There are very few rappers who have taken on the enigmatic, angelic aura that Tupac Shakur has. There have been other rappers, some who are better at rapping and writing, others who are better at conveying the anger and frustration of street life. But none of them - not even Tupac's contemporary and rival, Notorious BIG - have come near the canonized sensitivity that Tupac did when he was shot down in Las Vegas in 1996.
It was the nadir of the so-called east coast/west coast rap wars of the mid-1990's, and many people (myself included) believe, not without reason, that the shooting death of Biggie six months later was a retaliatory action to Tupac's murder. I had just started the tenth grade at the time, and had just seen Tupac present at an MTV award show on live TV a few days earlier. I remember hearing the news of his shooting and passing it off as another attempt on Tupac's life - he had been shot before and survived, and people at the time of his 1996 shooting were kind of writing it off, expecting Shakur to pull through and write a few more songs about it. A day later, my sister received a phone call from one of her friends. Ordinarily this wasn't a big deal because my sister used the phone so often, the family would have been justified in using telegraph to order pizzas. But this call only lasted a couple of minutes, after which my sister looked at me and said in a simple, matter-of-fact tone, "Nick, Tupac's dead."
The immediate aftermath was pretty weird. I began hearing I-spotted-Tupac stories left and right from schoolmates, and with his death coming mysteriously on the cusp of a new album release, conspiracy theories about him faking his death - with his resurrection to happen in 2004 - began popping up soon afterward.
When I think about Tupac, however, I have a hard time imagining the canonized, angelic figure his death has transformed him into. I remember him being one of the most frustrating rappers from the left coast. He was frustrating in that his reality matched the pain and soulful depth on his records, but who was also prone to the bad behavior known to go with people who suddenly have a lot of riches thrown onto their heads at a young age. Tupac (and by the way, people forget that his stage name when he was murdered was spelled "2pac") was both the inversion and the definition of the stereotypical "gangsta rap" music style, and so anyone with anything at all to say about the man can easily find a supporting argument in his lyrics.
Tupac was born full-out into a world of angry revolutionaries. His parents, Afeni Shakur and Billy Garland, were both active members of the Black Panthers in New York City, and Tupac himself was born just a month after his mother's acquittal in a trial for conspiracy against the United States government. He was surrounded by violence from an early age - his godfather was a high-ranking, well-known Panther named Elmer Pratt, who was convicted of murder in 1968, but whose sentences was eventually overturned. His stepfather was once on the FBI's Most Wanted list. He was homeless at least once. For Tupac, as they say, shit was real from day one. Tupac called attention to the horrific social conditions surrounding him in many of his records in a loud way.
Tupac's earlier records always came off on me as somewhat unfocused. Some of his work was consciousness-raising and even inspiring - "Keep Ya' Head Up" and "Trapped" are fantastic examples - but some went to an extreme in violence and excess.
Finally, in 1993, Tupac released one of the greatest rap albums - and possibly one of the greatest albums, period - when he made Me Against the World. It was more than just drawing attention to issues of injustice - it was an hour of Tupac baring his soul, and it was beautiful. Songs like "So Many Tears" and "Dear Mama" revealed the kind of angst, sorrow, despair, and perpetual fear faced by so many who grew up like he did. Listening to Me Against the World, one couldn't help but feel like Tupac had, after the inconsistency on 2Pacalypse Now and Strictly for My NIGGAZ (yes, it's spelled like that), finally found his artistic voice. Tupac was pegged as one of those who would bring critical respectability to rap, and force the naysayers to see the merit in the genre.
If only. Tupac's next move was to be arrested for soliciting a prostitute. I'm personally willing to overlook sexual solicitations, but John Law says this is a crime, and society - at least publicly - frowns on it. Tupac was jailed, but upon his release, he radically changed his artistic direction. He signed with Death Row Records, a mainstream label known for shock raps, and proceeded to release All Eyez on Me, a bloated double disc of ultraviolence glorification, material braggadocio, and sexism which I'm sure some critics - of both the social and musical varieties - can argue was aimed more at selling records to sheltered white suburbanites than anything else. The old Tupac still showed up in some spots on All Eyez on Me: "Life Goes On," "I Ain't Mad at Cha," and "Wonda Why they Call You B****" all feature Tupac at his angry yet reflective best. But All Eyez on Me is just generally bogged down in the material excess of songs like "All About U" and the catchy commercial song "California Love" (which I still love to this day, to be honest) and shock violence of "2 of Americaz Most Wanted" and "Tradin' War Stories."
Tupac next released an album under his new identity of Makaveli called The Don Killuminati: The Seven Day Theory. Again, flashes of the old Tupac still popped up every now and again, but most people seem to remember the album for "Hail Mary," which comes off as little more than a five-minute revenge threat, and "Toss it Up," another pop song. His more conscious stuff is certainly present in his posthumous work, but I wasn't impressed enough with it to really pay attention after The Don Killuminati. Besides, I want to cover Tupac the person here.
Anyway, soon after Tupac's murder, word of god told me he was finished rapping and ready to marry his girlfriend and set up a helpline for distraught teenagers. I'm not sure how true it was, but it's important to remember that most gangsta rappers are basically creating characters who do things they themselves would never do. Then again, I'm forever disturbed by the image of Tupac helping a group of people beating someone up in a Las Vegas hotel lobby just 15 minutes before the shooting that killed him, a video which was shown over and over again in the aftermath. Knowing all Tupac went through, it's hard for me to believe there wasn't anything more to his thug image and that he wouldn't have eventually calmed down and became a real fighter against the world's injustices. Again, this happens all the time - too much money, too young, in a country that forgives a lot of transgressions if you're rich enough. Thanks to a live-by-the-gun-die-by-the-gun mentality, though, it's a shame we'll now never know what kind of person Tupac really was, or see the kind of person he could have become.
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Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
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Born: June 16, 1971 in Brooklyn, NY Years Active: 90 's, 00's Died: September 13, 1996 in Las Vegas, NV Genre: RAP
2Pac became the unlikely martyr of gangsta rap, and a tragic symbol of the toll its lifestyle exacted on urban black America. At the outset of his career, it didn't appear that he would emerge as one of the definitive rappers of the '90s -- he started out as a second-string rapper and dancer for Digital Underground, joining only after they had already landed their biggest hit. But in 1991, he delivered an acclaimed debut album, 2Pacalypse Now, and quickly followed with a star-making performance in the urban drama Juice. Over the course of one year, his profile rose substantially, based as much on his run-ins with the law as his music. By 1994, 2Pac rivaled Snoop Dogg as the most controversial figure in rap, spending as much time in prison as he did in the recording studio. His burgeoning outlaw mythology helped his 1995 album Me Against the World enter the charts at number one, and it also opened him up to charges of exploitation. Yet, as the single "Dear Mama" illustrated, he was capable of sensitivity as well as violence. Signing with Death Row Records in late 1995, 2Pac released the double-album All Eyez on Me in the spring of 1996, and the record, as well as its hit single "California Love," confirmed his superstar status. Unfortunately, the gangsta lifestyle he captured in his music soon overtook his own life. While his ...