, a Latino family has set up shop under an enormous multicolored umbrella. The beach is getting more and more crowded as the morning goes on because it’s a holiday. At one point, I look up from my notebook where I’m writing this to try to catch a glimpse of the light in the water but my view is obstructed; two little boys are standing right between me and the ocean and digging a hole with small plastic shovels. One of them looks at me and I say “Hi” to him and then their mother (I’m assuming) yells something at the two of them in Spanish and they go away. I think the mother thinks they’re disturbing me because she’s called them back to the umbrella and when I look over, she’s looking at me. I say, “Oh no, it’s okay, they’re really fine,” but she doesn’t nod or smile or say anything back so I’m not sure if she’s understood me at all, what was lost in translation. The boys stand under the umbrella and the one looks at me again, looks at me looking at him. None of these children are symbols for anything.
In his entry about Louis Armstrong in Cultural Amnesia, after some musings on the (mostly negative!) racial aspects of the American cultural machine in the twentieth century, Clive James turns to an autobiographical account about how he came to love jazz as a university student in Australia, discussing how a Bix Beiderbecke solo on a song called “I’m Coming, Virginia,” came to represent to him “what popular art should be like.” “I wanted to write prose sentences that way,” he writes, “and lines of poetry; as a shining sequence of desolate exuberance, of playful grief…a generosity of effects on a simple frame.” Riding along further on this train of thought, he writes, in the next paragraph,
“Mechanisms of influence are hard to trace. Writers tend to think that the way they write was influenced by literature, and of course scholars make a living by following that same assumption. But a writer’s ideal of a properly built sentence might just as well have been formed while he was still in short pants and watched someone make an unusually neat sandcastle.”
The little boys are now digging a new hole in front of the big umbrella with their little plastic shovels; I push my toes into the packed sand behind my towel and break it up into grains and clumps of grains which stick to my feet and won’t come off. Clive James goes on in his paragraph about artistic influence to describe some more ideas about quotidian inspiration, like how he learned “a lot about writing” from watching somebody sand down the paint on a motorcycle and re-paint it (?). He then goes on to describe further how jazz music has deeply influenced his writing. This is, of course, no new thought or insight, but something we’ve seen throughout the history of literature, from the rhapsody of Vinteuil’s sonata in Swann’s Way to Kerouac’s sloppy, poppy bop prosody through Kathy Acker’s post-punk riffs and elsewhere and all around. Still, the description of jazz’s influence on Cultural Amnesia is clear and sweet and beautiful, a pure-toned paean that seems worth quoting, if only for the sake of experiencing its contours. James writes,
“…for the way I thought prose should move I learned a lot from jazz. From the moment I learned to hear them in music, syncopation and rhythm were what I wanted to get into my writing. And to stave off the double threat of brittle chatter and chesty verve, I also wanted the measured, disconsolate tread of the blue reverie. Jazz was a brimming reservoir of these contending qualities…”
The author goes on at the end of the paragraph to describe, in a way that marks him both literally and metaphorically as someone of a different generation than me, listening to Marvin Gaye on a jukebox and wondering if there will ever been anything “quite so addictive as the triumphal march of a Tamla anthem,” and a little later there is a predictable postmodern epiphany about how the Lester Young quintet and a string quartet by Ravel are “comparable events” with “no incongruity,” but honestly I’m not really reading the book anymore at this point (this is not about Cultural Amnesia, after all, I told you), not the way I was before, because now I’m dusting the sand off the headphones of my MP3 player and sticking them in my ear holes so I can listen again to The Blueprint 3, the new Jay-Z album and the only music I’ve listened to when I’ve listened to music for the past five days, since I got it. I like to think that, if he really gave him a chance, Clive James might like Jay-Z the same way he likes Marvin Gaye or the charming and little-known Viennese rake Peter Altenberg, but I’m not really sure that he would; in the introduction to Cultural Amnesia, he writes that “recently there have been rap lyrics distinguishable from the “Horst Wessel Song” only in being less well written.” He writes, a few lines before that, um, “thoughtful” criticism, “I loved popular music” and it is important to note that this is in the past tense, “loved,” not “love.” This is a difference between the two of us, a big one, since I love popular music in both the past and the present tense, the two of them intertwined together and forever in my mind.
