The strangest thing about Tupac "2Pac" Shakur's first official posthumous album is that it doesn't sound all that different from his other albums. Certainly the specter of death hovers over all these tracks, as the late hip-hop superstar brags about dying young in a blaze of glory and getting buried with his .45. But then, death was always Tupac's thing. Long before he was murdered in September 1996 at the age of 25, Tupac rapped obsessively about his death-trip fantasies. On the double album R U Still Down? (Remember Me), these fantasies stand at center stage, but they don't sound particularly prophetic, unseemly or, God knows, ironic. Instead, they sound like business as usual.
R U Still Down? is the first collection of Tupac's unreleased tracks, and if you think it'll be the last, Jim Morrison has a hotel he'd like to sell you. Tupac's career as a dead icon is just beginning, guided by this album's co-executive producer, his mother, Afeni Shakur. R U Still Down? is the maiden release for Amaru, the label Ms. Shakur formed to release Tupac's leftovers after winning the rights to his music in her lawsuit against Death Row. She claims that there are almost 200 more tracks where these came from, so bet on Tupac to rival Jimi Hendrix as the hardest-working dead guy in show business. R U Still Down? doesn't even dig into the Death Row trove — these are outtakes Tupac recorded and abandoned while he was under contract to Interscope, between 1991 and 1994.
The album doesn't really make sense of the Tupac legacy; it's no map of the emotional complexities and contradictions that he brought to musical life. The liner notes don't tell you why these particular tracks were culled from the pile he left behind. There are no recording dates, and no clues about how much of the music was added posthumously by We Got Kidz Productions, whoever they are. Instead, the CD booklet offers six pages of ads for "official 2Pac gear," including Tupac T-shirts, beanies, bandannas and commemorative phone cards. There's also a Tupac portrait in the style of Vincent van Gogh — well, he died young, too, didn't he? (The album's "Black Starry Night" is, mercifully, not a sequel to Don McLean's "Vincent.") Would Tupac have approved of the way the We Got Kidz crew has meddled with his songs? The leadoff track, for instance, is a jazz-guitar instrumental that barely features Tupac. All we know about these songs is that Tupac chose to not release them; it's virtually impossible to tell how much he had to do with the way they sound now.
So R U Still Down? doesn't offer a coherent testament. But at least it offers some good early Tupac material. The musical highlights, like the clunkers, celebrate Tupac's vision: glamorous young thugs living the high life in a mean world that they'll never admit to their part in making. Tupac's Thug Life theme park is as much a pure pop fantasy as Spice World; it's a fantasy of beating every rap, avenging every insult and squashing every enemy. Dismiss it as kid stuff if you want. But if you've ever had an enemy, Tupac's bravado can be truly intoxicating, and some of the hate rants here are prime Tupac. "Hellrazor" and "Fuck All Y'All" are two of his toughest tracks ever: morbid, blustering, brutal. "16 on Death Row" offers his advice to the kids: "Please stay strapped/Pack a gat every day." (You were expecting another "Stay in school"?) And in the title track, he turns the vocal call-and-response of James Brown's "Sex Machine" into his own stomping funeral march.
At its best, Tupac's music articulates the mindless rage that's always been part of rock & roll's inspiration. He taps into the same raving, inchoate fury that inspired the Stones' "Get Off of My Cloud," the Sex Pistols' "Bodies" and N.W.A.'s "Gangsta Gangsta." The problem with R U Still Down? is that the rage feels one-dimensional, no matter how sincere. The key to Tupac's appeal was how vividly he dramatized the tension between his Thug Life and his moments of tenderness. Here there aren't any of his clumsy but sweet pro-woman raps ("Dear Mama," "Keep Ya Head Up") to balance out the steady stream of bitch-baiting. Tupac tries his hand at social commentary, but it's always the world's fault — never his — so he's an unconvincing moralist. He spends so much time trying to scare his enemies that he doesn't make any friends, with no musical room in his trebly beats for sex, humor, play or romance.
A classically trained actor from the Baltimore School for the Arts, Tupac knew how to express his rage. But even on the records he finished himself, he had trouble figuring out how to make music out of it. He was still learning his musical chops when he became a superstar, and he never got a chance to grow up. We'll never know how great Tupac could have been. But R U Still Down? isn't the place to look for clues.