2Pac, Me Against the World (March 14, 1995)
Me Against The World was recorded in the months between his November 1994 conviction on sexual assault charges and his imprisonment in February 1995. It was the first rap album to serve as a pre-incarceration “farewell letter.” Unlike later examples of this somewhat perverse mini-genre (see T.I.’s Paper Trail and C-Murder’s The Truest Shit I Ever Said), 2Pac mostly avoided re-arguing his case. The name-calling against the Notorious B.I.G. and Sean “Diddy” Combs, who he accused (along with Jacques “Haitian Jack” Agnant and Jimmy Rosemond) of setting him up during the Quad Studios shooting, came while he was imprisoned, and before Death Row Records bailed him out of jail in late 1995 pending appeal. With so much drama and violence having occurred, and much more to come, Me Against the World sounded like an oasis, and a brief period for 2Pac to reflect on his mess of a life. “So Many Tears” and “It Ain’t Easy” are elegiac and remorseful, while “If I Die 2Nite” and “Lord Knows” found him fearful for his sanity. So why, at album’s end, does he choose to be an “Outlaw,” and praise an 11-year-old boy for making a similar choice? “They’ll remember me through history/ Causing motherfuckers to bleed,” he raps on “Outlaw.” “My only thought is open fire/ Hit the district attorney/ And fuck that bitch cause she’s a liar.” Ultimately, it’s easier to relate to 2Pac as an artist than justify some of the personal decisions he made. Over three years earlier on 2Pacalypse Now, he offered “Part Time Mutha,” a stinging indictment of his mother Afeni Shakur’s struggles with crack addiction. Yet by Me Against the World, he returned with “Dear Mama.” “Even as a crack fiend mama/ You were always a black queen mama,” he rapped. There was little peace in his life, but he found it in his words. Producers include Shock G (“So Many Tears”), Tony Pizarro (“Dear Mama”), and Mike Mosley (“Can You Get Away”). Richie Rich appears on the Mosley-produced “Heavy in the Game”) and Dramacydal appears on the title track and “Outlaw.” Interscope.
2Pac, 2Pacalypse Now (November 12, 1991)
It’s hard to recall how shocking 2Pacalypse Now must have sounded in 1991. 2Pac was best known for his goofy verse on Digital Underground’s 1990 hit single “Same Song” (“Now I clown around when I hang around with the Underground”), and for dressing up like Shock G’s alter-ego Humpty Hump at DU concerts. That left little preparation for the murderous raps of 2Pacalypse Now. On “Soulja’s Story,” a spin on Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” he imagined himself as a “young black male” that sells weed and “drops a cop” that harasses him; and the younger brother that attempts to break his sibling out of Sing Sing, only to get killed during the ensuing prison riot. “I Don’t Give a Fuck” and “Violent” threw so many accusations and threats at Oakland police that it ensured 2Pac lifetime of police harassment and public condemnation by then-Vice President Dan Quayle. “If this is violence then violent’s what I gotta be/ If you investigate you’ll find out where it’s coming from/ Look through our history, America’s the violent one,” he raps on “Violent.” Even back then, 2Pac’s public image diverged from his actual content. Mainstream rap fans who probably never heard the poor-selling 2Pacalypse Now hailed him as a “conscious” artist and inheritor of the Black Panther tradition on the strength of its two breakout singles. On the maudlin “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” he told a tragedy about a teenage incest victim (alongside overwrought backing vocals from future star Dave Hollister); while “If My Homie Calls,” where he promises lifelong friendship to his childhood buddies, sounds buoyant amidst the album’s gritty (albeit frequently plodding) Bomb Squad-inspired beats. It was a different era: black politics and social realism was a dominant aesthetic in 1991 hip-hop, much as conspicuous consumption, hunger for celebrity and grossly exaggerated crime exploits epitomizes hip-hop in 2011. Interscope.
Thug Life, Thug Life: Volume 1 (September 26, 1994)
2Pac’s Thug Life project is usually dismissed as another lame posse record, its clumsy symbolism notwithstanding (T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. was an acronym for The Hate U Gave Little Infants Fucks Everybody), yet Volume 1, is the first to suggest the benefits of becoming G-funk’s signature outlaw. (Many of its tracks were also used for the platinum-selling soundtrack Above the Rim, a basketball film in which he co-starred.) “Shit Don’t Stop” is the kind of gangsta party record he’d master on All Eyez On Me. The excellent “Pour Out a Little Liquor” marked his first collaboration with the late producer Johnny “J” Jackson, who helped create the rapper’s infamous Makaveli sessions. Interspersed between plodding contributions from his Thug Life crew (they’d be much more useful in their second incarnation as the Outlawz), 2Pac achieved an honest, plainspoken delivery. Interscope.
2Pac, Strictly For My N.I.G.G.A.Z. (February 16, 1993)
2Pac’s second album, Strictly For My N.I.G.G.A.Z. wasn’t much of a leap forward, but it included two top-15 pop hits, “I Get Around” and “Keep Ya Head Up.” These are justifiably two of his best-loved songs, with the former representing 2Pac in a randy and playful mood and the latter as a melancholy yet hopeful father. The rest of the album is problematic. 2Pac still took aim at the cops, asking on “Souljah’s Revenge,” “Who’s the biggest gang in the city?” On “Point the Finga,” he references the controversy surrounding 2Pacalypse Now, claiming that he “brought a little truth to the young troops” by suggesting they get guns and fight back against racism and police brutality. But generally uneven songwriting and sonic clutter held 2Pac, not his message. The East Coast style of sharply swinging beats, hard drums, and vocal snippets still held sway on the West Coast in early 1993, if only because artists hadn’t responded yet to Dr. Dre’s G-funk blueprint The Chronic, which was released in November 1992. But the noisy Strictly For My N.I.G.G.A.Z. already seemed dated when its first single, “Holler If You Hear Me,” lit up BET’s Rap City show. More importantly, 2Pac seemed a poor fit for the Public Enemy model of news commentary and racial protest. Ice Cube and his production crew the Boogiemen (who produced “Last Wordz”) successfully adapted that style to West Coast mores by emphasizing the Funkadelic over the noise. At best Cube was an observer and satirist, someone who could retell the neighborhood stories and sometimes poke fun at his friends and family struggling to survive in Compton’s streets. 2Pac’s greatest subject, as he would soon prove, was himself. Interscope.