At least I hope they are. I said that The Blueprint 3 is the only music I’ve listened to for the last five days, but really, at this point in my life, the only time that I listen to music is while I’m running or walking the dog; listening to music is merely a function of being mobile, an accessory to motion. I remember being sixteen and lying on my bed in the dark with my eyes closed and headphones up, listening to Live at Leeds and Beggars Banquet and thinking music was the most important thing in the world and now I’m a young white male who doesn’t care as much about music as he used to at other times in his life and listens to hip hop while doing physical activity because hip hop makes him feel strong, confident, and happy in a way that other pop music doesn’t make him feel anymore. This is an impulse which has been somewhat ruined in the popular imagination by a simple scene in the stupid movie Office Space, a simple scene featuring a young white male listening to a hip hop song which is no less painfully true for its simplicity. “Damn it feels good to be a gangsta,” I think, or something like it, as I pound down the trail in my Nike Frees, feeling, well, “free” because of the voice and beat pushing me forward. It’s impossible for me to talk about all this without some sense of irony, it would be rhetorical suicide, but when I’m listening to the rhymes and running there’s no irony involved at all.
I’m making it sound like I’m an expert on this “ish,” though, like I’m some kind of “head” or whatever, which isn’t true at all. There was a brief time during college when I thought it was important to know as much about music as possible and to be familiar with every new group that came out and had ever existed for all time and, since catholic taste was important, this meant that I tried to learn as much I could about hip hop, its history and its future. All things must pass, though, as somebody said in a song once, and I lost a lot of my interest in music. This year, the only other new hip hop I’ve listened to with any attention besides The Blueprint 3 is Rick Ross’s album Deeper Than Rap (a pretty good record I would recommend, if you’re interested). Therefore, when I say I listen to hip hop while I exercise and walk the dog, I basically mean that I listen to Jay-Z, I listen to his old songs from The Blueprint(s) and The Black Album over and over and they’re still great to me; they’ve resisted overplay unlike anything else I’ve ever loved so much. I don’t really keep up with hip hop as such, I just really like Jay-Z; this is akin to saying I don’t care about tennis but I love to watch Federer play (also true) or that basketball basically bores me but I’ll still watch any of MJ’s weightless, slo-mo triumphs just because, well, how could you not appreciate that? Well, “if you haven’t heard,” Jay-Z is “Michael, Magic, and Bird, all rolled into one / cause none got more flows than Young / plus got more flows to come.” This is how I feel about him, that he’s a lexical and musical virtuoso and a genius, basically, and that’s how I treat him, with the respect I think such an artist commands. When I covered his songs “Girls, Girls, Girls” and “Hola Hovito,” both off of the Blueprint, I realize in retrospect that I didn’t try to reinvent the songs or make them my own to any real extent, the way, for example, that I covered E-40’s “Tell Me When To Go.” I guess I just wanted to take the words he’d spit and chew them up and spit them out myself, in imitation and sincere flattery.
This is all to say that when I began to listen to The Blueprint 3 for the first time, during a light evening run (I had already run that morning but when I downloaded the album, I decided to go again, to get the full experience), I was really disappointed with it. It’s hard to be disappointed when you’re sweating and breathing hard and moving quickly through space, but I was disappointed nonetheless, the way you’re disappointed when you open the first pages of a new novel by your favorite writer and they don’t grab you right off the top. The opening track on the album, “What We Talkin’ About,” is a drab and ugly song with an electronic chorus that literally makes my ears hurt; it’s a far cry from the regal string and horn samples that make up “The Ruler’s Back,” the first track on the original Blueprint. The second song, “Thank You,” with its weird vocal intonation that is somewhere between Shady-era Eminem and Mick Jagger’s sneering faux-gentleman on some lost Between The Buttons b-side, has some bright spots (on which more later), but mostly is kind of a yawn of a jawn, honestly.
