“It's a long way to go when you don't know where you're going” —Guru, “ALONGWAYTOGO”
I have no idea what I am doing. I never have, and at this juncture, it seems as if I never will. It seems as if no one knows anything, and we are all guessing our way through life, doing our best to put ourselves in as many positions of advantage as possible. We’re all just playing through life for the thrill of the game, in the hopes of stumbling upon chests of great fortune and avoiding ruin at all costs. The way I see it, everyone is always at their best and at their most fragile. I mean, we’re just people. We’re all very lost. Such is the nature of being.
No one has it together, and I count myself very heavily in this category. This past week, I have called confidants in tears, scrambled alone in my apartment, witnessed someone have their life plans evaporate before their eyes, and ruminated, ultimately, on the demise of my own. Every day I wake up terrified of what the day might bring. Every day I ache for comfort and stability. I feel at the mercy of the randomness of life, with very little recourse.
But really all I am telling you is that I am in my 20s, and they are treating me as the 20s treat you: not well.
Guru was not toiling through his 20s when Gang Starr’s classic Hard To Earn dropped in 1994. He was not encumbered by an uncertain road as a fact of life when he wrote the hook of “ALONGWAYTOGO,” either. But what Guru was doing, aware or otherwise, was crafting one of the most comforting refrains in the Gang Starr catalog. That’s the magic of Gang Starr, too, and the magic of classic hip-hop: it ages into relevance.
In 1994, Guru and DJ Premier embodied the art of honesty, and they made music as pure as can be. When we argue classics, the go-to position is influence over time, but let us not forget how authenticity and sincerity factor into the equation. At the least, few are as sincere as Guru.
Really, it was the slur of it. The plain quality of it. The simple truth of it. Guru wrote in philosophical platitudes. He was the wise man we rarely deserved but remain completely thankful for. So when he spit, in a detached and bogged tone: “It's a long way to go when you don't know where you're going / You don't know where you're going when you're lost,” he inadvertently gave a generation an anthem for those times alone when it hits you all at once. I’m talking about the big question: What am I doing here?
The redeeming thing about “ALONGWAYTOGO” is that Guru was just right. It is quite a long road when you find yourself lost as ever, and Guru was right, too, that when you’re lost, the road twists and bends into something untamed and disconcerting.
Sometimes you pour your heart out to a person, you tell them every thorny detail of a love affair gone awry, a room now too big, a bed too empty, and heart gone cold, and they look you dead in the eye and all they can muster is: That’s really hard, I’m sorry. That’s what Guru does on the hook here. He looks us dead in the eye and he validates us. It’s a long way to go, and we don’t know where we’re going, and he’s damn sorry, but he doesn’t sound defeated. He doesn’t pity us. These things simply are.
What makes “ALONGWAYTOGO”’s hook so affecting is the drawl and sprawl of Guru’s delivery. He sounds slack-jawed and open, his vowels agape and his tone subtle in its solemnity. There’s quiet and peaceful magic to the four bars. He sounds as if he is delivering an incantation already half possessed. He sounds painfully aware, but not cut up. Too sage-like, Guru sounds like a man who has lived through too much to be taken down by a little uncertainty. That is the lesson he imparts on the listener. Sometimes, things are simply difficult. Sometimes the lesson is to grin and bear a situation, but it sure as hell helps to hear a legend speak truth to your struggle.
Truly, the hook is one of the most grounded in Guru’s catalog. So much music exists as a mirror into your own life, but it is rare for lyrics to become one-to-one accounts of an entire era of being. What Guru accomplishes on the hook of “ALONGWAYTOGO” is not the deliverance of a mantra, but rather a moment where he squats down to our level and hears us out to affirm our path. There will be struggle, he says. Yet, he places no value on that struggle; he gives us the space to assign worth ourselves.
What Guru does with his four bars is promise a generation that they are not alienated by their lostness. If we are all lost together, are we lost at all? Certainly on some level, but on another, as Guru points out, we are all just people getting by.
So while I have no idea what I am doing, at least I have tangible evidence that neither does anyone else. Thank goodness for that; thank goodness for Gang Starr.