2pacalypse Now (Interscope, 1991)
Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. (Jive, 1993)
Me Against the World (Interscope, 1995)
All Eyez on Me (Death Row, 1996)
Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (Death Row, 1996)
R U Still Down? (Remember Me)
Greatest Hits (Death Row, 1998)
Still I Rise (Interscope, 1999)
The Rose That Grew From Concrete (Interscope, 2000)
Until the End of Time (Interscope, 2001)
Better Dayz (Interscope, 2002)
Tupac: Resurrection (Interscope, 2003)
Loyal to the Game: (Amaru/Interscope, 2004)
Pac's Life (Amaru/Interscope, 2006)
In roughly five short years of recording, Tupac Shakur became the epitome of everything that was right, wrong, and way over the line about hip-hop. He was born to his Black Panther mom while she was in jail, convicted for a case that became known as the New York 21. He was raised mostly in poverty by his mom in New York, Baltimore, and Oakland, where he would meet the members of Digital Underground, who gave him a start as a dancer and a roadie. His debut album, 2Pacalypse Now, was released to almost immediate acclaim in 1991. Because we think of Tupac Amaru Shakur as one who lived fast and died young in the name of thug life, we can forget that he emerged on 2Pacalypse Now as a very militant, conscious, anti-po-po rapper, not to mention one who came on riding Ice Cube's lyrical jock. Before Tupac became the epitome of black genocide and misogyny in gangsta form, Pac, true to his Panther genealogy, was only out to get the cops and the government. On the flip side of his mau-mau wrath was his remarkable capacity to see the world through the eyes of the 'hood's female survivors; "Brenda's Got a Baby" is one of his storytelling masterpieces—perhaps the only hip-hop song to identify and empathize with a tragic ghetto girl driven to dump her baby in the trash.
Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. picks up where 2pacalypse left off. In search of his own voice, he continues to impersonate Cube when not biting Pete Rock. Pac was arguably a better actor than an MC, as his appearances in Fresh, John Singleton's Poetic Justice (with Janet Jackson), and Gridlocked prove. What Pac lacked in lyrical invention and wit he made up for in passion, urgency, and charisma. Biggie could recite your phone number and make it sound like butter, but Pac – who had a big stage voice - had to be saying something of deep meaning, to himself at least, to move those who aren't cult members. Thankfully, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z finds him with a lot on his mind. He comes with a sense of drive and eruptive, dissident, dissonant fervor worthy of Fear of a Black Planet and AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. As with 2Pacalypse, when Strictly breaks for sensitivity, it's all about the sistas in the struggle: "Keep Ya Head Up" may be the most universally embraced song he ever wrote; it manages to pay tribute to black women without pandering, patronizing, or getting all soporific. "I Get Around" is his catchiest and bounciest sex song.
By the time 1995's Me Against the World came out, Pac had spent the previous year caught up in a world of trouble. He was shot during a robbery attempt in the lobby of a studio while on the way to a Notorious B.I.G. session. By suggesting that Biggie had participated in a setup, he began the war with the East Coast that would culminate in his and Biggie's shooting deaths in 1996 and 1997, respectively. In 1995 Pac was cleared of attempted murder charges against two off-duty cops but was sentenced for four years imprisonment on a rape charge. No wonder, then, that every song on Me Against the World seems obsessed with death, betrayal, and a world of pain. At every turn, though, the morbidity is undercut by warm, laid-back R&B production moves that would soothe a Brian McKnight fan. The album reminds us once again that Pac's powerful life force and equally powerful death urges were locked inside the most tortured soul hip-hop has ever seen. (Eminem notwithstanding—not even hardly.) Of course, there's also "Dear Mama," yet another song for his mother and for all the indefatigable ghetto matriarchs everywhere. Play it to a roomful of the rock-hardest negroes you can find, and you can guarantee there won't be a dry eye in the house. (World was also the first hit album by an artist in lockdown.)
During the 10 months or so Pac spent in California's Clinton Correctional Facility, he came fully under the sway of the estimable Suge Knight, the gang-affiliated label owner of his label. This may be the reason All Eyez on Me contains not only the most ruggish-thuggish sentiments he'd ever commit to tape but also the horniest. Hypersexed groupie girls are given ample attention, as are the Dodge City codes of West Coast gang culture. By this time, the thug-life thing had taken hold of Pac's mind, body, and soul; it was his bailiwick, and he was sticking with it. Still, this may be the only gangsta-rap album you need to own, and perhaps the only one that ever needed to have been made. Three of his best songs are here: the top-down cruising anthem "California Love," the foreplay-enabling "How Do You Want It?" (both proof that no one fused smoove and hardcore with more aplomb than this man), and "I Ain't Mad at Ya," a gospel-tinged love song to a cherished homie who came out of prison a straight-arrow Muslim and thought it wise to give Pac a wide berth.