Then, with “D.O.A.” it starts to come alive and get better. To speak generally, most songs by young rappers are about trying to create a myth and most song by older rappers are about trying to keep that myth alive and the songs by the oldest rappers are just dust cloths to polish their antique myths and keep them fading too quickly. This is natural, this is the way things go, this is what we’re used to, the way artists mature, like the Rolling Stones playing their best songs from forty years ago on a stadium tour. For Jay, though, who’s still at the top of his game lyrically, the myth is now something to be flipped and reversed, to be chopped and screwed, to be deconstructed and put back together again. Mos and Talib may be conscious, but Jay-Z (like Kanye) is first and foremost self conscious, which may be less righteous and good but in my opinion tends to be a lot more artistically interesting.
To observe in small the evolution of Jay-Z into a more self-conscious artist, from the early period to the late period, maybe just witness the difference between the “rock” song on this new album and the one on original Blueprint. “Takeover” from The Blueprint, which sampled The Doors (a ghostly, drunken Jim Morrison backing vocal) and David Bowie (the massed shout of “Fame”), was a battleship of a battle rap, a massive war epic in which Jay took down, most famously, Nas (“So, yeah, I sampled your voice, you was using it wrong / You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song”) as well as, in a genius closing couplet, every other rapper in the world who didn’t like him (“And all you other cats throwin’ shots at Jigga / You only get half a bar – fuck y’all niggas). At the same time that it was so good, it was still really just a diss track; a mindblowing, thermonuclear diss track, of course, but formally it was completely ordinary and something you could really find on any other hip hop record.
On The Blueprint 3, “D.O.A.,” though as a song I don’t think it’s as good as the “Takeover,” and when I heard it as a single I didn’t like it that much, represents a fundamentally different reason for song making, an evolution of artistic consciousness. Jay-Z’s enemies aren’t people anymore, they’re aesthetic ideals, they’re trends and fads. He’s not fighting in the streets; he doesn’t want to kill anybody, he wants to kill “Auto-Tune,” a computer program, an aura-reducing stylistic signifier. He’s given up on playing the old school gangsta authenticity game (“Give this to a Blood, let a Crip walk on it”) even as he’s concerned with artistic authenticity (how lets us hear his dissonant, ugly untuned voice in the chorus); he’s self conscious about people doing the kind of hood myth-making he once did himself (“I don’t be in the project hallway / talking ’bout how I be in the project all day…”); instead, he’s now all and only about the crafting of rhyme and the art of verse (“…that sounds stupid to me / if you a gangsta, this is how you prove it to me”). Whereas before he might’ve talked (cleverly, but fairly literally) about killing someone, now he’s metaphorically describing his song as a killer (“Hold up, this ain’t a number one record / this is practically assault with a deadly weapon”).
The Blueprint 3, as it goes on, is not a perfect album by any stretch of the imagination, but in its imperfection, it’s so much more interesting and amazing than anything else I’ve listened to lately (though like I said I don’t listen to a lot of music and obviously I am also pretty biased toward liking Jay-Z albums, although I didn’t love Kingdom Come or American Gangster). This record amazing to me, though; even on a song I find I don’t really care for, like the aforementioned “Thank You,” there is still always something incredible to it; in the case of that song, it’s a crazy post-Sisyphean diss of a third verse in which Jay describes how he doesn’t kill other rappers anymore, he just makes them “9/11” themselves:
“So not only did they brick, but they put a building up as well,
then ran a plane into that building, and when that building fell,
ran to the crash site, with no mask then inhaled
toxins deep inside their lungs until both of them was filled,
blew a cloud out like an L into a jar, then took a smell
because they heard secondhand smoke kills.
Thought they was ill, found out they was ill (ew)
and it’s like you knew exactly how I wanted you to feel”
Before you get offended and start fucking with Jay for fucking with September 11th like people blew up at Amiri Baraka after somebody blew up America, though, he gives you his love, just two tracks later, on “Empire State of Mind,” a warm and comforting slice of polyglot, melting pot, (Big) Apple pop pie, a wistful ode to his home city built around a sped-up old soul sample the same way so many of the best tracks on the original Blueprint were. The Alicia Keys chorus seems almost tailor made for a multitude of cheesy New York movie montages (“New York…these streets make you feel brand new / their lights will inspire you”) but at the same time, in its richness and simplicity, it seems completely sincere and beautiful and sincerely beautiful. It’s really about the verses, though. Even seemingly thrown off lines throw you off with their clever allusions (“Welcome to the melting pot / corners where we selling rock / Afrika Bambaataa shit / home of the hip hop” – note the poetic jump from crack rocks in the second line to an unspoken (but felt) allusion to “Planet Rock,” Africa Bambaataa’s landmark hip hop single, in the third) or the sheer force of their moonwalk wordplay (“8 million stories out there in the naked / city, it’s a pity half of y’all won’t make it”), so that you keep rolling with the verses even when they’re maybe a touch too trendy (“Caught up in the in crowd / Now you’re In Style / Anna the Wintour (and the winter) gets cold / en Vogue, with your skin out”) or kind of misogynistic (“Mommy took a bus trip / now she gotta bust out / everybody ride her / just like a bus route”). It’s just this roller coaster ride of a rhyme that you never want to end.
