Stepping out of a minor role in the whimsical Digital Underground, 2Pac (Tupac Shakur), the native son of a Black Panther who carried him while incarcerated in a New York prison, went deadly serious on solo albums that made him a notorious and controversial bicoastal leader of the ’90s gangsta school (and led him to a major second career as a compelling film actor). A hardass attitude, inflamed political anger, articulate intelligence, malignant charisma and calmly commanding vocals give 2Pac’s records their undeniable power; contradictory pronouncements and numerous violent confrontations with legal (and otherwise) authorities turned him into an enigmatic lightning rod for the nation’s anti-rap anxiety. Denying the need for a dividing line between life and art (or, for that matter, life and death), 2Pac’s tumultuous existence and death-obsessed raps had a frightening synchronicity; it’s impossible to hear his music without considering the crucible from which it spilled.
Produced and featuring appearances by the Digital Underground crew, 2Pacalypse Now is a strong but scattered debut, an overzealous, musically unfocused first step by a young star who can’t quite find his feet after leaving the nest. The Underground’s greasyfinger grooves don’t really suit 2Pac’s lean delivery, and the songs are too derivative to stand completely on their own. Submerging political commentary (“Trapped,” “Words of Wisdom,” “Soulja’s Story”) and empathy for young mothers and their effect on the community (“Brenda’s Got a Baby”) in wanton gun-happy tales of violence, the album is cocky rather than confident — the least personal of 2Pac’s missives.
Moving further outside the Underground’s orbit (but not completely out of it), 2Pac hooked up with a variety of collaborators on Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z…, assembling a riotous bustle of sound in which vocals and samples collide like fans at a Green Day show. The raps — many of them duets with peers like Ice Cube, Ice-T and Treach — don’t so much flow as blurt, and few of the hasty, incoherent soundalikes leave a lasting impression, save for “Keep Ya Head Up,” a distinctively low-key and uplifting track in which 2Pac preaches respect for black women and self-reliance over the Five Stairsteps’ optimistic refrain, “Ooh child, things are gonna get easier.” Otherwise, the threats, boasts, sexual bravado and despair set a malevolent mood only sporadically organized into clear communication. (The Restless edition is vinyl-only.)
Incarnating the code tattooed on his stomach, 2Pac then formed the free-floating (and short-lived) Thug Life, making Volume 1 with his older brother Mopreme and three low-profile associates. In “Bury Me a G,” the first of ten soul-grooving heartsinkers, 2Pac details his priorities: “I ain’t got time for bitches/Gotta keep my mind on my muthafuckin riches.” In “Stay True,” he explains the program. “Thug life, y’all know the rules, gotta do what you gotta do: stay true.” For 2Pac, staying true means loyalty to friends and the hard-nosed realness of being a gangsta, not weak ideals or emotions. “It’s kinda hard to be optimistic when your homie’s lying on the pavement, twisted…I’m trying hard to make amends but I’m losing all my muthafuckin friends.” In the face of such grim fatalism (which triggers “How Long Will They Mourn Me?,” a duet with Snoop pal Nate Dogg, as well as “Cradle to the Grave”), hopes and dreams are for suckers; thug life’s fatalism rules out the possibility of failure by shooting straight for the abyss.
Volume 1 effectively sets off 2Pac’s rhymes with spare, smooth, seductive jazz streams swinging on ’70s soul samples; the album is a sweet, summery ride through understated West Coast atmospheres in which the bass doesn’t pump and the drums don’t kick. The lyrics, in contrast, are violent, amoral and remorseless — a barrage of dismal and dispiriting images that never lets up. Sonically, Volume 1 is a flat-out groove. Intellectually, it’s like a subscription to the obituaries.
Back on his own, recovering from an ambush shooting and on his way to prison in connection with a sexual assault, 2Pac topped himself with the devastating Me Against the World, a solemn, doom-laden album that doesn’t so much explain his tumultuous life as coolly observe it. Although it begins with news dispatches about his disastrous brushes with justice and violence, Me Against the World isn’t actually about all that. “Dear Mama” is a wrenching and self-critical encomium to his mother. “Temptations” is the only song to actually address the issues: speaking to someone he professes to really care about, 2Pac explains the context of his love life, sounding patient and beleaguered, careful not to impose himself the way a jury believed he did. “Ain’t no time for commitment, I gotta go/Can’t be wit’ you, every minute’s another show/And even though I’m known for my one-night stands/With you I wanna be an honest man.”
In this grim dance, the future is ordained and the present scarcely matters. “If I Die 2Nite,” “Death Around the Corner,” “Me Against the World” and others ambivalently present mortality as everything from a fact of life to a desirable end. “I’m having visions of leaving in a hearse,” 2Pac raps in “So Many Tears.” But there’s a surprisingly positive message amid the album’s dense gloom. Picking up from a verse in the second album’s “Keep Ya Head Up,” “Dear Mama” is a tragic, tender expression of gratitude, regret and forgiveness to his mother, Afeni Shakur. “Even as a crack fiend, mama, you always was the black queen/Mama, I finally understand for a woman it ain’t easy trying to raise a man/You always was committed/A poor single mother on welfare/Tell me how you did it/There’s no way I can pay you back/But the plan is to show you that I understand.” On this album, 2Pac is beginning to see the light, even if he expects it to be extinguished at any moment.
Spending most of a year in jail improved 2Pac’s outlook, but not necessarily for the musical better. Upon emerging, he signed himself onto Death Row (Suge Knight’s ultra-successful rap label, home to Snoop Doggy Dogg and, until ’96, Dr. Dre) and made the excessive and uneven All Eyez on Me, which renounces cynicism in such tracks as “No More Pain,” “Life Goes On” and “Only God Can Judge Me,” concentrating instead on the things he’s been missing: sex, freedom, friends and the good life. Filling two CDs with 27 tracks (the better half of which would have been more than enough), it’s an unpredictable and endless kitchen sink of overzealous producers and colliding styles: besides an R&B/hip-hop zone located between Montel Jordan and Warren G, the beats come in a variety of idioms, from electro-boogie to G-funk. Adding to the album’s structural inconsistency, guests come and go: Snoop and 2Pac marvel at their mutual infamy in “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted,” Nate Dogg and Dru Down help 2Pac lodge a ludicrous complaint about women who appear in different artists’ videos (“All Bout U”) and George Clinton adds his voice to “Can’t C Me.” Not surprisingly, repetition is a problem — there are enough mentions of Alizé and Cristal cocktails to suggest the hand of a product placement consultant. The diminution of violence is encouraging on a personal and moral plane, but 2Pac the playboy is far less invigorating a figure than 2Pac the philosopher of death, which makes All Eyez on Me way too much of a not-altogether-good thing.
In early September 1996, Shakur was shot and killed in Las Vegas.