All Eyez On Me

The title of 2PAC's fourth album, All Eyez on Me, is not just a reflection of his usual arrogance and paranoia — people are watching 2Pac. This two-disc set comes just four months after he was released on bail pending appeal on his conviction for sexual assault. It comes barely a year after he was shot. Most important, All Eyez on Me marks 2Pac's new allegiance with the West Coast's powerhouse rap dynasty, Death Row Records.

All this drama was bound to affect 2Pac's music. What made him interesting in the past was his contradictory nature: He would play the thug one second and exude vulnerability the next. He wrote some of the most woman-positive songs in rap, "Keep Your Head Up" and "Dear Mama," while throwing down rhymes about ho's and bitches. Sadly, those intriguing conflicts have now vanished. Rendering himself a cardboard cutout of a "playa," 2Pac has surrendered wholesale to his thug side. There's no equivalent to "Dear Mama" on this record, unless you count the vaguely affectionate "Wonda Why They Call U Bytch." Now everything's about (expensive) booze, bitches, cash, cars and contempt for his enemies. "What'd I tell ya I was gonna do, nigga, when I got out of jail?" he calls out on the introductory "Heartz of Men." "I's gonna start diggin' into these niggas' chests."

But if 2Pac has traded in his complex persona for a place in the Death Row camp, the payback, as they say, has been a muthafucka. The lyrical content may be less original, but the sound is better. His new crew has given him badass beats, rolling choruses and funky quirks, and 2Pac, with his appealing voice and distinctive delivery, makes the most of this foundation. He moves easily between an angry staccato, as on "Holla at Me," and a slower, more melodic drawl, as on "Life Goes On." Dr. Dre, Death Row's producing genius, turns out two songs — the grooving single "California Love" and the riotous "Can't C Me," with George Clinton — that prove to be two of the LP's best for sheer melodic inventiveness.

Guests joining 2Pac include Zapp's Roger Troutman and the new R&B crooner Danny Boy, as well as members of Jodeci. The hypnotic "Got My Mind Made Up," with Dat Nigga Daz and Kurupt (both of Tha Dogg Pound), Redman and Method Man stands out, as do tracks with Snoop Doggy Dogg. Even as a garden-variety thug, 2Pac shows more skill than most. He deserves to have all eyes — and ears — on him.