Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Still Overlooked, Pt. 2: Sixteen Underrated Songs by 2Pac

I'm sure you know by now that I'm a diehard, unapologetic 2Pac fan - so much so that you might think I was from Pakistan (*crickets*). Right. Well, another year has come by and it's time once again to wish 'Pac a happy birthday. Tupac Amaru Shakur would've been 39 years old today and Combat Jack would be as silent as his fellow Celtics supporters. A few months ago, Jack and I went back and forth over the merits of 2Pac's artistry. I think 'Pac was a genius. Jack thinks he's overrated. I couldn't disagree more. As I argued before, I'd go as far as to venture that 'Pac was - and is - underrated, or better yet underappreciated. But don't just take Michael Eric Dyson's word for it! I've compiled a quick list of 2Pac songs that I feel best demonstrate my thesis. To all you 'Pac haters out there: if these songs don't open your eyes or expand your mind, hopefully they'll at least shut your mouth! This list is far from definitive, but at least one thing is for certain: 2Pac was absolutely prolific. He's got a vault that mind-boggingly rivals that of the entire Wu-Tang Clan in sheer quantity. Respect the man's hustle and brilliance! Let's begin:

Panther Power
"Panther Power" is one of 'Pac's crudest and most direct, political raps of his career. It's also one of his earliest songs, having been written and performed during his teenage years. The lyrics reveal a conscientious, socially-aware young boy trying to make sense of a world full of lies and hypocrisies: "My mother never let me forget my history/ Hoping I was set free chains that were put on me/ Wanted to be more than just free/ Had to know the true facts about my history/ I couldn't settle for being a statistic/ Couldn't survive in this capitalistic/ Government 'cause it was meant to hold us back/ Using ignorance and drugs to sneak attack/ In my community, they killed the unity/ But when I charged them, tried to claim immunity/ I strike America like a case of heart disease/ Panther Power is running through my arteries/". The iconic line, however, finds its place in the first verse (which is repeated in its entirety once more at the end of the track): " Uncle Sam never did a damn thing for me/ Except lie about the facts in my history/". The potency of these lyrics are emotionally stirring. Listening to this track, I'm somehow always reminded of Al Sharpton's speech at the State of the Black Union in 2005.
Words of Wisdom
A highlight track off his debut album, "Words of Wisdom" finds the young 'Pac flowing as fluidly as ever as he brushes up on lost history, offering his own definition for the word 'nigga': "Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished." 'Pac's Black Panther roots show signs of vibrancy as he kicks: "No Malcolm X in my history text/ Why is that?/ 'Cause he tried to educate and liberate all blacks/ Why is Martin Luther King in my book each week?/ He told blacks, if they get smacked, turn the other cheek/ I don't get it/ So many questions went through my mind/ I get sweated/ They act as if asking questions is a crime/." From 'Pac's perspective, America is spelled with three k's.
The Struggle Continues
This track has seen many incarnations and reincarnations. You might've heard it as "Military Mindz" or "Revolution". If you ever wanted to know what 'Pac meant by T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E., this is where you begin. 2Pac's sole verse on this record is frighteningly on-point as he delineates his blueprint for the ghetto youth's uprising: "Now I was born as a rebel making trouble for the devil/ Take this gang bang shit to a whole 'nother level/ Can you feel me now? Armies in every city/ Definition of power, players are you with me?/". He continues: "Organize these streets in time/ You'll have these devils petrified of a nigga in his right mind/ ... Think of the damage we could do, if we wasn't high/ Can you picture me loc? it's a thugs wrath/ Political contracts and blood baths/". 'Pac had big plans.
Lord Knows
Right out the gate, 'Pac's bars are tense and deeply introspective: "I smoke a blunt to take the pain out/ And if I wasn't high, I'd probably try to blow my brains out/ I'm hopeless/ They shoulda killed me as a baby/ And now they got me trapped in the storm/ I'm goin' crazy/". Soaking away his sorrows down a bottle of Hennessy, 2Pac surrenders to the strains, leaving his unanswered questions up to God. His attempts to make sense of all the madness around him are too much for him to cope. His own humanity is highlighted on the final verse: "Fuck the five-oh cause they after me/ Kill me if they could, I'll never let 'em capture me/ Done lost too many niggas to this gangbangin'/ Homies died in my arms, with his brains hangin'/". He continues: "Fucked up!/ I had to tell him it was alright/ And that's a lie/ And he knew it when he shook and died/". Tearing at his sinews, the scene is brutal and painful; the emotional pangs are felt. With nothing left to say to his dying friend, 'Pac cries out: "My God!"

