Spotlight On: 2Pac

(Note: These pieces were originally written in July 2011.)

This year, 2Pac would have turned 40 years old if he were alive. But his birthday did not go unnoticed. Members of the Shakur family, event promoters and fans held honorary parties across the country on June 16. Meanwhile, Meek Mill’s “Tupac Back,” the lead single from Ross’ Maybach Music Group compilation Self-Made, briefly lit up the Internet. A day before 2Pac’s birthday, a man serving life in prison, Dexter Isaac, told he was paid by former record executive Jimmy “The Henchman” Rosemond to rob 2Pac at the infamous 1994 Quad Studios shooting. Taken together, it all amounted to the most discussion about 2Pac in years.

Perhaps that prompted Universal Music Group to digitally re-release 2Pac’s early Interscope recordings in June. There isn’t much left to say about a virtually mythological figure that generates conspiracy theories, academic books, and a cottage industry of bootlegs. But his first three albums, along with the Thug Life compilation and the post-mortem collection R U Still Down? (Remember Me?), deserve new scrutiny. This era is often summarized as 2Pac’s “conscious” period before he “signed a deal with devil” at Death Row (as his mother Afeni Shakur once put it), but the recordings themselves aren’t as straightforward.

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 a 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. No one thought 2Pac had the makings of a great artist after 2Pacalypse Now, but they appreciated his halting efforts in describing harsh conditions in Oakland’s ghettoes.

His 1993 follow-up Strictly For My N.I.G.G.A.Z. wasn’t much of a leap forward, either, 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.

Recorded during 1992, the noisy Strictly For My N.I.G.G.A.Z. 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 stories and sometimes poke fun at his friends and family struggling to survive in Compton’s streets.

2Pac’s greatest subject was himself. The crazier his life got, from shooting an off-duty police officer to allegedly initiating a gang rape of a woman with his friends, the better his music became. As his legal issues mounted and his public image grew ignominious, national opinion sharply divided on his motivations, his guilt or innocence, and whether he was a true black revolutionary or, to paraphrase arts critic Armond White’s disparaging book of 2Pac’s life, simply a “rebel for the hell of it.” Amidst the debate, 2Pac’s music became a safe place where he could explain himself without reportorial filters. His listeners became voyeurs who tried to intuit his rhymes as potential admissions. And his youngest fans surely found a hero, a man whose ultimately tragic maturation into adulthood mirrored their own fitful adolescence.

It’s possible, as some fans suggest, that 2Pac shifted focus from confrontational black politics to gangsta rap due to pressure from Interscope Records. Many artists lost label deals during these years because of inflammatory images and lyrics against the police and government, including Ice-T, KMD and Paris (whose song “Bush Killa” got him kicked off Tommy Boy Records). Inarguably, his albums improved exponentially over the course of his life.

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,” 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 that proved widely influential.

Me Against The World was recorded in the months between his conviction on the aforementioned sexual assault charges and his imprisonment. 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 didn’t use the occasion to re-argue 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 after 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 and his life. 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. On 2Pacalypse Now he offered “Part Time Mutha,” a stinging indictment of Afeni’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.

(Rhapsody – July 11, 2011)

2Pac, 2Pacalypse Now

2Pacalypse Now sounds like a kid busting off his first Uzi: It’s thrilling, erratic, and a bit dangerous. Digital Underground member 2Pac spent much of his debut railing against crooked cops (“Violent”), and imagined himself leading a futile prison break (“Soulja’s Story”). The music, produced by DU’s the Underground Railroad, is noisy and chaotic, and some tracks like the melodramatic “Brenda’s Got a Baby” sound dated. Highlights include “Trapped” and “If My Homie Calls,” while “Part Time Mutha” addresses 2Pac’s mother and former Black Panther activist Afeni Shakur.

2Pac, Strictly For My N.I.G.G.A.Z.

On Strictly For My N.I.G.G.A.Z., 2Pac is stuck in the Public Enemy-styled noise machine that marked hip-hop at the dawn of the 90s. But unlike that group (or Ice Cube, who guests on “Last Wordz”), 2Pac’s rants against the cops, newfound celebrity (thanks to a star-making appearance in the film Juice) and Oakland’s mean streets sound incoherent. The album’s two funk-oriented hit singles, “I Get Around” and “Keep Ya Head Up,” pointed the way forward for an artist better at relating everyman concerns than exploring racial polemics. Other standouts include “The Streetz R Deathrow.”

Thug Life, Volume 1

2Pac created Thug Life to showcase his philosophy on ghetto life as well as his homies, but it turned into a stepping stone in his artistic development. With the G-funk era in full swing, the West Coast icon shifted from the frantic and noisy sound of his first two solo albums, and the change worked wonders. “Pour Out a Little Liquor,” “Str8 Ballin’” and “How Long Will They Mourn Me” are among his best tracks. As for his Thug Life crew, they’re dispensable – Big Syke, for one, sounds identical to Pac — and their sluggish flows screw up tracks like “Cradle to the Grave.”

2Pac, Me Against the World

2Pac faced jail time for a sexual assault charge when he recorded Me Against The World; he was also shot by unknown assailants in the fall of 1994. Amidst all the controversy, he made his first great album. The music was angry, reflective and despondent, and he asked for sympathy with blues laments like “It Ain’t Easy,” “So Many Tears” and the lovely tribute “Dear Mama.” On the suicidal “Lord Knows,” 2Pac worried that he would meet an untimely end. But if his often self-inflicted problems helped make classics like Me Against The World, then perhaps it was all worth it.

2Pac, All Eyez On Me

2Pac is at his most boastful on All Eyez On Me, a two-disc set that’s remarkably consistent, if unvarying, and wholly committed to a G-funk ethos. The first disc is packed with hits – including “California Love,” “How Do You Want It” and “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” – that dominated West Coast urban radio for years. Disc 2 strikes hard, too, but it sticks to ominous thug material like “When We Ride” as his trusty Outlawz crew eggs him on. “N*ggas is paranoid/ Trust a no-no,” he raps on “Holla at Me,” and he would soon indulge that paranoia as the vengeful Makaveli. But on All Eyez On Me, it’s nuthin’ but a gangsta party.

Makaveli, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory

2Pac recorded The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory in several days during the fall of 1996, shortly before he was gunned down in Las Vegas. It has since acquired a controversial reputation, and is neither the masterpiece its supporters claim nor the violent orgy its detractors allege. “Hail Mary” is rightly acclaimed as a seminal anthem; also remarkable are battle raps like “Against All Odds” and “Bomb First.” Other songs like “Just Like Daddy” sound rushed and uninspired. While erratic, Don Killuminati was an emphatic final statement from one of the genre’s greatest anti-heroes, and its influence endures.

2Pac, Greatest Hits

2Pac’s Greatest Hits, released a mere two years after his tragic murder in November 1996, gathers the West Coast icon’s hits into one essential collection. With the possible exception of All Eyez On Me and Me Against the World, this is his best release. It encompasses his many moods and personas, from the social observer of “Brenda’s Got a Baby” and the playful thug of “I Get Around” to the battle rapper who sparked a national culture war with “Hit ‘Em Up.” Better yet, it adds previously unreleased tracks such as “God Bless the Dead” and “Troublesome.”

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