If we really are saying rap is an art form, then we got to be true to it and be more responsible for our lyrics. If you see everybody dying because of what you saying, it don't matter that you didn't make them die, it just matters that you didn't save them.
TUPAC SHAKUR was in trouble.
His childhood and adolescence had been one extreme to another: he was the child of a Black Panther and had their sense of uplifting the black community and distrust of the government. He was also the only son of a single parent who struggled with drugs for a time, spent several years in homeless shelters, and was exposed to criminal life in treacherous neighborhoods on both coasts. His first album, 1991's 2Pacalypse Now, rendered him a "conscious" rapper, along the tradition of pro-black hip-hop stars like Public Enemy and KRS-One, with his vivid tales of police brutality, teen pregnancy and racism. But that record was a tough sell, even in the Afrocentric early 90s, and he yearned for a wider acceptance. His second album, 1993's gold-selling, Strictly For My N.I.G.G.A.Z. maintained it's truthful, community-oriented commentary, but still spawned hits like the bubbly promiscuity commercial "I Get Around." Starting with his frightening film debut in 1992's Juice, he began a promising acting career. He had been acting since he was a child, now his good looks and off the radar charisma were beginning to earn him plaudits.
When you do rap albums, you got to train yourself. You got to constantly be in character. You used to see rappers talking all that hard shit, and then you see them in suits and shit at the American Music Awards. I didn't want to be that type of nigga. I wanted to keep it real, and that's what I thought I was doing.
But as his star became brighter, there were more problems: he battled the law, the music business, life in the fast lane. In late 1993, he was accused of sexual assault and subsequently dropped from the lead role in the film Higher Learning. In the spring of 1994, he served fifteen days of jail time for assaulting a director who had dropped him from another project. On November 30th of that year, he was shot five times in a recording studio. Somehow, he appeared in court the very next day, only to be found guilty on three charges of molestation. The clock was officially ticking: Someone in the rap world wanted him dead. The legal system was getting ready to send him away for a crime that he adamantly denied having committed. With a heavy heart, he entered the recording booth to record his third studio album, released fifteen years ago this week.
By most accounts, they were marathon sessions. Spread across ten different studios, pretty much around the clock, Tupac wrote and rapped like someone who saw the end approaching. In 15 songs, Tupac goes all over his brain, at once ready for battle (the title track, "Fuck the World"), reminiscing on more innocent times ("Old School", "Young Niggaz"), issuing eerie premonitions of his death ("If I Die 2 Nite", "Death Around the Corner"). Me Against the World is his most schizophrenic album, and his best. I remember the day I first heard it, as a freshman in college, and I remember that I couldn't stop listening to it. The different sides of his personality all get equal time, yet the whole album is under the cloud of a man who knows he is ultimately doomed.
In the middle of this paranoia, contemplation, and despair comes a remarkably vulnerable and affirmative song, "Can U Get Away" -- reportedly written about his friend, TLC's Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes -- in which he tries to tell a young woman to leave her abusive boyfriend. A girl I liked at the time was in the same boat and this song hit me in the chest. Still does.
The first single, "Dear Mama," spins a interpolation of The Spinners' "Sadie" into an sincere tribute to his mother, even while acknowledging the complexities and difficulties in their relationship. And even as a crack fiend, mama/You always was a black queen, mama/I finally understand/For a woman it ain't easy tryin to raise a man/You always was committed/A poor single mother on welfare, tell me how ya did it/There's no way I can pay you back/But the plan is to show you that I understand/You are appreciated
A Stevie Wonder harmonica sample anchors the second single, "So Many Tears," a lament on friends lost to violence and his ever growing dark view of the world. Lord knows I.. tried, been a witness to homicide/Seen drivebys takin lives, little kids die/Wonder why as I walk by/Broken-hearted as I glance at the chalk line, gettin high/This ain't the life for me, I wanna change/But ain't no future right for me, I'm stuck in the game/I'm trapped inside a maze/See this Tanqueray influenced me to gettin crazy/Disillusioned lately, I've been really wanting babies/So I could see a part of me that wasn't always shady
By the time the album was released, Tupac had been sent upstate to Clinton Correctional Facility. Me Against the World hit number one on the charts and stayed there for five weeks, the first for an incarcerated artist. Regardless of Tupac's flaws as a human being, his genius is hard to deny. He spoke to a whole generation of black people who respected and understood his transparency, whether we were selling drugs on the corner or prep school kids in film school.
Rap music has changed so much since Tupac's death (and not always for the better) that it is impossible to hypothesize what the world lost when he was shot to death in Las Vegas in September 1996. He emerged from prison a changed man, but in the last interview I read of his, it seemed like the paranoia was winning.
But we remember people how we want to and how they were when they affected us the most. The Tupac of Me Against the World was still trying, still reaching, still growing, in spite of himself. People forget he was only 25 when he died. He was just a young man.
And I might just be my mother's child, but in all reality, I'm everybody's child. You know what I'm saying? Nobody raised me; I was raised in this society. But I'm not going to use that as an excuse no more. I'm going to pull myself up by my bootstraps, and I'm going to make a change. And my change is going to make a change through the community. And through that, they gonna see what type of person I truly was. Where my heart was. This Thug Life stuff, it was just ignorance. My intentions was always in the right place. I never killed anybody, I never raped anybody, I never committed no crimes that weren't honorable -- that weren't to defend myself. So that's what I'm going to show them. I'm going to show people my true intentions, and my true heart. I'm going to show them the man that my mother raised. I'm going to make them all proud.
The non-song related Tupac Shakur quotations were all from interviews conducted by Kevin Powell, property and courtesy of Vibe Magazine.
ABOUT JASON GILMORE
Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.
When I was in a literature class a few years ago, a young man from Bosnia created a visual presentation about Tupac. The student was about 22, so he was a boy when Tupac died, and a boy in Europe at that.
He created a beautiful illustration that featured lyrics from Tupac making up his face. Incredible.
He talked about how listening to Tupac helped him through the troubles of his country and how to work through the struggle.