To this day, we still don’t know who killed the prolific visionary Tupac Amaru Shakur, but sleep soundly because revenge has already been had on the guilty party in the form of all the brilliant rappers and emcees that have come after him and will continue to do so. Hip-hop will live on and live on well. Although it is hard to say definitively that there was one greatest rapper of all time above all others, Tupac was the closest the game ever came to having a “chosen one.” Some will say that honor belongs to Biggie, Nas, Jay-Z, Eminem or someone else, but if you do your homework and look at the facts, it’s not hard to see that Pac had something special over all of them.
The story behind Tupac’s life is both magic and tragic. Born into very meager means but with a genius-artist’s undying ambition and spirit, he fascinated and inspired the world until he was viciously and brutally cut down in his prime at the age of twenty-five. Tupac was born in East Harlem, New York and was surrounded by Black Panther influences all his childhood, which helped to spur his lifelong fight for social rights. When he was fifteen, he and his mother moved to Baltimore, where Tupac enrolled at the Baltimore School For The Arts and manifested his theater-acting talents. All the while he remained a passionate lover of the culture and music of hip-hop.
As if the young man hadn’t been moved around enough, the family made another major relocation in 1988, this time to Marin City, California, a suburb of San Francisco. He attended classes at Tamalpais High School there, and after a chance concert that one of his teachers-slash-mentors helped to set up, Pac caught the eye of agent Atron Gregory, who had an in with group Digital Underground. Tupac soon after became a roadie and backup dancer for the crew, and after forging an unbreakable bond with the D.U. members and appearing on a number of their records, he was more than poised to go solo.
His debut album, 2Pacalypse Now (1991/Interscope), was met with solid reviews and showcased Pac’s strong, unwavering flow over tone-setting production by members of Digital Underground and others. From tracks like “Trapped” and “Brenda’s Got A Baby” but really the entire disc overall, Pac’s portrayal of the reality and somber seriousness of life in the ghetto is as sobering and arresting as anything made by all the great conscious hip-hop acts that came before him. His messages were on par with and sometimes more impactful than those by The Furious Five, Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, N.W.A, Ice T, and the X Clan.
His second LP, Strictly 4 My Niggaz from 1993, was a bigger record no doubt, as Pac applied hard pressure on the anti-hip-hop mainstream and establishment that were openly trying to suppress it at the time. Impeccable guests, beats and rhyming once again made this effort a masterpiece, plus it scored the always important hit single “Keep Ya Head Up.” In 1995, Me Against The World, his greatest studio album yet, was also his most emotionally charged at that point. Songs like “So Many Tears” and “Young Niggaz” conveyed the sadness and crushing depression that come out of crime and poverty, and they pleaded with the youth to make a better way for themselves than that found in the streets. “Dear Mama,” “Old School” and “Death Around The Corner” are of course remembered for supporting resilient conflicted mothers, reminiscing on early hip-hop and Pac’s dark eerie prediction of his close-coming destiny.
All Eyez On Me, rap’s first double disc and Tupac’s Death Row opener, is famously remembered for being made in two short weeks following his release from prison in 1995. His best rated album of all, it is literally packed with large fashionable productions, high status guests and as everyone knows, a slew of Pac’s most recognized hits. It is a major crowning achievement because of its excellence, quality, confident showmanship and its unique sounds and memory-making ability. Even more impressive, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, completely made in just the first week of August 1996 amazingly enough, is easily Tupac’s most aggressive, anxious, angsty and angriest album ever, a major reason for why it’s so brilliant. Oozing with meaning and messages in this no holds barred opus, Pac gives the sledgehammer treatment to his foes, pays homage to Los Angeles, is completely to the point in “White Man’z World” and intriguingly metaphorical with “Me & My Girlfriend.”
A recipient of several music awards and an incomparable actor of stage and screen, Tupac Shakur led a life that was of course not without loads of turbulent overwhelming controversy, much of which seems incredibly overblown and exaggerated in retrospect. On multiple occasions, Pac was accused of excessive violence, sexual abusive and even rape (the last of which he served time for), and after getting shot outside a studio in New York City on a visit with friend at the time Biggie Smalls (Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G.) in 1994, Pac fomented a beef with the rapper, who he was convinced played a part in the crime. From that event and because of the press, the news-created East Coast/West Coast feud began, with some in the hip-hop community buying into it unfortunately. Sadly, what was just a dispute between two men escalated into a contentious, bicoastal rivalry between two regions of the country, all to satisfy the media’s craving for grand-scale tension and dramatic effect.
On September 7, 1996, a grievous day that will forever be known as one of the darkest days in the history of music, Tupac was shot four times by unidentified assailants while he and driver Suge Knight were stopped at an intersection in Las Vegas after leaving the Seldon/Tyson boxing match en route to Suge’s Club 662. He was admitted to the hospital but died six days later on September 13. Several theories have been advanced to explain who was behind the murder. Suge, Biggie, the police and FBI, Crip gang members and others have all been named as possible perpetrators who in one way or another had a role in the cowardly act.
Although he wasn’t perfect, Tupac Shakur was a powerful poet and creative artist who was spiritual and transcendent but not in an overly zealous religious sense. He struck chords with just about everyone who cared to listen with his eloquent words speaking on social ills and the hood experience, and the beauty and evocative charge of the music he rapped over made the attraction and convincing potential of his songs guaranteed, fool-proof also. As an emcee, he was technically neat and could ride any beat flawlessly and with provocative feelings, and even though his posthumous albums never trumped the works he directly oversaw while living, the fact remains he gave us five classic albums and cofounded credible groups Thug Life and the Outlawz.
On this twentieth anniversary of his passing, as we reflect on all Tupac left us to ponder from his extraordinarily illustrious career, know that while the temptation is strong to deify him as a sort of messianic figure, we must remember that he was simply a man, a human being, though incredible he surely was. He isn’t a god, and we must be wary of those who might try to convince us that he was and is. What we don’t want is to idol-worship the man. No one is perfect and we must all be level-headed. Anyone with the adequate capabilities and privileges can have the same or close to the same positive impact on the world that this great soul had. Kanye West once asked, “is hip-hop just a euphemism for a new religion?” Let us hope not. Religions tend to exclude outside thought whereas hip-hop is about considering all types of thought. This is put forth not to devalue his achievements however. Pac was a bright star who stays shining to this day and a man of love and heart who had shortcomings but chose lasting influence with his wisdom and generous teachings. He was the first of his kind, he was the mold for so many artists, and very few if any will be able to surpass what he accomplished.