Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tupac Shakur – Still Overlooked

NOTE TO READERS: This post was written with the intent to refute Combat Jack’s XXL post titled “Tupac Shakur – Still Overrated”.

Was 2Pac the greatest emcee of all time? How about the greatest rapper of all time? There are different ways to look at this question, primarily because there are different ways to define “emcee” and “rapper”. KRS-One once wrote that “rappers spit rhymes that are mostly illegal/ emcees spit rhymes to uplift their people”. 2Pac did both. Biggie did only one of the two. Does that make 2Pac a better emcee than Biggie? Not necessarily. If you prefer to view an emcee in the more technical sense (i.e. flow, cadence, timbre, flexibility), Biggie was ahead of 2Pac by a long shot. But at the same time, Big’s subject matter was narrow as a grain of rice. It’s a shame these two brothers were – and still are – endlessly compared to one another when their styles were so diverse.

To compare Big and ‘Pac is natural, but leave their albums out of it. Big’s albums sit amongst East coast elite records like Illmatic, Reasonable Doubt, and The Infamous – gritty at heart. 2Pac’s albums, at least his earlier ones, fit more appropriately alongside provocateurs like Ice Cube, Cypress Hill and Public Enemy. I say if you can’t appreciate an early ‘Pac record, you probably wouldn’t dig Death Certificate or Yo! Bum Rush the Show either.

Combat Jack’s point that 2Pac is overrated is not unsubstantiated. In fact, I’ve often said that 2Pac is overrated for all the wrong reasons and by the same token underrated or underappreciated for all the wrong reasons. He’s overrated by people who typecast 2Pac for songs like “Hail Mary”, “Hit ‘Em Up” and “California Love”; he’s underappreciated by people – like Combat Jack – who overlook amazing performances like Me Against the World’s “So Many Tears” and “Lord Knows” or the Above the Rim soundtrack highlight “Pain”. How could “Dear Mama” and “Old School” be the only good songs you take away from Me Against the World? In my book, ‘Pac’s soulfully-pronounced “ee” and “ah” vocals from “So Many Tears” are deeper and more profound than most rappers’ discographies. But maybe I’m just a stan, right? Maybe. So how ‘bout we take a step away from the music and discuss 2Pac’s background.

2Pac emerged from a family of Black Panthers and revolutionaries. His mother, Afeni Shakur, was hit with 150(!) charges of conspiracy against the United States. ‘Pac’s stepfather, Mutulu Shakur, was on the FBI’s most wanted list. Mutulu’s sister, Assata Shakur, escaped from jail and sought refuge in Cuba. This is where 2Pac comes from. As a youth, ‘Pac excelled in academic studies, taking up interests in acting and dance, as well as music and poetry. Socially conscious and aware from a young age, ‘Pac exhibited his egalitarian points of view. This is what 2Pac was about. For a generation that didn’t have a King or a Malcolm, ‘Pac was poised to fill the void that Jackson or Sharpton’s generational distance simply couldn’t.

In 1991, 2Pac was brutally assaulted by Oakland police. This took place in the same year as the Rodney King beating and as such didn’t attain the media attention it probably should have received. In 1992, a teenager in Texas, claiming he had been influenced by 2Pac’s music, killed a cop; Vice President Dan Quaylin (sorry, Quayle) even stepped in on the controversy, pinpointing 2Pac as a problem child and railing against his lyrics. This only fueled ‘Pac with more energy for his second record.

In 1993, 2Pac spotted a couple of drunk, off-duty officers harassing somebody. ‘Pac stepped out of his car and an altercation soon ensued. As told by Mopreme Shakur, ‘Pac got down on one knee and shot both of these cops in the ass. Literally, shot them in the ass. And he beat the case soon afterwards, dancing his way out of court. Now that’s gangsta. Later that year, ‘Pac was hit with a rape charge which, until his death, he vehemently denied any wrongdoing. On a posthumously-released track, ‘Pac spit: “Tell the world I feel guilty to being anxious/ Ain't no way in hell, that I could ever be a rapist/”. In 1994, 2Pac assaulted the Hughes Brothers at a music video shoot. He also dated Madonna for a while. Later on that year, 2Pac was gunned down in a recording studio lobby, hit by bullets on all angles of his body. As 2Pac was being wheeled off into an ambulance, he infamously greeted photographers with a present: the bird. That’s right. Bandaged up, being carted off by paramedics, ‘Pac was still ‘Pac.

So just to recap, in four short years, 2Pac assumed the role of Rodney King, Kobe Bryant and Mike Tyson with a little bit of Malcolm X, all in one. Add to that, he essentially survived an assassination attempt. Add to that, ‘Pac was only 23 in 1994. I haven’t even gotten into 1995 and 1996. Yet.

In 1995, 2Pac served his prison sentence at Clinton Correctional Facility while his album, Me Against the World, reached number one on the Billboard 200 charts. 2Pac was and still is the only artist to go #1 while in jail. (Give it up, Gucci and Boosie, it’ll never happen.) The album also moved a quarter-million copies in its first week, a number unseen by any rap artist at the time.

1996 was the year that 2Pac became a supernova. He dropped All Eyez on Me, a vicious record with threat-filled bangers and anthems. “Hit ‘Em Up” was – and still is – the greatest diss record ever released. And the rest is history. 2Pac got shot up in Vegas, spent seven days in the hospital while the world prayed for him, and then he died at the age of 25.

It’s no surprise that 2Pac died at such a young age since he lived life at such an accelerated speed. No other rapper/emcee has a life story that even attempts to come close to ‘Pac’s. And I haven’t even discussed his cultural impact, his movies, or analyzed his music, let alone his poetic lyricism and unmatched passion. Overrated? I think not.