As far as I’m concerned, Nas is one of the greatest rappers alive or dead (like Schrodinger’s cat, Nas remains in a perpetual state of quantum uncertainty until we observe him). His “flows” are very flowy and his rhymes all rhyme. He even raps with a message, especially when he titles his song “The Message”. Now, I’ll admit, even though I’m considered hip hop’s “Giver”, bravely remembering the rap songs and lyrics that society has chosen to forget about, I still struggle understanding all of Nas’ references. So dense is Nas’ lyrics that I’ve often heard him referred to as the J.R.R. Tolkien of hip hop (usually in or around comic book shops).
Nas’ song, “The Message” is especially tough. It was written as both a “call out” to many of the rappers of the day (Biggie, Tupac, Jay Z, Vanilla Ice probably, etc.), but also a warning to any scrappy up and comers who may have it in their mind that they could take what Nas thought was rightfully his. Throughout the song, he litters the verses with references, inside jokes, and subtle jabs that can leave many listeners going “huh?” Well, no more! I took all night and, piece by piece, dissected every line until I felt that I had a firm grasp on the entire song.
Fake thug, no love, you get the slug, CB4 Gusto
Your luck low, I didn’t know til I was drunk though
You freak niggaz played out, get fucked and ate out
Prostitute turned bitch, I got the gauge out
These first few lines are a shot over the bow of Tupac and his west coast crew. Nas is saying “Listen, Tupac, you…FAKE! You are a fake thug! and fake thugs get no love. Not only that, they also get the slug (meaning “bullet”)” Discerning readers will pick up immediately on CB4 which, if you’ve read the Star Wars expanded universe novels, you would recognize as C3P0’s brother. He’s basically saying Tupac is a cowardly machine.
96 ways I made out, Montana way
The Good-F-E-L-L-A, verbal AK spray
Dipped attache, jumped out the Range, empty out the ashtray
A glass of ‘ze make a man Cassius Clay
96 is the number of songs on Nas’ “Illmatic” album, so he’s basically saying “Neener Neener, I made 96 songs and they’re all awesome and girls made out with me after listening to them”, it’s childish but it gets the point across. Montana is, of course, Scarface. Tony Montana has become popular with hip hop artists who relate to a man who comes from nothing and makes millions illegally and apparently not one rapper has bothered to watch the ending of Scarface.
A glass of ‘ze makes a man Cassius Clay because “‘ze” is a dark, heady Merlot and Muslim’s can’t drink alcohol, so he’s saying Muhammad Ali would revert back to Cassius Clay if he imbibed the ‘ze. There is no proof that Muhammad Ali ever did, though.
Red dot plots, murder schemes, thirty-two shotguns
Regulate wit my Dunn’s, 17 rocks gleam from one ring
Yo let me let y’all niggaz know one thing
There’s one life, one love, so there can only be one King
Legally, every rapper is required to report what firearms they own in every rap song they sing. This is not just for the public safety but also for their own as it gives the ATF agents a loose head count of potential murder weapons. Nas reports that he has thirty-two shotguns, a Dunn (also known as the Dunn 6 shot), and 17 rock(ets). This is about average, nothing really surprising here.
The final line is a slap in the face of Biggie Smalls, who was under the impression that he, not Nas was King of the East Coast rap game. This is Nas saying, “nope, I am the King” and Biggie felt pretty stupid after that and had to throw away all of his business cards.
The highlights of livin, Vegas style roll dice in linen
Antera spinnin on Milleniums, twenty G bets I’m winnin them
Threats I’m sendin them, Lex with TV sets the minimum
Ill sex adrenaline
Nas here is contrasting the life he once led (poor and disadvantaged) to the life he now leads (cushy and full of linens). “Twenty G” refers to the amount of force ( 1 G = Earth’s normal gravity) one can experience before the average person passes out. He’s betting that he’ll pass out because he’s so humbled by the weight of his success. Brilliant line. Literally not one human being knows what “Ill sex adrenaline” means. Some have speculated that perhaps that is – as the Bible alluded to – the true name of God (where the Hebrews abbreviated it to “Yahweh”). But that would be crazy…right?
Wet any clique, with the semi-tech who want it
Diamonds I flaunt it, chickenheads flock I lace em
Fried broiled with basil, taste em, crack the legs
way out of formation, it’s horizontal how I have em
fuckin me in the Benz wagon
Can it be Vanity from Last Dragon
Grab your gun it’s on though
Shit is grimy, real niggaz buck in broad daylight
with the broke Mac it won’t spray right
Don’t give a fuck who they hit, as long as the drama’s lit
Yo, overnight thugs, bug cause they ain’t promised shit
Hungry-ass hooligans stay on that piranha shit
I peeped you frontin, I was in the Jeep
Sunk in the seat, tinted with heat, beats bumpin
Across the streat you was wildin
Talkin bout how you ran the Island in eighty-nine
In the second verse, Nas paints a picture of a typical day in the life of Nas. He see’s a guy “frontin” while he hung out in a jeep, probably catching the end of a fascinating episode of NPR’s This American Life because that always happens to me. Across the street he see’s YOU wildin* (*wildin is defined as a colloquialism for “dancing” or “showboating”). YOU apparently were bragging about how you ran “the Island” in ’89. The Island, of course, being Rhode Island.
