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Tupac Shakur the phenomenon was always more important than Tupac the rapper. Although reports of Tupac’s genius as an MC have been greatly exaggerated, he was a rapper of formidable talent who probably got more mileage out of the travails of the young black male than any other artist in hiphop. And Tupac expressed a personal understanding of systemic racism that is totally missing from the work of today’s Jay-Z-style super-rappers.
Yet as a technician, Tupac was wanting. He lacked Nas’ ability to draw convincing characters and Biggie’s flawless sense of rhythm. He was neither as clever as Black Thought nor as witty as Jay-Z. And he can’t even be compared to hiphop giants such as Kool G Rap, Rakim, and Ice Cube.
But dwelling on Tupac the MC’s artistic merits misses the point. Music was simply the means through which Tupac catapulted himself into the public eye. Once there, he exploited his fame to the max, giving America a ghetto version of reality TV.
Everything Tupac did was public. He allegedly shot two off-duty policemen in Atlanta. His trial for rape guest-starred Madonna and was top entertainment news. While incarcerated, he gave jailhouse interviews, and when he was set free, he relentlessly denounced his East Coast rivals at Bad Boy Entertainment to any journalist who would listen. In the last few months of his life, he even extended his feud with Bad Boy to tangentially related parties such as Mobb Deep, Nas, and Jay-Z.
Tupac’s apparent fearlessness, his modest talents as an MC and an actor, and his preoccupation with the collective death of black maledom made for a heady, marketable brew. He was O-Dog from the Hughes brothers’ Menace II Society or Bigger Thomas from Richard Wright’s Native Son brought to life. The public, black and white, loved it. Much of America had experienced the life of the troubled, violent black male only through film or fiction; Tupac was a diary acted out for the people’s benefit.
Of course, we all know how the story ended: The narrator, as he himself was so fond of predicting, was gunned down before his time. In his wake, Tupac left a voluminous catalogue of music. During his lifetime, Tupac released six albums; since his death in 1996, he’s released five, including a compilation album with his crew, the Outlawz; a greatest-hits album; and a spoken-word record. Two of the three albums containing new material are double albums, including Tupac’s most recently released effort, Until the End of Time.
As a package, Time is amazingly well-put-together, from its detailed liner notes to its crisp production, which eschews Swizz Beatz-style minimalism for a full-bodied panoply of keys, drums, and guitar riffs. For the most part, the album is heavy with soul and melody, in keeping with the aesthetic Tupac has maintained ever since 2pacalypse Now’s breakout “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” There are, consequently, several cuts on the album with “single” written all over them. The trouble is that, after 29 tracks featuring the same production approach, the sound begins to wear thin.
As does Tupac’s subject matter: The rapper moves from political critique to gun-toting braggadocio to tales of his sexual prowess. Given that he never changes his rhyme style, one CD of this would be hard to take; listening to two discs amounts to audio torture. And there is a palpable insecurity lurking behind Tupac’s incessant need to present himself as oversexed and violence-prone. Such qualities seem to have moved from simple stereotypes of African-American men to real identity markers among members of the hiphop generation.
Songs such as “Lastonesleft,” “Why U Turn on Me,” and “Let Em Have It” repeatedly assert Tupac’s membership in this club of drones fed on violence and sex. The lyrics are as rote as the titles, as exemplified by “Fuckin Wit the Wrong Nigga”: “Nigga, if you was half the man your bitch was/Bring your artillery/When you come for me, ’cause we sick thugs….Tell them niggaz just be here when they pull the trigger/Shit, this is what you get for fuckin’ wit the wrong nigga.”
In all fairness, the album offers a few moments of clarity. “Letter 2 My Unborn,” and “When Thugz Cry,” for example, find Tupac in a more reflective mode, eloquently articulating the price of street life. And at times, Tupac actually manages to eclipse his earlier work: “I do shows, make a lotta dough, murder my foes/But I’d give it all up if it would help you grow,” he raps on “This Ain’t Livin.” The problem is, after being hit with track after track of misogny and cartoonish violence, one finds such pronouncements hard to take seriously.