But it does end and so now forget all of that shit, let it drop out of your mind, that ride’s over, motherfuckers, now you gotta get in line for the real stuff, the main event. The two most important tracks to the essence of The Blueprint 3, the keys that unlock its meaning are, I believe, a song at the very center of the track list (“On to the Next One”) and then the one that closes the proceedings, the big finale (“Forever Young”).
When I first heard “On to the Next One,” I was kind of disturbed by the sound of it, at least as much as a youngish person can be disturbed by the sound of a mainstream pop song while jogging at a brisk pace. The production is really abrasive, though; it’s a grinding, grimy electro-dance hop with an annoying, post-“Swagga” vocal bed apparently sampled from a remix of a song by the French dance pop DJs Justice. It’s all so dissonant and noisy at first, but at the same time, as you listen to it progress, you have to admit that, for what it is, the production is very well done; it bangs and crashes nicely, with a fun cascading drum break before every verse.
Forget the sonics, though; lyrically, it’s one of the strongest statements Jay makes on the entire record. Throughout the whole album, Jay is constantly talking about the influence of time and age on the creative process; he’s seemingly always looking backward and forward at the same time. In “D.O.A.” he describes himself as the “only rapper to rewrite history without a pen” but, despite all that history he’s made, he wants to “let the story begin” now, in the present, not back then. In the (sonically) very weird but (lyrically) pretty good “Reminder,” he begins, “All rhymers with Alzheimer’s line up, please”; he wants to see if he can “kill their amnesia before he leaves.” The chorus is all about the state of memory; it goes, “Reminder, reminder, I got if you need it, a reminder”; a reminder of how great Jay is, in case you forgot in the time since the last Blueprint. All over the album, he’s making references that jump through time, past, present, and future; he’s playing with memory so much that he’s worried we’ll get disoriented just listening to him and that we need help to get through it; he describes inscribing his words on us with “indelible ink,” “verses permanently tattooed” that “serve as Mementos.” In “Off That,” one of the lamest songs on the album, over a Timbaland beat that wouldn’t have sounded futuristic even way back in 2001, Jay says, his voice all echo-y, “Welcome to the future” and then describes, derisively, how he’s already done and owned all the superficial things other rappers brag about doing and owning (“the only time I deal in the past tense / is I’m past rims and I’m past tints / If you driving it, I drove it / you got it cause I sold it”).
This is a fundamentally different feel than the original Blueprint, which was mostly built around metaphorically and sonically warm invocations of the past in the form of the seventies soul samples that were the basis of most of the tracks on the album. One of the most nostalgic songs on that album was a track about Jay’s past and his background and how even though he was big now, he wouldn’t forget and he wouldn’t leave it all behind, a song called “Never Change.” This looking back to home is a common trope in both hip hop and country music (as opposed to rock, in which leaving home and the community is always the aspiration and the dream) but Jay does it so well that it doesn’t feel cliched at all; how could it with quotidian details about his childhood like “What, the streets robbed me, wasn’t educated properly / Well fuck y’all, I needed money for Atari / Was so young my big sis’ still playin with Barbie” and allusive flips and reverses like “Old heads taught me, young’un, walk softly / Carry a big clip that’ll get niggas off me”?? At the end of every chorus of the song, over a beautiful old soul sample, Jay says, over and over again, “I’ll never change / I’m too stuck in my ways.”
