Tupac Shakur

An Icon in Context

by Quentin B. Huff

11 March 2010

cover art

Tupac Shakur: The Life & Times of an American Icon

(Da Capo)
US: 26 Jan 2010

Please understand my history, a man of many acts
Lived the thug life, comin’ equipped with plenty gats
Maybe I was just a lost soul trapped in time
Livin’ in between life and the cracks, we’re blind
—Tupac Shakur, “Lost Souls”

When Tupac Shakur was murdered in 1996, I was devastated. Not because I viewed Tupac as a “role model”, as is often assumed of young people. Certainly, the horror of murder is reason enough to be upset, but it was also because I felt the loss of Tupac’s potential. Such is the case with anyone who leaves this earth “too soon”, but the loss is especially acute when it involves someone with so much talent.

While he was alive, I was impressed by his musical output. In saying that, I’m fully aware that I’m including his entire body of work. Some of his songs are silly, like “What’s Your Phone Number”. In that song, set to the groove of The Time’s “777-9311”, he displays his playboy-by-phone skills, and when the woman on the other end asks him if he wants to come over, he says, “[Does] a bear sh*t in the woods and wipe his ass with a rabbit?” I thought a simple “yes” would have sufficed. 

Other songs are caustic and mean-spirited, like the infamous and venomous “Hit Em Up”. Most of his discography is nevertheless quite brilliant, which is all the more astounding considering the full range of his music (four solo albums, including rap’s first double album, and a group project) and films (including Juice and Poetic Justice).  Tupac released a staggering body of work between 1991 and his death in 1996.

Through the years, the legacy of Tupac Shakur has been presented through books, magazine articles, photographs, foundations, statues and portraits, and even the study of his lyrics and poetry in college classes. It has all seemed so surreal, having lived through, and reacted to, his rise to fame. I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news that he’d been shot in Las Vegas, Nevada, the night of the Mike Tyson fight (“He got shot again?” people kept saying).

Then there were rumors that Tupac, after studying the Italian philosopher and diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli, had succeeded in faking his death. After that, fans speculated about his aspirations for social change (such as his own political party) and his entrepreneurial designs (such as his own soft drink). 

Post-Pac life was surreal, I think, because he so obviously captured the public’s attention and imagination, in both positive and negative ways, and he personified the classic rags-to-riches story of a kid who went from homelessness to being a multiplatinum artist influencing an entire culture. In his lyrics, he said he wanted to be “a living legend” and wanted to live his life “a legend immortalized in pictures”. I suppose he succeeded.

At times, he seemed larger than life, so boisterous and unflappable on one hand, yet sensitive and unassuming on the other. His trademark long eyelashes and inviting grin clashed with tales of his quick temper. Moreover, commentators have equated him with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, and James Dean, characterized as a complex and ultra-talented soul whose intensity may have been too much for this world. There was still so much left for him to do.

How then, do you tell the story of Tupac Shakur?

Let’s not forget a major hurdle for anything Tupac-related: the audience. We (hip-hoppers) are overloaded with information, and we are quick to unleash it on discrepancies. There’s also plenty of material from or about Tupac, from his posthumous releases, to the biopic Tupac Resurrection and books like Michael Eric Dyson’s Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur. We own his records, recite his lyrics, and hail him as one of the best to ever touch a microphone, though most of us try to gain some objectivity on this last point by adding, “But not the best ‘cause that title belongs to Rakim” (or KRS-One, or Jay-Z, or Biggie, or Nas, or whoever fits the bill). 

Even the haters acknowledge Tupac by hating on him so hard with extremely specific critiques: “He’s too inconsistent for me. I don’t like how he would do one song praising women, and then on the same album he’ll have another song dissing women.”

Many of us marveled at his ability to convey the truth of his emotions. Like Richard Pryor (whose comedy was sampled by Tupac) and Marvin Gaye (who was directly referenced in Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up”), he could transform the lessons of his tears into something celebratory.  So what in the world are you gonna tell us know-it-all hip-hop fans about Tupac Shakur that we don’t already know? Good luck with that.

If those hurdles aren’t enough, there are well-known events in Tupac’s chronology that must be discussed for any account of his life to be considered relevant, let alone complete. These events, like the man himself, are sizable, and packed with the significance of repetition and common knowledge. You wanna write a biography about Tupac? Well, you’ll probably have to talk about his shooting on 30 November 1994 at New York’s Quad Studios. 

Believing he had been setup, Tupac pointed the finger at Sean Combs (then “Puff Daddy”, now “Diddy”) and Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace as being involved. Tupac’s friendship with the Notorious B.I.G. soured, leading to a rivalry between the two, and ultimately a bicoastal “beef”. Take note, because a Tupac or B.I.G. biography is a prime opportunity for comparing the two stars. You know the drill. Tupac is almost always the emotional one, part hardcore poser and part softy. B.I.G.‘s the witty wordsmith and storyteller. Deep down, I think we (hip-hoppers, journalists, and so forth) are serious when we say the so-called East Coast-West Coast beef was blown out of proportion but as a practical matter it’s an inescapable part of the time period.

It’s not just events that confound the rendering of our hip-hop icons. There are other personalities at issue. If you’re talking about Tupac, you can’t avoid talking about his mother Afeni Shakur, a powerfully complex and compelling figure in her own right. How much of her story belongs to Tupac’s? What about Marion “Suge” Knight and the fascinating goings on at Knight’s illustrious and once-formidable Death Row Records? How do you tell Tupac’s story without drifting too far into the side stories?

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

Call for Music Writers... Hip-Hop, Soul, Electronic, Rock, Indie, Americana, Jazz, World and More

// Announcements

"PopMatters is looking for smart music writers. We're looking for talented writers with deep genre knowledge of music and its present and…

READ the article