Nas – The Message

It Was Written
Year :
Jay-Z / Mobb Deep / AZ

Today is Labor Day in the US, a holiday dedicated to American workers and their contributions. Naturally, there are feelings worse feeling than having to report to work on Labor Day. And, if you’re working on Labor Day, at least one of the following is almost certainly true:

  • You provide a service of some kind.
  • You have worried about money in the last 30 days.
  • Your job is exceptionally stressful.
  • You work tired.
  • Your relationships suffer because of your work schedule.

If you find yourself nodding in agreement to any of these points, you may have more in common with Nas than you think. “The Message” confirms each of these points in its own way, albeit in a far more severe and damaged one. The first proper track from Nas’ 1996 sophomore effort It Was Written, “The Message” paints a picture that could have only come out of the 90s. The story is one of an ultraviolent day in the life of inner-city drug dealer, undoubtedly drawn from Nas’ own life in New York’s Queensbridge housing projects. There is no glamour here. Every moment of the narrator’s day in “The Message” sounds like pure hell, with stakes as high as they come. It’s truly a job with no time off.

In some sense, “The Message” is a callback to Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”, one of the original “street reporter” tracks and maybe the best known tale of life in the gutters of the parts of cities that people actively avoid. Sonically, the songs couldn’t be more different but they share the same DNA. Nas’ “message” is the same report, 24 years later.

Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five – The Message (1982)

When people use the phrase “Real Hip Hop,” this is what they mean. It’s real in the sense that not only is Nas’ technical abilities as an MC light-years away from today’s radio-friendly acts like Juicy J—it’s real in terms of substance. Though far removed from my life, a song like “The Message” resonates because of that weightiness. And the sense of weariness that is so pervasive throughout.

Nas raps in the chorus, “I never sleep, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death.” In the context of life-and-death stakes of drug-turf wars, the lyrics can certainly be taken literally. But, in a much broader sense, it’s a strangely appropriate mediation for Labor Day. It’s a worn cliche of even “classic” hip-hop to suggest that selling drugs is the means to escape. In “The Message” though, the drug game is center of gravity that makes escape all but impossible. It’s the lowest of the low jobs, simply in terms of the human toll it takes to serve the product.

At the heart of it all, “The Message” is not just a report from the trenches, but a warning to get out and stay out. The alternative seems to be little more than a zero-sum game of basic survival, an endless shift in the ultimate rat race. For that reason, whenever I’ve had my back up against a wall in recent years, be it professionally, financially, or even in more personal ways, I’ve found songs like “The Message” to be a strange source of inspiration. The song serves as a reminder that, first and foremost, I am deeply and profoundly lucky to have my life. But more than that, to keep working at it—to labor—and make my own luck whenever necessary.

To everyone out there working today, thank you.

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(@YahSureMan) is the Founder of The Daily Soundtrack and Bark Attack Media. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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