Monday, June 16, 2014

Still Troublesome: Why 2Pac Still Matters

Today hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur would've turned 43 years old, if not for his murder at the tender age of 25. In memory of both that saddening day and the life of the man as whole, I decided to look back on Shakur's career and hopefully show why he still matters to this day.

"Young, strapped, and I don’t give a f***, I'm hopeless. I live a thuglife losing my focus." If ever there was a sentiment that better fit a rap artist, I’m not aware of one. A good deal of rappers talk about getting shot and dying, but who more than 2Pac himself actually celebrated this, assuming it to be a foregone conclusion, as opposed to a possibility? When most rappers engage in “thug talk” like this, we can separate one from the other, knowing full well no one could be this gleeful in embracing death, but again this was not 2Pac. 
But he was more than a man longingly staring into the abyss, he was a(n): "street poet," rebel, innovator, social commentator, and arguably the most important rapper the genre has ever known.

When he first came up as a rapper, his debut release was chastised by conservatives and lawmen throughout the country, with no less than Vice President Dan Quayle weighing in, saying of 2Pacalypse Now, "There's no reason for a record like this to be released. It has no place in our society." This notion was picked up in many circles and Shakur was dismissed as a man looking to cash in on blood-ridden urban fantasies that have no place in civil society. The sobering irony was of course 2Pac wasn't crafting his own fiction here, he was relating back to everyone what he had seen and heard throughout the streets of: New York City, Baltimore, and Los Angeles. When he talks about a 13-year-old prostitute with a child in "Brenda’s Got a Baby" you know he didn’t just pull this concept out of thin air. You can hear the pubescent teen's screams scraping against your own conscious like nails on a chalkboard. On the suffocating "Trapped" when Pac rattles off "You know they got me trapped in this prison of seclusion. Happiness, living on the streets is a delusion," it's more than a cliched gangsterism, it's an inescapable fate.

Such controversy often dogged Shakur throughout his career and unsurprisingly so, given his willingness to be so open with his audience. The rap world had already seen the likes of: Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and NWA, but it still had not quite adjusted to real personal narratives in songs. NWA was talking about cop killing earlier and Public Enemy expressed the need for personal liberation, but few N.W.A. seriously in their near cartoonishness and P.E. was frequently seen as too staid for its own good. Pac struck just the right balance. He was revelatory on tracks like "Dear Mama", not shying away from the fact that his own mother went to prison and struggled with crack addiction. He can do positive rap as well, with "Keep Ya Head Up" serving as a marvelous example. Even still when offering uplifting words, he doesn’t allow sentimentality to take over. Instead he tempering tempers the saccharine with a bitter truth, "We ain’t meant to survive, cause it’s a setup."

Though 2Pac could engage in social commentary and street philosophy with the best of them, he had no problem wearing the label of consummate partier. Numerous examples of these sorts of songs fill his catalog, with classics including "How Do U Want It" and "California Love." Maybe its just the circles I travel in, but to this day when "California Love"'s funkline comes wobbling through the speakers, people lose control. Such fare isn't seen as dumb rap or an exercise in crass commercialism, but as a welcome respite; rays of light in the brooding thunderstorm that pervaded Shakur's career.

This thunderstorm erupted most dramatically in his feud with fellow rap god The Notorious B.I.G. In this conflict that has been mythologized so much it is in danger of losing it’s all important lesson, 2Pac was too honest and too blunt, things he had previously been heralded for. In "Hit ‘Em Up" he goes for the kill, threatening to shoot up Biggie and his Bad Boy cohorts and making claims of getting with Biggie’s wife. "Hit 'Em Up" has long been held as the moment when things got a little too serious and I have to agree. Past diss songs in rap were mocking and derisive of their targets, but never before had they been labeled as “vile” or “vicious.” Of course things are exacerbated by the fact that 2Pac was gunned down a few months later; adding to the brutality of the troubling track.

Though songs like "Hit ‘Em Up" are worrisome to many, I view "Hail Mary" with greater anxiety. Consider the lines, "I got a head with no screws in it, what can I do. One life to live but I got nothing to lose, just me and you on a one way trip to prison, selling drugs. We all wrapped up in this living." Such lines had increasing prominence in later-era 2Pac tracks and unsurprisingly so. Shakur was a man who had already served an extended prison sentence, been shot five times, and was engaged in a rap conflict that was turning violent, so we shouldn’t be surprised that his own mind state was growing bleaker by the second.

2Pac could only walk through this valley of death for so long before he was trapped forever and that is precisely what happened on September 7, 1996. Around 11:15 pm, the car in which 2Pac was riding in was riddled with bullets by a still unidentified group; Shakur himself was hit four times. Less than an hour before, he was involved in an altercation in the lobby of the MGM Grand with a known Crip member, an altercation many believed played a part in his death. The sad fact here being that not only did it not need to happen, but it was further validation of the reality of Shakur's "thug life," in the worst way possible. Though he was stabilzed for time, Shakur eventually died on a hospital bed on September 13th, going out the way he had once predicted, "I know how it's gonna be when I die, it's gonna be no noise, you ain't gonna hear people screamin, I'mma fade out." (13 seconds in)

To many, 2Pac's death signaled the end of unmitigated honesty in hip hop and to a degree I agree with the notion. Shakur was a man destroying himself before our own eyes. Unlike Eminem or Kendrick Lamar who speak of past demons and personal dealing, Shakur was concerned with the now because he had little time for the past and less for the future. It was this world-weary fatalism that perfectly accompanied the music and made Shakur the martyr hero he is today. At times this fatalism was too bleak, but at other turns it was buffered by hope as with the anthemic "Changes" or the humorous "I Get Around". Whether it was 2Pac the poet, prophet, thug, teacher, commentator, or entertainer, it was always him "against the world."

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