Rhode Island is America’s weirdest state because it doesn’t elect officials, anyone can “run” Rhode Island, assuming they have a large enough army of child soldiers and malcontents to impose their will. In this case, Nas has foreshadowed the rise of #Kony, the crazed warlord who took the framework for Rhode Island’s military dictatorship and said, “If it’s good enough for Rhode Island, It’s good enough for Africa”. Nas has nothing but contempt for, what he considers, the illegitimate rulers of Rhode Island, especially blowhards such as YOU.
Layin up, playin the yard with crazy shine
I cocked a baby 9 that nigga gravy mine, clanked him
What was he thinkin on my corner when it’s pay me time
Dug em you owe me cousin somethin told me plug him
A baby 9 is, of course, not a real baby. That would be insane. No, a “baby 9” is a 9 year old. In this case, Nas wanted (“cocked”) a 9 year old to rob a stranger across the street. But the kid refused, citing a moral objection to theft and murder, so Nas went himself.
He “dug em”, meaning he shoved him playfully. Then he said “you owe me, cousin” because, oh yeah, this was literally his cousin (skeeter).
But something in the back of his head kept saying “plug him”, meaning murder him because Nas is basically the Son of Sam and his cousin Skeeter is the barking dog.
So dumb, felt my leg burn, then it got numb
Spun around and shot one, heard shots and dropped son
Caught a hot one, somebody take this biscuit ‘fore the cops come
Then they came askin me my name, what the fuck
Nas gets shot. He feels pretty foolish about it, but not for long. He quickly spins around and shoots indiscriminately, probably killing that 9 year old because only the good die young. He “caught” a “hot” “one”, meaning he got shot which is something he already said but sometimes in rap you have to repeat yourself to make things stick.
He tells his “crew” to take his biscuit. This part is actually often misrepresented. The correct lyric is “take THESE biscuits” because Nas has both a gun – which he refers to as a biscuit because its “hot”, and he also has a real, actual biscuit because breakfast is absolutely the most important meal of the day and the science backs me up on this.
Then the cops ask Nas his name, which he is surprised by even though that seems like a pretty obvious question to ask when you find a person lying in a pool of their own blood ranting about biscuits. I’m actually pretty sure that this is what the Police call “standard operating procedure”.
I got stitched up and went through
Left the hospital that same night, what
Got my gat back, time to backtrack
I had to drop so how the fuck I get clapped
While he is being rescued by the brave men and women who go to battle daily in this nation’s Emergency Rooms and ask nothing in return except massive amounts of insurance money, Nas wonders how he got shot. He had the drop on this guy, he should have been the one murdering somebody that day NOT almost getting murdered. It really wasn’t fair.
Black was in the Jeep watchin all these scenes speed by
It was a brown Datsun, and yo nobody in my hood got one
That clown nigga’s through, blazin at his crew daily
The ‘Bridge touched me up severely hear me?
Now, Black could either refer to a friend of Nas’ or Lewis Black, outspoken comedian and political lightning rod. Let’s assume it was Nas’ friend. Black mentions to Nas that a brown Datsun fled the scene and nobody in his hood had one of those (they are taboo). Also, apparently, the man driving it was a clown or in clown make up or had clownish features, the lyrics here are intentionally vague. We, as the audience, are meant to imagine OUR OWN clown, enabling us to relate more deeply. Nas swears that guy is a goner. He also blazes at his crew daily which is not very nice.
The “Bridge” refers to Queensbridge, the neighborhood that Nas grew up in. He’s saying, “my neighborhood has severely touched me and I will DIE protecting its honor, and also I hope I make enough money to never have to go back there”.
So when I rhyme it’s sincerely yours
Be lightin L’s sippin Coors, on all floors in project halls
Contemplatin war niggaz I was cool with before
We used to score together, Uptown coppin the raw
But uhh, a thug changes, and love changes
and best friends become strangers, word up
Shameless Coors plug that netted Nas 10 million dollars in sponsorship money. He also mentions, although briefly, his plans to enlist in the military, perhaps as a way of straightening his life out. He contemplates going to war and decides he was “cool” even before being a soldier so he doesn’t need that to be cool. He also reflects on how life changes people, even ones you thought were close friends.
The song ends, not with a bang, but with a “word up” because, yeah, word up…
- Over-analyzing Rap Lyrics: “Hypnotize” – Notorious B.I.G. (jamesonstarship.com)