Tupac’s biggest problem isn’t his many contradictions so much as his musical executors. Crisp but monotonous production, dated themes, and a predictable rhyme style all conspire to make Time a stale experience and suggest that the album might not have been worthy of release. At some point, an artist has made his statement definitively. The problem is that neither Tupac’s handlers nor his fans can accept that his death also meant the end of his artistic evolution. In 1996, Time may have been a great record; in 2001, it’s an album that isn’t as bad as it is late.
A few months before his death last year, Big Pun was being interviewed by one of BET’s VJs. The reporter asked Pun what he’d be doing if he weren’t an MC. This a standard question for rappers, and the response is usually somewhere along the lines of
robbing your mother or selling crack. But Big Pun, without an ounce of hesitation, said plainly, “I’d be in college.”
Now, I’ve never been a huge proponent of higher education, but I think that statement says a lot about Big Pun’s character. In many ways, Pun was the anti-Tupac. Although Pun’s lyrics were just as violent and often just as sexist as Tupac’s, he never let himself become fodder for voyeurism. Pun had his artrap and all its trappingsand then he had his lifea wife and kids.
Also unlike Tupac, Pun was an MC possessed of a truly rare talent. Pun was a masterful schemer of rhyme of the Big Daddy Kane variety. Few MCs have understood the musicality of words so thoroughly. At times, it seemed as if Pun was capable of making almost every word in his couplets somehow rhyme: “Dead in the middle of Little Italy, little did we know/That we riddled some middlemen who didn’t do diddley.” Pun, like most great MCs, understood that his voice was just as much an instrument as the drums over which he rhymed.
Contentwise, Pun wasn’t much different from your average murder-monger. Rap in its current incarnation is, after all, an angry man’s music. But the best of the best are never overrun by rage. Kool G Rap and Nas were coolly methodical narrators of inner-city life. Biggie and Jay-Z, as much as it’s overlooked, examined the streets through a lens of irony and humor. And Pun was equally witty in his appraisal of life in the underclass.
It’s easy, however, to lose sight of Big Pun’s talents. After all, in every city there are a bevy of men blessed with the gift of artful braggadocio. And hiphop history is filled with talents whose promising careers were cut off, if not by death, then by the simple demands of a fickle marketplace.
Thus the outlook for a posthumous album like Endangered Species, pulled together from cameos, freestyles, old favorites, and unreleased cuts, is necessarily grim. But the disc somehow transcends its grab-bag origin, not so much because of the skill Pun demonstrates but because of the excellent selection of cuts. Pun was the sort of MC who, when given decent production, was virtually assured of giving a credible performance. On Species, he doesn’t disappoint; perhaps more important, neither does the production. The album is laced sinister tracks, from Buckwild’s haunting reinterpretation of “The Dream Shatterer” to JuJu Gigante of the Beatnuts’ pounding take on “Whatcha Gon Do.”
Pun delivers with his trademark array of self-promoting couplets, most impressively on “Banned From T.V.”: “I ain’t playing/I’m truly the worst/Who be the first/To get his whole body fully reversed/Uzi, it hurts, I leave you doubledead/I’m a bubblehead/I never listened to nothing my mother said.” On a few cuts, however, Pun steps out of braggart mode, offering the sort of contemplative observations in which Tupac specialized. “Mamma” is the standout, examining the insanity of black-on-black crime: “That’s the law/The streets are like basketball/Sometimes you shoot/Sometimes you pass it off.”
Although it suffers from the same sexism and gun obsession as most of today’s hiphop, Species is a solid album that avoids desecrating Big Pun’s legacy (the remix of Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca” aside). Although the record doesn’t exactly improve Pun’s standing in the world of hiphop, it does remind us of his unique skillsand of what we lost with his death. CP