Well, that was then and this is now. In the chorus that opens “On to the Next One,” we find that Jay has apparently had a little attitude adjustment in the intervening eight years, that he’s changed. The chorus describes Jay as someone possessing near infinite creative energy and inspiration (“I’ve got a million ways to get it”) so that, for him, making a hit song is as easy as picking up a grain of sand off the beach (“Choose one” of the million) and then just putting it out there and getting even richer than he already is (“Double your money and make a stack”). After the intro chorus and the break, he drops into an effortless, swaggering first verse, a verse which begins:
“Hov on the that new shit, niggas like “how come?”
Niggas want my old shit, buy my old album
Niggas stuck with stupid, I gotta keep it moving
Niggas make the same shit, me, I make the blueprint”
In other words, he’s questioning the motives of his fans, many of whom predictably want a predictable sequel to the first two albums, with the sped up soul samples and the battle raps and et cetera. Jay jokes that if they want something like his old records that they should just buy them over again, making him more money, but notes that personally he has to keep moving, that while everybody else is making the same old boring shit, he’s making “the blueprint,” the “map” for the future of hip hop, and he’s making it right now in this song you’re listening to. Jay has expressed similar negative sentiments about the taste of his audience since at least as far back as the The Black Album, when he said, during “Moment of Clarity,” in a verse which is echoed in the chorus of “On to the Next One”:
“I dumb down for my audience
And double my dollars
They criticize me for it
Yet they all yell “Holla””
Now he’s not going to dumb it down for you or anybody anymore, though, cause he’s on to the next one, this is the new stuff. Continuing in the present, he goes,
“Used to rock a throwback, balling on the corner
Now I wear a teller suit, looking like a owner
No I’m not a Jonas, brother, I’m a grown-up
No I’m not a virgin, I use my cajones”
The line about the Jonas brothers is funny and everything but this verse is really all about the losing the throwback. In “Jigga That Nigga,” one of the best and most popular songs on the original Blueprint, Jay mentioned at the outset that he was coming on the track “with a throwback jersey and a fitted.” In that context, the invocation of the throwback was just sartorial posturing; the jersey was really no more important than his “Gucci flip flops” or “Hermes boat shoes.” Now, though, in “On to the Next One,” the throwback is invested with poetic weight and symbolic significance. In this context, its true essence is revealed; it’s an item of clothing which is knitted from nostalgia and lined with old dead dreams. With his lines (in the first verse) about how he “used to rock a throwback,” but these days (in the second verse) “fuck the throwback jersey,” now he wears a suit, he’s talking to the listener, saying, yeah, I know you want me to go all retro, to do that comfortable, lived-in sound you used to love, but nah, I’m not going to give you that, I’m an artist; if you want that stuff, well, you can “buy my old album.” In the second verse, in one of the best lines about his new artistic persona, he tells the audience, “Niggas, don’t be mad / cause it’s all about progression / loiterers should be arrested.” In other words, he has to keep going and trying new things, even if that’s not what his fans want from him and even if he’s not making songs as good as he used to, he has to keep trying to innovate because that’s what a real artist is supposed to do. As he says at the end of the first verse, “I move onward / the only direction / can’t be scared to fail / search and perfection””
To put it another way, we all want Jay to give us Abbey Road but he wants to do, like, Sgt. Pepper’s part deux, with a pretty big splash of the weirdest, most tripped-out shit off Magical Mystery Tour. We want something retrospective and warm and soft like All That You Can’t Leave Behind and he’s saying, “nah, y’all,” and instead he gives us something that is like part Achtung Baby but is at the same time (sorry Tim, sorry Kanye, sorry guest vocalist “Luke Steele” of “Empire of the Sun”) Pop or Zooropa. The album is littered with formal and lyrical and sonic experiments; some work well or at least kind of okay (“Venus vs. Mars,” has an interesting structure and atmosphere and some pretty good lines, although it has a weird, creepy chorus); others are just annoying (that Kanye beat on “Hate” and the cut-time rhymes that open it are both annoying as shit, to me at least; I can’t even listen to it). This is an album which to my mind has at least as many failed or mediocre tracks as it has instant hits, if not more.
