Tupac Shakur was not the world’s greatest rapper. In fact, at the time of his death he wasn’t even one of the top 10 MCs in hiphop. He possessed neither Nas’ eye for detail, the Genius’ knack for one-liners, nor his archenemy Biggie Smalls’ liquid flow. (The now-deceased Smalls is certain to get his own quick and dirty anthology any minute.) Shakur was gifted, but so are most rappers. He was average. What he had that most don’t was star quality and tons of it. He was an attention magnet and the media’s poster boy for black urban angst.
Stars don’t die, they get books published about them. Enter Tough Love, a predictable yet important anthology of essays and bad poetry relating to Shakur. Editors Michael Datcher and Kwame Alexander have assembled a crew of some of the nation’s top hiphop journalists to give their views on the significance of Shakur’s life and death. Awkwardly set in the middle of this observational extravaganza are a few pages of unfortunate verse that reflect how quickly this project was pulled together.
Tough Love intelligently rebuffs the urge to glamorize Shakur, yet it fails to offer diverse criticism of him. However, this is not the fault of the writers: Shakur is often seen as a complex, tragic figure, when in reality he was very simple. For that reason, Tough Love often fails to offer penetrating criticism simply because there is very little to penetrate.
Datcher’s essay “Troubled Flight” is a good example. He begins with an expendable introduction about a conversation he had at age 11 and then proceeds into the realm of nonanalysis. Datcher’s piece is filled with common observations like, “Tupac had a very problematic relationship with women,” and “Death Row was a label that made its name and money on gangsta rap. They used that money to spring Shakur and they expected him to get with the gangsta program—and that’s exactly what he did.” These insights are accurate, no question, but any critic familiar with Shakur could tell you the same. But again, it’s not Datcher’s analysis (or lack thereof) that is the problem; the fact is, his subject brings very little to the table to analyze.
Derrick I.M. Gilbert (aka D-Knowledge) attempts to break from the obvious by offering interviews with different people about Shakur. His approach often pits old against young, with old condemning and young almost always endorsing. Yet Gilbert mars his essay with a poorly executed conclusion in which he bestows on Shakur Great Black Hope status: “I constantly think Tupac Shakur could have been…that one courageous cultural warrior in the struggle for equality…” What Gilbert fails to realize is that there are millions of “that ones” trapped in jails, on corners drinking themselves silly, or simply dead. Shakur was no different and consequently unremarkable.
The book does offer some fresh and imaginative critiques. In “Crossroads Traveler,” Angelo Antwoyne Williams offers a rough historical comparison between Shakur and Robert Johnson. Williams’ essay takes a unique approach to a trite subject and offers intriguing parallels between Johnson and Shakur. Shakur was not to hiphop what Johnson was to the blues, but Williams’ essay serves to connect hiphop to larger historical currents in black music.
Washington writer Kenneth Carroll also offers an interesting angle by using Shakur and his actions to address the role of the black artist in the black community.
But the poetry is pretty wretched. It bubbles with clichés and hackneyed phrases like “hard-core hip-hoppers,” and includes a rambling five-page treatise by Jessica Care Moore called “Who Will Be the Last Poet?” The poem was originally written for Last Poet Umar Bin Hassan but was changed and rededicated to Shakur and “poets across the globe.” While well-intentioned, the poem is as general and far-reaching as its dedication.
Tough Love is still an important book. It gives young black writers raised on hiphop a chance to analyze one of their own, instead of outsiders doing it for them. If it fails to be as engaging as its subject was in life, it at least shows why contradictory is not synonymous with complex, and that Shakur was more the former than the latter.CP