Recording artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.
This V-C-V was first published March 14, 2006 on pcmunoz.com
"Dear Mama" - Tupac
Written by Tupac Shakur, Joe Sample, and Tony Pizarro
Contains a sample of "In My Wildest Dreams" by Joe Sample, and an interpolation of"Sadie", written by J.B. Jefferson, B. Hawes, and C. Simmons
From Me Against the World (Interscope, 1995)
Me Against the World, the Tupac album on which "Dear Mama" first appeared, is lyrically one of my favorite hip-hop albums of all time. It was a commercial success, and I always say that if Tupac had been a guitar-slinging rocker, critics would have injured themselves thumbing through their thesauruses in their attempts to locate the vocabulary to properly praise the emotional insularity and foreboding themes of this record. But alas, it was the mid-'90s, and Tupac was hip-hop through and through. Not only that, he had "Thug Life" tattooed across his abdomen, a felony conviction on his record, and an infamous attempt on his life still fresh at the time of this release. So, in 1995, Me Against the World was often seen as another "gangsta" record, despite the intense, spiritually-driven themes Tupac explores on this album.
Fellow musicians and songwriters got it, however. I was not surprised at all when Bruce Springsteen quoted and briefly discussed "Dear Mama" in an interview a number of years back, expressing his admiration for the song's unapologetic yet complicated "mother" theme. Tupac's rapping was often melodic, and practically preacher-like in cadence and depth; something any songwriter can appreciate. And more importantly, "Dear Mama" also succeeds in a particularly significant way, a way with which many hip-hop artists are unconcerned: it can move you to tears. The combination of Tupac's careful narration, the laid-back groove, and the sung chorus (snatched sideways and recreated from "Sadie" by The Spinners) is one of the most soul-baring, truth-telling moments in hip-hop; it'll knock you out if you give it a chance. Here's the second verse in its entirety:
"Now, ain't nobody tell us it was fair
No love from my daddy, cause the coward wasn't there
He passed away, and I didn't cry, cause my anger
Wouldn't let me feel for a stranger
They say I'm wrong and I'm heartless, but all along
I was lookin' for a father, he was gone
I hung around with the thugs, and even though they sold drugs
They showed a young brother love
I moved out and started really hangin'
I needed money of my own so I started slangin'
I ain't guilty cause, even though I sell rocks
It feels good puttin' money in your mailbox
I love payin' rent when the rent's due
I hope ya got the diamond necklace that I sent to you
Cause when I was low, you was there for me
And never left me alone, because you cared for me
And I could see you comin' home after work late
You're in the kitchen tryin' to fix us a hot plate
Ya just workin' with the scraps you was given
And mama made miracles every Thanksgivin'
But now the road got rough, you're alone
You're tryin' to raise two bad kids on your own
And there's no way I can pay you back
But my plan is to show you that I understand
You are appreciated"
Compared to the other, relentlessly grim tracks on Me Against the World, "Dear Mama" is actually a downright happy song. On the rest of World, Tupac is psychologically claustrophobic, and completely obsessed with death; visions of hearses, revenge killings, graves, and bloody shootouts abound, often with nightmarish, Edgar Allan Poe-like imagery. Here was someone very concerned with earthly troubles, spiritual consequences, and the ultimate state of his soul. Given the depth of his most revealing writing, which runs the gamut from the extremely personal to the very broad and socially-conscious, it becomes clear, to me at least, that Tupac's symbolic embrace of "Thug Life" was not necessarily (or not only) an endorsement of some fantasy-riddled criminal lifestyle, but also a kind of defiant alignment with the problems of the oppressed, hopeless, and confined. On "Dear Mama", Tupac's pursuit of balance and justice is stripped down to an intimate level, dealing with the relationship between a troubled mother and wayward son. It's a vulnerable, touching act of grace, forgiveness and hope, in the face of depressing realities and despair.
I occasionally teach a "Hip-Hop 101" workshop to music educators who want to school themselves on the music their students love. Everytime I play "Dear Mama" to a group of music teachers (no matter their backgrounds or personal tastes), the room gets completely silent, tears roll, and new hip-hop fans are created. That was the power of Tupac.
I sure miss him.