The last song on the record, “Forever Young,” though, it makes you forget all that shit, it’s so beautiful that it makes everything that came before it better by association. It’s the A side to “On to the Next One”‘s B side, it’s the yin to its yang, the other side of the coin, and it made me cry the first time I heard it, while I was running back toward the apartment along the beach in the wind at sunset and I’m not a person who cries easily, really. The song begins with these big, thick string pads playing out a pretty simple but still catchy chord progression. After the synth riff plays out an intro verse, a voice comes in, a white boy singing over the synths, in a sort of post-Chris Martin intonation (not unpleasant), a bunch vague lyrics like “let’s dance in style, let’s dance for a while” and “let us die young or let us live forever” and then, after the bass and drums kick in, crooning how he wants to be “forever young,” “forever young.” It seems like a song we’ve heard before and yet it’s not, it’s something else, it’s the last new Jay-Z song on the new Blueprint. The British white guy sings ethereally about being forever young for a while and Jay offers us a prayer, that “the best of our todays be the worst of our tomorrows,” and then the rhymes start.
In the first verse of the song, Jay describes living in an eternal, celestial rap video, as if Heaven gets shown late nights on BET. In this life “like the video,” “the sun is always out and you never get old” and there’s always cold champagne and good loud music and “pretty girls who stop by in the hood” and sit their pretty asses “up on the hood of a pretty ass car” but who never wrinkle even a little, because “there’s no tomorrow,” there is only friendship and love and communion (“smoking weed, drinking wine”), there is
“just some picture perfect day
that lasts a whole lifetime
and it never ends
cuz all we have to do is hit rewind”
In the second verse, his rhymes go double time and, if you weren’t convinced he was being serious yet, he starts straight-up invoking the Bible, a fairly rare reference for him, I think, with one exception. Here it might be good to remember the exception, that one of Jay’s nicknames is Young Hov, Hov being a part of another of his nicknames, Jay Hova, which is Jay’s personal, branded mutation of “Jehovah,” the old and archaic transliteration of the unutterable name of God in Hebrew. Jehovah’s Witnesses like, for example, the late Michael Jackson, translate the name Jehovah to mean “he who causes to become,” i.e. the ultimate creative force, the one who can make anything and everything; Genesis and not the one with Phil Collins, either. Thus, when Jay keeps talking about being forever young, it’s maybe instructive to think that he might not be saying “forever young” in the temporal sense of the word, he might be saying “forever Young,” i.e. forever Young Hov, forever Jay Hova, and therefore simply forever himself, forever a creator. As the second verse begins, he says, “Fear not when, fear not why / fear not much while we’re alive.” “Fear not die,” he goes on, because he personally knows he’ll be “alive for a million years, bye bye.” We quickly come to realize that now he’s not really describing being physically alive in his body, he’s describing his legacy as a hip hop God living on forever. His “name shall survive” through the darkest times of history by being “passed down to generations by debating up in barber shops.” He again invokes the oral tradition (“As the father passed the story down to his son’s ears”) and, at the end of this verse about how his artistic body can be preserved, his voice getting hoarse and running out of breath, he tells us,
“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”
In other words, after the (literal or theoretical) death of the author, only the reader can keep his breath alive, only the listener can keep Jay’s voice springing eternal by keeping it springing eternal from speakers and headphones and stereos, at parties and on corners and through car windows, letting it vibrate through the air and live in that way. We keep his memory by keeping it in our memory, in our minds and on our iPods and hard drives, in our webbed consciousness.
Then, after a comparatively weak third verse which involves the transfiguration of certain luxury automobiles and other flashy miracles, Jay breaks out of his rhyme and asks us, finally, “Did you get the picture?” Then, a beat later, assuming that we didn’t get it, he says exactly what this song is all about to him, what it means. “I’m painting you a portrait / of young,” he tells us. The thing is, this portrait of the artist as a young man is of course being painted by the artist as an older man, all grown up and blown up and fully formed. It’s not the kind of portrait that a young man could do of himself because that kind of nostalgia doesn’t really exist for a young man, those feelings haven’t yet sprouted and risen. Jay doesn’t actually want to be temporally “forever young’ the way he says he does, in some magical realist sense, he doesn’t really want to go back in time to slinging bricks and living in the projects and running from the cops, I don’t think, he doesn’t want to lose the cars and the penthouses and the vacay homes and he doesn’t want to lose the respect, he doesn’t want to stop being the hip hop Sinatra, the older statesman who’s still on top of his game. What he really wants, instead, is to live forever, in body of his young self, maybe, or maybe just in spirit and in memory, and to do this while still having the all the mind and money and rhymes and fun that he’s made and lived over his lifetime and still continues to make and live now, as he speaks; he wants to be old and young at the same time, to be both simultaneously, to be eternal.