Tupac's death came on September, 13, 1996, after he was shot while sitting in Knight's car in a Las Vegas parking lot. This might have been the end of his life on earth, but it was hardly the end of his terrestrial recording career. With his mother overseeing his estate, it was guaranteed that every visit Pac had made to the studio would eventually see the light of day—mostly to diminishing effect. Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, came from a marathon production period held just weeks before his death. Right down to its bloody-Jesus cover art, this ranks as Pac's creepiest—and in places most violent—album. On the opening track, "Bomb First (My Second Reply)," he marks the entire East Coast hip-hop pantheon for death. "Hail Mary" lays out the dread, paranoia, and morbidity of hip-hop's most deserved martyr complex, complete with tolling bells, chiming glockenspiels, and liturgical instruction befitting DMX. "Revenge is the sweetest joy next to getting pussy" is the bon mot here. The Teddy Riley knockoff "Toss It Up" tricks you, coming on first as a bumping bedroom breather, then attacking Dr. Dre for leaving Death Row, among other "dumb" moves.
Thankfully, the inevitable Greatest Hits collection turns out to be the hands-down winner among all hip-hop best-ofs. Like Madonna, Pac knew a few things some of his more lyrically skillful peers did not, like what a hook was and how a melody could help you find your way onto the radio. For these reasons, Greatest Hits easily earns its two-disc amplitude—not bad for a guy who only made records under his own name for five years. In hip-hop, we generally stop expecting hits from any artist after two albums or so because nearly every MC has used up his 25 years of being black and angry by his sophomore effort—and 15 minutes passes quicker than we often realize. Pac, on the other hand, the product of a dramatic upbringing, increased his bounty of experiences exponentially between each release. His propensity for stirring up stuff also had the effect of keeping his public's ear cocked to hear what he might say about his latest arrest, fight, shooting, court case, conviction, lockdown, hospital stay, gang association, or revenge cuckolding. Few MCs, hell, few artists in any genre have so obliterated the distinction between autobiography and imagination. That said, if you wonder what all the hoopla about Tupac is, this ample compilation will provide substance to the rumors that this guy had talent and songs and probably spent as much time perfecting his art as he did getting in and out of trouble.
By the time Mama Shakur got around to approving the release of R U Still Down? (Remember Me) , she was already on shaky ground. The two-disc album was full of more songs about thugs, blunts, bitches, and gats for sure, but they aren't even his second-best songs. As for Until the End of Time, a double album composed mainly of filler, well, there's a reason they're called outtakes, Ma. Tupac will surely be with us as long as there are cash registers and bar-code scanners, but some of these afterlife joints only serve to remind us that the most gangsta sound in the world is "ch-ching!" Ditto for Still I Rise, in which Tupac and some young friends try their hand at gangsta rap. "Letter to the President" is a song Dead Prez would've been proud to cut, but otherwise, this one is a long yawn.
All you can say about Better Dayz is wow, there's not a speckle of irony in sight. Its saving grace: the acoustic-guitar-bedded duet with Nas on "Thugz Mansion." The Rose That Grew From Concrete is a spoken-word tribute album featuring readings of Pac's poetry by Mos Def, Q-Tip, Dead Prez, Outlaws, Russell Simmons, Danny Glover, the late Babatunde Olatunji, and black poet/goddesses Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni. As a recognition of Tupac's iconic status by the tribe elders, it's nonpareil, sui generis, and all that. But the musical tracks are soft-core MOR funk, and it's tough to argue that every line from Pac's journals scans as poetic profundity. More ch-ching, yes, but in the name of love, struggle, and tribal closure, which make it kind of okay. Tupac: Resurrection is the soundtrack to a not-bad documentary from 2003. Eminem, 50 Cent, and Notorious B.I.G. completists will be interested for the rigged, Natalie Cole-esque cameos, and if you simply must have Tupac's first recorded appearance with Digital Underground, come on down.
Loyal to the Game is a decent remix album curated by Tupac scholar Eminem, who set old 'Pac verses and a couple new ones from Em's buddies to dark, punchy beats. The similarly constructed Pac's Life features production from the likes of Swizz Beatz and Sha Money XL and some very strong Tupac verses, but neither album is exactly revelatory.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
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