“what a beautiful boy graceful carriage melodic voice sharp wit intel-
lectual breadth what a beautiful boy to lose”
— Nikki Giovanni, “All Eyez On U (for 2Pac Shakur 1971-1996)”, Love Poems (1997)
“we stretch our / ears to hear / your blood young / warrior”
— Sonia Sanchez, “Love Poem (for Tupac)”, Shake Loose My Skin (1999)
Has it really been a decade since Tupac’s murder? Seems like it was yesterday that I was glued to his “Brenda’s Got a Baby” video and nodding my head to “I Get Around”. Next year, it will be 10 years for the Notorious B.I.G. as well.
Where in the world did the time go?
In the meantime, guess what? People loved, and still love, Tupac. His supporters (and detractors) cut across boundaries of race, gender, class, and creed. Forget the Elvis sightings — I don’t think Pac was joking when he said, “While y’all caught up in the rapture / I’m in Jamaica sippin’ daiquiris”, in the song “All Out”. I’d like to believe he’s doing just that, having a drink while planning his next LP, going, “Yo, wait til’ they hear this song. They gon’ feel this.” We’ve mythologized the idea that Tupac might still be alive, so much so that it’s become a fixture in our social psyche, on par with Prince’s “Artist Formerly Known as” phase, J. Lo’s derriere, and Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman”. During his Never Scared stand-up performance, Chris Rock said, “Every year, Tupac comes back from the dead [and] records a new album with clues in it… Track 4! Pac’s tryin’ to tell us somethin’! ‘It was a n*gga named Kevin with a Mac-11’.”
I love Tupac. I keep his music in daily rotation. I’ve had heated arguments about him, written poems for him, defended some of his behavior, interpreted his lyrics, imagined his responses to current events (my favorite scenario is Pac’s reaction to Lil’ Kim’s incarceration). Several times a year, he saves my life — like when the police pull me over for weird reasons. Last time, the officer claimed he wanted to check my exhaust pipe but really aimed to search my car. Instead of going berserk, yelling, or reaching for my wallet too quickly (three easy ways to get a round of warning shots in my grill), I take a breath and focus on the Tupac songs I’ll be blasting (“When We Ride”, “I Don’t Give a F*ck”, and “Souljah’s Revenge” — what?!) when I get home.
My memories of him and his music are vivid: the sight of my mother crying when she learned Tupac had been killed — the same response she had to Marvin Gaye’s death — and, years later, when she was in the hospital herself, fighting cancer and searching for the relief that not even painkillers can provide, the type that only comes from being immersed in a great song, asking me if I could bring her “the CD with ‘California Love’ on it” along with her CDs of Barry White, Michael Jackson, and Nadia’s Theme.
To me, that‘s “gangsta”. It’s within this context that I encounter Pac’s Life, the latest disc from Amaru Entertainment.
Through the years, my coping mechanism for listening to hip-hop in a Pac-less world has been the promise of a new Pac album on the horizon, even if the results were sometimes choppy or heavily remixed. Over the last decade, we’ve seen a voluminous amount of Tupac-related activity: six albums, a greatest hits collection, two discs of music inspired by Pac’s poetry, movies and soundtracks, books, murals, paintings, gear and clothing, several college courses devoted to the study and deconstruction of his lyrics, the establishment of the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation and Center for the Arts (TASF) in Georgia, and a life-sized statue of Pac in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.
Many of these projects, most notably the albums and the TAS Foundation, were spearheaded by Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur. Her dedication to keeping her son’s voice and vision alive is massive. While I’m sure the projects require an overall team effort, it’s fitting that Ms. Shakur would undertake this mission, since Tupac immortalized her in “Dear Mama” and in countless references to her in his rhymes. She works now to immortalize him. On the official website, she says, “I have no right to hold Tupac’s art hostage, so we will continue to share the enormous body of work he left behind with the world.” As a fan and an avid collector who wants to hear as much of Tupac’s music as I can, Ms. Shakur gets a huge “Thank you” for making this happen. Plus, thanks to these albums, we get to hear Yafeu Fula, rapping under the nickname “Khadafi”, who was also murdered in 1996.
Ultimately, that’s where the attention to Pac’s Life will be most abundant — with collectors and die-hards. Much like 2004’s Loyal to the Game, the appearance of so many guest stars from the current music scene might lure curious listeners who are unfamiliar with Tupac’s work, but this album will most likely be cherished (or intensely despised) by those already initiated.
Some might enjoy Pac’s Life without analyzing it — actually, many probably will, and that’s great — but the hardcore fans will attend to the details. We’ll point out that the album has 13 tracks, but since three are basically remixes, we’ve really got 10 distinct tunes, even with the different guest stars. We’re all set to tell you that both versions of “Untouchable” contain a verse that’s almost identical to one in “Killuminati”, released on 1999’s Still I Rise LP, or that Tupac’s second verse in the first instance of the title track has the same lyrics as the first verse in “This Life I Lead”, from 2001’s Until the End of Time double CD set.
Come on. You didn’t think we’d ignore the beats, did you? Never that. We’ll be all over ’em, calling out the songs we believe are over-produced or over-remixed. It’ll be hard to disagree since the closest thing here to a completely original recording is the Quincy Jones III-produced “Soon As I Get Home”, which is stellar. Still, we’ll freely admit we nodded our heads to some of these songs, like Swizz Beats’ version of “Untouchable” or Salih Williams’ treatment of “Whatz Next”.