He can do just that because the song is allowing him do it, because the form of the music is making it possible. Just like in “Song Cry” on the original Blueprint, in the chorus of which he said, “I can’t feel it coming down my eyes / so I gotta make the song cry,” and the sampled strings wept all around his voice, a song in which the music allowed him to do something that he couldn’t do himself, in this song, the power of art is allowing Jay to time travel. “Forever Young” samples its beautiful synth pads (and the lyrics of its chorus) from, of course, the eighties song of the same name by Alphaville. This is important because a hip hop song which holds a sample within its body is music that is concretely in the past (the sample) and in the present (the rhymes) at the exact same time; it straddles dimensions and folds over the line of history, it rolls a joint from the papers of record. On “Forever Young,” the Alphaville sample is allowing Jay to trip back to when he was a young man coming up and everything was new and fresh, when it was actually fresh to say “fresh” and when hip hop was hip instead of just the norm, the status quo, but at the same time without him having to give up all the gains that he’s made in the present, without him having to stop loving his girl B, without him having to step down from his throne as the King of the Roc(k). It’s the best of both worlds because it is both worlds, simultaneously, because it’s existing in your head while you listen to the song. As Jay says in the first verse of the song, “forever young is in your mind” where there is neither “space nor time,” where anything can happen. In a recent interview with MTV, Jay said that the next album he’s working on (the one that will be released after The Blueprint 3) will be “the most experimental album he’s ever made.” Whether it’ll be a hip hop Ulysses or maybe just another sad Kingdom Come still remains to be seen, of course, but, well, that’s just it, it remains to be seen, we’ll get to see it (or hear it, rather); barring some unforeseen tragedy, this new musical kingdom of his will come in our lifetimes, maybe sometime very soon, and when it comes, we’ll once again allow Jay to please reintroduce himself, if only because he’s alive and we’re alive and we both want to make each other feel young again while being old, to be in the present the way we once were in the past, to do both at the same time.
The ocean that I’m looking out at right now from the beach is the one natural thing I know which is eternally in both the present and past tense the way that Jay describes being in “Forever Young”; it’s a sample that’s constantly sampling itself and being replayed. The ocean is as old as time and life and yet it’s also always being restructured and recycled and made anew. The parts evaporate and condense and rain down into the whole again; the waves are perpetually breaking in rhythm, with a certain form, and yet never in a million years the same way twice, always different somehow. I watch the breaks from my towel on the shore and they come again and again in beats, crash, crash, crash, like sampled cymbal hits in a hip hop song. At some point, when I’m so hot I just take it anymore, I get up from my towel and run towards the surf, past the little kids collecting shells and building sandcastles; I get to the water and dive in and swim through the breaks and the crashes until I find that I can’t put my feet down anymore, until I’m in deep, and then I stop and float there in the water, hanging in slow motion, pushing against the tide with lazy, playful strokes of my arms and legs, in my reverie half-remembering flashes of faces I once saw and and movies of moments I once lived and fragments of the songs I’ve heard since I was a child.
Nah, not really, I’m just swimming, motherfucker. This is not about cultural amnesia (what, had you already forgotten where we started? “All rhymers with Alzheimer’s line up, please / see if I can kill your amnesia by the time I leave”), but lets rewind back to that for a second, anyway. At the end of his book’s preface, discussing the everlasting importance of memory and thought, Clive James writes,
“We could, if we wished, do without remembering and gain all the advantages of traveling light, but a deep instinct, not very different from love, reminds us that efficiency would be bought at the cost of emptiness. Finally the reason we go on thinking is because of a feeling. We have to keep that feeling pure if we can, and, if we ever lose it, try to get it back.”
If you ever lose it, if you ever forget, you have to try to get it back, the feeling, and keep it pure, make it like it once was. Sometimes it seems hard but there are a lot of ways to do it and this is one of them, this album, this song, a way to feel young. I’m painting you a portrait.