Live hip-hop is a traditionally dicey prospect. There are certainly a few acts famous for their live performances -- the Roots, Public Enemy, Run-DMC -- but most rap shows are maddeningly similar. There are always a handful of people on stage, bellowing hoarsely into cordless mics and trying desperately to be heard over badly-mixed instrumental beds. It usually seems as if the venue's sound guy knows nothing about hip-hop. He may be used to mixing rock shoes or acoustic shows, but he knows nothing about rap, and the genre's specific dynamics. Echoing bassbins drown out everything but the sound of screaming fans.
If you've been waiting for the definitive hip-hop live album -- and had perhaps entertained hopes that this collection by one of hip-hop's definitive MCs might just fill that gap -- 2Pac's Live will come as a crushing disappointment. You will just have to clutch those copies of the Roots' Come Alive and Jay-Z Unplugged a little more tightly to your chest on those cold, cold nights.
This is one of the worst live albums I've ever heard in my life. There is simply no way to sugarcoat the fact that this has some of the worst sound quality I've ever encountered. I'm familiar with bootlegs, and this sounds like an unspectacular audience recording. It could barely pass as a quality soundboard tape, and this is hardly the level of quality you would expect from something meant to be released commercially.
It's not as if there isn't a precedent for releasing bootleg-quality material when better sources aren't available. Groups such the Velvet Underground and the Doors have practically created a college industry in recent years by releasing large and expensive compilations of previously bootlegged material. (Phish and the Grateful Dead don't count, because the fact that both bands encouraged taping has provided fans with a wealth of quality shows to trade and buy.) But any compilation composed of low-quality bootleg material usually comes with a large warning for any unwary customer. Caveat emptor, and all that.
This album comes with no such warning. There is no overriding logic behind the release of this album besides the fact that Suge Knight's resurrected Death Row Records is determined to milk their share of 2Pac's posthumous recordings for every last dime that they are worth. You can safely put this disc next to your copy of the regrettably titled Nu-Mixx Klazzics: they are both absolutely, insultingly unnecessary. Tellingly, neither of them have the Amaru logo on it, meaning that Afeni Shakur did not approve these releases.
The album begins with a "Live Medley", which initially makes you wonder whether or not your CD player is broken. Its not, they just decided to start in the middle of "California Love". Perhaps this is part of some sort of montage that ran before the concert, but on CD, bereft of context, it sounds bafflingly odd. After a superfluous - and brief, at 13 seconds long -- intro, 2Pac enters for a perfunctory "Amibitionz Az a Ridah", which is itself prefaced by forty seconds of two girls rambling about how damn sexy Tupac is. The track itself is just above two minutes long. "So Many Tearz" is only one minute and 28 seconds. "Heartz of Men" is only seven seconds long, and yet it is listed as a full track.
Although there is no information in the liner notes about exactly when and where these tracks were recorded, these shows were obviously recorded during 1996, 2Pac's last year. The track listing is heavily weighted towards his nihilistic Death Row-era material. There is definitely a difference between the early Death Row material, dating from Dr. Dre's The Chronic, and the music recorded during Death Row's slow decline in the mid-'90s. The The Chronic'sgarrulous but generally amiable intensity had been totally supplanted, and 2Pac's All Eyez on Me remains one of the most paranoid and hostile albums ever recorded, and certainly the most hateful piece of music ever to shoot to number one on the Billboard charts. The presence of "Hit Em Up" along with the then-unreleased "Troublesome" is a reminder of the rancor and vendetta that dogged his final days. "They don't want to play my song," 2Pac begins on "Hit Em Up", "but they wanna play fat-boy all God-damn day". It's a bit late in the game to be reopening the Death Row/Bad Boy feud, but somehow Suge Knight thought it would be a good idea to release another version of one of the most explosively violent songs of all time. Listening to 2Pac reiterate again that he is a "Bad Boy killer", and that "Biggie Smalls just got shot", with the hindsight of these past eight years, is just sad.
Ultimately, its impossible to lose sight of the fact that Suge Knight's name is written in large bold letters across almost every surface of this CD and its package. This is a poor testament to the legacy of Tupac Shakur, but a fitting reminder of Knight's poisonous and exploitive impact on modern music.
There is an eight-minute long version of "How Do You Want It". This was never my favorite 2Pac song in the first place, and this excessively long pseudo-a capella treatment is hardly flattering, devolving as it does into inarticulate bellowing. Snoop Dogg shows up on "2 of America's Most Wanted". Oddly, the last few tracks on the album feature almost non-existent instrumental backing. If the first few songs were overwhelmed by the booming club speakers, the last few are strangely disassociated, with strong (but still poorly recorded) vocal performances over tissue-thin beats. The last track, "California Love", is undoubtedly the worst track on the album, sounding for the life of me like an authentic bootleg, with the tinny feel of a pocket mini-tape recorder. You can't make heads or tails of anything being said.
This is just a shamefully poor collection. There's no way to judge the quality of the performances because the recording is of such poor quality throughout -- and the poor quality isn't even consistent. This shows all the earmarks of being cherry-picked from a large pool of tapes, and if this is the absolute best performance material in Death Row's archives, I shudder to think what was left on the cutting room floor. At this late in the game, I am afraid to say that we will probably never get a fitting record of 2Pac's fabled skill as a live performer. This album, along with every other example of Suge Knight's crass post-mortem profiteering, should be shunned.