Tupac Shakur – Only God Can Judge Me [Article]
His posters adorn the walls of bedrooms from American frat houses to modest Greek slums. His voice calls from stoop boom boxes and car stereos on a daily basis. He is the rapper that most new jacks dare to compare themselves to. Inarguably the most iconic artist hip-hop has ever seen, Tupac Shakur’s legend continues to live on. It’s difficult to believe that on September 13th, 2007, it had been 11 years since Tupac’s life tragically ended in a Las Vegas hospital, his body riddled with bullets. Anticipated dates of his return passed years ago, crushing the hopes of those who just couldn’t let go. However, ideas being bulletproof, the well publicized “thug-life” attitude that permeated a portion of Tupac’s music reverberates to this day. His most renowned album, the 1996 double-disc All Eyez On Me cemented that attitude into the mindset of listeners, both consumers and media alike. Unfortunately, some tend to forget that his career’s worth of work was so much more.
Since his solo debut in 1991, 2pacalypse Now, Tupac had always delivered a wide range of emotions in his music from compassion for the females to Black Panther rage. While the latter bordered almost on nihilism at times, it was at the very least focused on black consciousness, social commentary and the universal need for education. Following his incarceration in 1995 on trumped up charges of sexual abuse, this would drastically change.
It was in jail where Tupac began developing his ill will towards former associates Biggie Smalls, Puffy Combs, Andre Harrell, and close friend Randy “Stretch” Walker. He believed the four had set him up to be ambushed in a Manhattan studio lobby the previous year. It also birthed his distaste for several other east coast hip-hop personalities including Funkmaster Flex and Mobb Deep, who he’d heard mocking west coast vernacular and style while listening to the radio during his jail sentence in New York. Incarcerated, Shakur’s anger grew, fueled by the fact that those who he felt had tried to take his life were walking free while he was trapped behind bars. Tupac began reading books of battle strategy and political philosophy such as Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War . In an interview with Vibe Magazine, he spoke of how prison had reformed his attitude towards life in general, telling Kevin Powell: “I wanted to keep it real, and that’s what I thought I was doing… That Thug Life shit… I did it, I put in my work, I laid it down. But now that shit is dead.” However, it wasn’t long until both Biggie and Puffy publicly refuted his claims of their involvement in his ambush causing Tupac to seethe with rage. A nasty rumour had also begun to float around New York alleging that he had been raped while imprisoned. What made matters more frustrating was the fact that in October of 1995, his case was appealed. Unfortunately, due to his crippling legal fees, he could not afford the $1.4 million bail.
Shakur’s public legal issues were beginning to make him a liability for Interscope Records. Label CEO Jimmy Iovine didn’t welcome the bad publicity, but also didn’t want to completely lose a platinum selling artist. He instructed Suge Knight, CEO of Death Row Records (a subsidiary of Interscope) to try to convince the rapper to agree to be moved to the burgeoning West coast gangsta-rap powerhouse. Suge had tried unsuccessfully on numerous occasions to woo Shakur to his label, most notably on the set of the 1994 movie Above the Rim. Impressed by Suge’s command of capital, Tupac remarked to reporters on how he had been paid $200,000 for a song to be featured on the soundtrack of the movie (of which Suge was executive producer), and even though he hadn’t used it, Suge still allowed Shakur to keep the money. Tupac’s imprisonment and urgent desperation to be released would provide Suge with the perfect opportunity to coerce him into signing a contract. Hounded by prison guards and jealous inmates, Tupac regularly received death threats, and on the outside, his reputation was being slandered. Incompetent journalists ran stories claiming Tupac had set up the entire shooting to bolster his street credibility. “When I read that, I just started crying like a baby… it just tore me apart.” During a prison visit on October 12th, 1995, and against advice from some of his closest friends, Shakur met with Suge Knight and signed a three-album contract with Death Row Records. Dr. Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School paralleled the situation with that of the mythological character Faust, who in his hour of need struck a bargain with Satan in exchange for his soul. Such sentiments were also echoed by Tupac. He told friend Watani Tyehimba, “I know I’m selling my soul to the devil.” His mother, Afeni Shakur, claimed, “At that point, I don’t think he had any choice but to sign that contract.”
Upon leaving prison, Tupac immediately hit the studio with a vengeance and within two weeks he had completed the recording of the highly anticipated All Eyez On Me double-dsic. The album was a stark departure from his previous recordings such as Me Against the World or 2Pacalypse Now and the disposition noticeably shifted. Songs such as “Ambitionz az a Ridah” and “Can’t C Me” showed a side of Tupac that while wasn’t new, was rarely this venomous. The album lacked the balance that its predecessors enjoyed, missing songs similar to “Keep Your Head Up,” his ode to struggling, black women or the resilient “Me Against the World.” Introspection had been replaced by recklessly brash overtones. Music journalist Ronin Ro opined, “Where five years ago Tupac had been a political rapper, he was now indistinguishable from the other gangsta rappers signed to Death Row.” On a music video set, Kevin Powell remarked on how Suge’s influence was negatively altering Tupac’s behaviour, resembling the relationship of a father and his mischievous son. This influence, coupled with Shakur’s emotional release from prison, was perfectly encapsulated in songs such as “Picture Me Rollin’” and “California Love.” Both symbolized the unfocused euphoria of a vengeful man, now free. In turn, All Eyez On Me presented an intensely one-sided view of Tupac’s personality—a view that is somewhat unfairly, yet popularly, used to summarize his artistic career.
By the end of August 1996, Tupac was going through another metamorphosis. He confided in new girlfriend Kidada Jones of his plans of leaving Death Row Records, settling down to start a family and focusing more on political music, of which he was recording at a prolific rate. His change of heart was reflected in songs such as “White Man’z World” and “Hold Ya Head” which would be released on his final LP, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. Forebodingly dark, the album reconnected Tupac to his earlier style of socio-political commentary.
However, on September 13, 1996, the music stopped and a legacy was born. In remembering Tupac as an artist, it’s easy to get caught up in the image of his Death Row era. Certain mainstream revisionist historians from the media portray him as nothing more than a mindless thug who made party music without a cause, a notion that some of his less informed fans do little to reject. But the turbulent year he spent alongside Suge Knight was only a fraction of the curriculum that Tupac had to offer. It’s important that those same fans (and the artists who cite him as an influence) that gravitated toward the thugged out, gangsta images from tracks on All Eyez On Me also take heed of the rest of his catalogue, such as the sensible lessons from “Wordz of Wisdom” or the heartfelt story of “Brenda’s Got a Baby.”
Those who dismiss his more positive work as lacking sincerity due to some of his unnecessarily violent songs do his memory a disservice. Tupac was a complex individual, commonly accused of being a “walking contradiction,” a distinctively human trait, which his detractors forget enabled him to be so accessible. The ability for so many to relate to the passion in his music is exactly what made him revered the world over and puts him head and shoulders above most artists involved in hip-hop today. How long will we mourn him? For as long as the void he left in the soul of hip-hop exists, which very well could be until the end of time.
Rest In Peace, Tupac Amuru Shakur (June 16th 1971 – September 13th 1996)
Written by Chris Cromie for HipHopCanada
Please note: The opinions expressed in the following editorial are the views of the journalist and do not necessarily reflect the views of HipHopCanada Inc. or it’s partners and affiliates.