Hold Ya Head
'Pac made it a common practice of injecting thoughts of his own afterlife into his lyrics. "Hold Ya Head" is no different: " Tonight we honor the dead, those who won't be back/ So if I die, do the same for me, shed no tears/ An Outlaw, thug livin' in this game for years/ Why worry, hope to God, get me high when I'm buried/ Knowin' deep inside only a few love me/ Come rush me to the gates of heaven, let me picture for a while/ How I lived for my days as a child/". In the final verse, 'Pac drops another ominous shot: "Let these words be the last to my unborn seeds/".
Laid atop a stirring Earl Klugh sample, "Pain" finds 'Pac facing his innermost demons. Traumatized by visions of death and destruction, he clutches tightly to his .45-caliber pistol while consuming Hennessy and weed to "take away the pain." He spits: "Got my mind on danger/ Never been a stranger to homicide/ My city's full of gang bangers and drive-bys/ Why do we die at an early age/ He was so young but still a victim of the twelve gauge/ My memories of a corpse/ Mind full of sick thoughts/". With a "mother on drugs" and no other options, 'Pac concedes to the pitfalls of ghetto life: "I'm kickin' dust up ready to bust/ I'm on the scene steady muggin' mean/ Until they kill me/ I'll be livin' this life/ I know you feel me/ There's so much pain/".
Holla at Me
I call this chin-checking music. Over three verses, 'Pac takes aim at a trio of prominent figures in his life, each of whom contributed to his downfall by some measure. Target number one is debatable to an extent, but many would argue it to be Stretch, a frequent collaborator of 'Pac's. For reasons too lengthy to discuss here, 'Pac suspected that Stretch fatally set him up. Bottom line: 'Pac felt betrayed. He lets loose on verse one: "Without your word you're a shell of a man/ I lost respect for you, nigga/ We can never be friends/ I know I'm runnin' through your head now/ What could you do?/ If it was up to you I'd be dead now/". Target number two is undeniably Biggie. 'Pac kicks a vengeful verse at his former ally: "I got shot up/ I surprised them niggas the way I got up and then/ I hit the studio/ It's time to blow the block up/". As I see it, verse three is 'Pac's response to the woman who accused him of rape, a charge he adamantly denied. Not too many rappers would feel comfortable quoting the British poet William Congreve - but not 'Pac, as he kicks: "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned/". This classic line perfectly describes 'Pac's perspective, as he continues: "So much pressure on my brain while she blames me/ Secrets in the dark only her and I know/ Now I'm sittin' in the state pen, doin' time slow/".
This track highlights 'Pac's rebellious, ADD-like nature. The lyrical content here is all over the walls, with a young 'Pac "cuttin class and/ Buckin' blastin', straight mashin'/ Mobbin' through the overpass laughin'/". "Destructively free-spirited" describes "Hellrazor" best, with 'Pac taking a cue from James Dean, embodying the rebel without a cause.

Last Wordz
By the time 'Pac dropped his second LP, he'd already been labeled public enemy #1 by political operatives. With Ice Cube and Ice-T at his side, 'Pac holds his own and lets out a maniacal, no holds barred assault: "Dan Quayle, don't you know you need your ass kicked/ Where was you when there was niggas in the caskets?/ Mothafucka rednecks all the same/ Fear a real nigga if he ain't balled and chained/ That's why we burn shit and wreck/ 'Cause the punk police ain't learned shit yet/ You mothafuckas gonna pay the price/ Can't make a Black life/ Don't take a Black life/ ... United we stand, divided we fall/ They can shoot one nigga, but they can't take us all/ Let's get along with the Mexicans/ And we can all have peace on the sets again/ Imagine that if it took place/ Keeping the smiles off their white face/ I ain't racist, but let's trade places/ Trace the hate 'n face it/ One nigga teach two niggas, three teach four niggas/ And them niggas teach more niggas/ And when we blast, that'll be the biggest blast you've heard/ And them is my last wordz/".
Black Cotton
Here 2Pac takes a look at the past, present and future of Black America. Looking back, 'Pac mourns: "We used to have troops but now there's no more youth to shoot/ God come save the misbegotten/ Lost ghetto souls of Black Cotton (In God's eyes)/". Exercising his preference for Malcolm X over Dr. King, 'Pac cries out: "If not peace then at least let's get a piece/ I'm tired of seeing bodies on the streets - deceased/".
Nothing 2 Lose
Born into a fatherless household with a mother who was addicted to hard drugs, 'Pac cites his unanswered prayers and his yearning to bloom out of this background. He discusses his early years as a hoodlum "cuttin' suckas with his razor blade" to get "major paid." Making his bones in this underworld of crooks and criminals, he realizes that the path he's created for himself is no safer than his initial position. He asks: "Where did I go astray?" Torn between forfeit and a willingness to persevere, he steps back to reassess the predicament. Reaching the proverbial fork in the road he concludes: "If you could walk a mile in my shoes you'd be crazy too/".
Life's So Hard
The somber Led Zeppelin sample sets the tone for this track, with 'Pac flexing his braggadocio as much as ever. Ducking shots, scoring with the ladies, smoking, drinking - most rappers throw these images around to portray a lifestyle. 'Pac's was far from fabricated. These lyrics give you that impression. He's also brutally honest about his ambitions, even if he's admitting that he's got a few screws loose: "I'd rather die young than die old and broke/ That's why I stay drunk, and I constantly smoke/ My memories as a youngsta, hangin' with the homies/ But now I'm doin' bad and them bitches don't know me/ But playa haters can't fade me/ 'Cause this is Thug Life, nigga, and we're crazy/".