We’ll be shouting from the rooftops about the guest appearances. I counted 25 individual artists, from Ashanti and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony to Snoop Dogg and T.I. No doubt, we’ll be debating with you for hours about which artist Tupac would have actually worked with (Ludacris, Papoose, Young Buck, T.I., or Chamillionaire?) or which artist brought the best performance (Ashanti in “Pac’s Life” or Keyshia Cole in one of the versions of “Playa Cards Right”?). It’s not that the performances aren’t good. In fact, the guests were more than up to par. Pac’s Life, in many ways, is a tribute album, and each artist took stock of his or her connection to Pac and performed accordingly.
T.I., for instance, admits he never met Tupac, but nevertheless navigates the parallels between them, as he rhymes, “What’s happenin’, Pac? I know we never got to meet / But we know all the same people so we got to speak” and “Live by the same rules, so minus the tattoo / We the same sorta dude with the same short fuse”. On “Dumpin'”, Papoose begins his verse from a different angle, “I always thought I’d have to die to do a record with Pac / so I wrote from the perspective of a graveyard box”. Alternatively, Snoop Dogg approaches the remix of “Pac’s Life” as a buddy, saying, “And our relationship was genuine / Wanna know how I know about Pac’s Life / [He] was a friend of mine”, along with his “And you didn’t even know the homie” remark during the hooks, which (inadvertently, I believe) cuts the legs from T.I.’s verse. Nevertheless, the verse conveys Snoop’s affection. As good as the guest appearances are, they seem born of necessity. Normally, we’d say, “Necessity is the mother of invention”, but here it comes off as a strategy to extend fragments into whole compositions.
Hardcore Pac fans will say the seams are starting to show, despite the album’s smart editing — this crew could give CBS’s Big Brother a run for its money in terms of transforming raw material into a coherent narrative. A more intriguing comparison would be The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, an exhibit of quilts woven by women from an all-Black rural community in Alabama. To me, the work of those quiltmakers to fashion clothes and blankets from scraps of fabric (and whatever else they had on hand) is analogous to piecing together “new” songs from the swatches Tupac left behind — the “blueprint”, Afeni Shakur calls it in the liner notes. Others might compare Pac’s Life to Ernest Hemingway’s True at First Light or Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth. The former was an unfinished manuscript when Hemingway died in 1961, but was eventually published in 1999 after being edited by Hemingway’s son; the latter was created by Ellison’s executor from reams of the late author’s papers and notes.
No matter how you cut it up, you won’t get enough Pac from this album. Even his album cover photo seems to be looking at the words “2 Pac” and “Pac’s Life” with skepticism. The songs here generally employ a “Tupac verse + hook + guest rappers” equation that leaves us wondering if Pac’s Life can really be considered a Tupac album. After all, a portion of Tupac’s appeal is his ability to locate and communicate intensely personal and potentially vulnerable emotions within a musical genre populated by hardheads and tough guys. Try as one might to contain his music in the sub-genre of “gangsta rap”, Tupac is not known for being one-dimensional — he rants, he screams, he cries, he panics, he laughs, he dances, he kicks game to the ladies, he rides on his enemies and, as we know all too well, he dies. Tupac was, and remains, fearlessly human. This is the man who, on a single album (Me Against the World), gave the world the middle finger (“F*ck the World”), paid homage to his influences (“Old School”), faced the promise of death (“If I Die Tonight”, “Death Around the Corner”), and rapped an ode to his mother (the inimitable “Dear Mama”). Pac’s Life offers a hint of all this, but it’s not enough to satisfy.
Songs on earlier releases sounded more like finished products, full and varied, resonating with enough of Tupac’s influence to create a better illusion of his continued involvement. That illusion was enhanced by careful editing (like Tupac: Resurrection‘s use of various audio clips to flesh out Tupac’s position as the narrator of his own life). A little luck didn’t hurt either; for instance, Tupac saying, “Rest in peace to my motherf*cka Biggie Smalls” in the opening of “God Bless the Dead”, although we know Tupac predeceased Biggie by several months. There are plausible explanations for this (like Tupac recorded the line in anticipation of Biggie’s debut, “Ready to Die”). Nevertheless, these instances allowed us to imagine Tupac’s vision while, in a larger sense, enabling us to suspend our understanding of death, to deny its finality, at least in terms of the flesh, and to share in our hero’s musical immortality. By contrast, Pac’s Life, limited as it seems by a dwindling reservoir of material, isn’t as multi-faceted. An effort was made to pull it off, though, like when Pac’s voice is utilized during the hooks (“Don’t Sleep”) or as part of the soundscape (“Don’t Stop”) or when Keyshia Cole’s vocals or Ludacris’ adlibs correspond, like conversations, to what Tupac is saying in the foreground.
Since their murders, both Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. have been catapulted into legendary status, their songs trumpeted as hip-hop anthems and their untimely deaths signaling, to some of us, the end of hip-hop’s golden age. In particular, Tupac’s elevation into the hip-hop pantheon is at once brilliant and striking — “brilliant” because his prodigious, high quality output demonstrated his tireless work ethic; “striking” because many fans, like myself, consider him a music legend, not necessarily because he was the greatest emcee ever (I still give that distinction to Rakim), but rather because his heart, his charisma, and his honesty about his contradictions made him compelling and relatable. What Pac’s Life needs is more Tupac. We all need more Tupac. So, in his absence, we have learned to make do with what we have on hand.