Tupac Shakur packed a lot of living into his all too brief 25 years on the planet and filled his quarter century of life with a rare insight that, while profound nearly ten years ago before his death, is still relevant today. Listening to Tupac’s latest double disc best-of collection, it’s eerie how prescient some of his verses are, predicting his own death by gunfire and correctly observing what the socio-political climate would morph into years down the line.
Although his impact is best felt in the realm of rap and hip-hop, Tupac also made his mark in the worlds of poetry, acting, and activism. Tupac’s impact is still evident that even ten years after his death, greatest hits compilations, remixes, and unearthed tracks are still a viable musical item that holds the ears and attention of fans.
These latest compilations, The Best of Tupac – Part 1: Thug and Part 2: Life were put together under the supervision of Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, a writer and activist who got her start with the Black Panther Party and most recently, founded the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation to promote the arts among children and teens. A testament to his longevity, Tupac is still the top-selling hip-hop artist of all time with an abundance of younger fans. Additionally, a number of younger and relatively newer artists on the scene like Nitty and Eminem (undoubtedly a veteran, although fairly young) that probably grew up listening to Tupac are willing to collaborate posthumously on previously unreleased Tupac material.
Divided into two different discs containing 11 tracks apiece, Thug and Life, The Best of Tupac, there isn’t any specific grouping or chronology to the tracks. Ranging from “Trapped” and “Brenda’s Got a Baby” off of Tupac’s 1991 debut, 2Pacalypse Now, to the posthumously released “Ghetto Gospel”, there is ample representation of all phases of his career.
Although controversial for its rearrangement and modulation of Tupac’s own unrefined studio recordings, “Ghetto Gospel” is arguably one of Tupac’s most lyrically moving songs, addressing the futility of racial difference and dissidence, particularly under the unifying banner of poverty. Like many of Tupac’s songs, so much thought and meaning is packed into a few verses, touching on several cultural plagues and phobias in one sitting, noting “There’s no need for you to fear me / If you take your time to hear me / Maybe you can learn to cheer me.” The original rough track featuring Tupac’s vocals and lyrics were produced and posthumously rearranged by Eminem who heavily utilized samples from Elton John’s “Indian Sunset” and rearranged them to better fit the concept of “Ghetto Gospel”.
Besides a few unreleased tracks, the two discs don’t feature much new material. There are a few scraps that will appeal to Tupac die-hards, such as the unreleased “Resist the Temptation”, “Dopefiend’s Diner”, and the excellent acoustic remix of “Thugz Mansion”. Beyond that, there are a few remixes of Tupac classics, most of which do not differ greatly from their original counterparts. Rather, what is interesting about the mixed bag of songs on each disc is that they celebrate Tupac’s own personal duality with facets of the fun-loving thug and the thoughtful urban philosopher shining on each disc, bringing together some of his best work in two single helpings.
Sitting side by side on the same disc, Part 1: Thug, are some of Tupac’s best collaborations, “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” with Snoop and the chart topping party anthem, “California Love” with Dr. Dre.
With some uptempo good-time tracks sprinkled in, Part 2: Life features some of Tupac’s most relevant social commentary on songs like “Keep Ya Head Up”, “Brenda’s Got a Baby”, and “Dopefiend’s Diner”, showcasing his ability to flesh out a complex and emotional story in under five minutes. “Brenda’s Got a Baby” and “Dopefiend’s Diner” concisely addresses how one person’s problem affects an entire community and the worst of “human” nature that exists in all of us in looking the other way, the latter structured around the melody of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner”.
Perhaps his signature piece and one of the most poignant songs ever penned by Tupac, “Changes”, built around the chorus to Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is”, offers a message of hope while still painting a picture of realism. He doesn’t glorify using or dealing drugs, but Tupac offers a glimpse into the world of the streets where both sides rationalize what they are doing as a means to survive. While attempting to offer simple solutions and stressing the need for a war on poverty, Tupac addresses the subject of his own mortality, oddly coming to grips with the possibility of what was sadly inevitable: “I always gotta worry about the payback / Some punk that I roughed up way back / Comin’ back after all these years / Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat / That’s just the way it is.”
As evidenced by the scope of material presented in this double-disc collection, there is definitely a method to Tupac’s madness. His wholly original material showcases a strong sense of catchy melody and intellectual flow, incorporating and often vacillating between reflection and humor. Every song that borrows melodies heavily from the originals they’ve sampled or approximated demonstrates Tupac’s genuine concern for society. By taking something familiar with mainstream appeal outside of the sphere of hip-hop, it broadens the scope of the message to those who would not likely listen, tuning in rather out of curiosity regarding Tupac’s use of songs by Vega or Hornsby. In doing so, Tupac realized the potential of possibly reaching out and touching someone unexpectedly and opening their mind to a world greater than the one in front of them and the importance of understanding the reverberating consequences of ignorance. After all, what good is a message if no one hears it?