Hold On Be Strong
"Hold On Be Strong" finds 2Pac reflecting his "ghetto youth", recounting perilous drive-bys, Halloween eve murders, and the sense of hopelessness he felt "dealing with the madness." It couldn't get any worse than this, as 'Pac laments: "These is the worst days/ Sometimes it hurts to pray/". But through the "pain and the rain", he's "still here", advocating resilience through adversity: "God don't like ugly/ And God don't like no quitters/ You know what Billie Holiday said, baby?/ God bless the child that can hold his own/ Y'know?/ You got to stand strong/ And when these bustas try to knock you out your place/ You stand there to they face/ Tell 'em hold on/ And be strong/ ... If you don't never leave nothin', learn one thing/ It don't stop, 'til the casket drop/ Thug, for Life... feel me?/ All my homeboys and my homegirls, stay strong/ When things get bad, especially come the first and the fifteenth/ Stay strong/".
Baby Don't Cry
Without a doubt, "Keep Ya Head Up" is one of 'Pac's most exceptional (and recognizable) songs. "Baby Don't Cry" is a sequel that stacks up to its predecessor, both in content and in quality. 'Pac's got only one short verse on this track, but it's enough to evoke depth and emotion to rival most rappers' discographies. 'Pac describes the story of a teenage girl who is abducted and subsequently raped by her captors. He doesn't just tell the tale though - he attempts to relive it: "I tried to trade places in the tragedy/ I couldn't picture three crazed niggas grabbin' me/ For just a moment I was trapped in the pain/ 'Lord come and take me'/ Four niggas violated, they chased and they raped me/ Even though it wasn't me, I could feel the grief/". Empathizing with the victim, 'Pac also attempts to guide her. It's not uncommon for people to consider suicide as an option in the wake of tragedies as described by 'Pac. But even through the toughest of challenges, 'Pac gives a reason to keep fighting: "Thinking with your brains blown, that will make the pain go?/ No!/ You've got to find a way to survive/ 'Cause they win when your soul dies/". 'Pac's message is everlasting: they can take you, they can take from you - but don't allow them to break you.
Dopefiend's Diner
Emulating Suzanne Vega's vocal harmony on "Tom's Diner", 2Pac recounts a seedy Oakland narrative. Describing a scuffle between a crack dealer and his penniless customer, the event deteriorates into a bloodbath as the dealer sprays his AK. Rushing out to witness the scene, 'Pac discovers a young girl who had been caught in the crossfire. 2Pac oozes with emotion: "Not only had the fiend died, but a small girl had been shot/ My heart could take no more, I felt a tear roll down my face/ That was daddy's bullet, but she took it in his place/ I tried to make my way through the crowd so I could go help the baby/ She could barely speak, but she whispered 'Mister, could you please save me?'/ So I screamed out 'someone help me', but I don't think they could hear/ And if they did, they didn't care/ Oh how I hated everyone there/". Out of his sense of despair, 2Pac visualizes the true evil in this picture: "The baby lie here dying and I wondered what could I do/ The camera men and newspapers had come to get their interviews/ To them it's just a story and they can't see the tragedy/ To them it doesn't matter cause it ain't and wasn't their family/". Hitting at the pit of his stomach, 'Pac's frustration dissolves into a sense of hopelessness: "I don't think I'll be back cause it'll never be the same here/ So I wipe away the tears and leave the scene the way I came here/".
Death Around the Corner
"Death Around the Corner" articulates two feelings that 'Pac expressed in his final years: on the one hand, he felt trapped. He felt boxed in by society, by his peers, his friends, by his enemies. The tunnel was getting narrower for him. At the same time, he noticed a light at the end of that tunnel. Whether 'Pac willed his own death upon himself is up for debate. But his lyrics sure seem to hint as much. At the end of verse one he admits: "Make me wanna kill my damn self/". But he fastens these words quickly. Instead of chasing death (i.e. committing suicide), perhaps death will find him first. He concedes: "I see death around the corner/". As the song begins to fade out, 'Pac verbalizes a bit more: "A real motherfucker will pick the time he goes." 'Pac was as real as they come by. Maybe he was right.

Tupac Amaru Shakur

(June 16, 1971 – September 13, 1996)