How 2Pac Set the Tone for Rap Today

Christopher Kevin Au on the voice of a generation.

by Christopher Kevin Au; illustrated by Ben Thomson
20 June 2017, 11:00pm

This originally appeared on VICE AU.

This article is supported by All Eyez On Me, the new 2Pac biopic in cinemas now. To celebrate the release, music writer Christopher Kevin Au looks at how 2Pac paved the way in music and beyond

In 1995, an eight-year-old Kendrick Lamar sat on his father's shoulders, watching 2Pac Shakur and Dr. Dre stunt at the Compton Swap Meet while filming the video for 'California Love (Remix)'.

20 years later, things came full circle when Lamar revisited the same location to film his 'King Kunta' video in a tribute to the late legend. A few months later, Lamar wrote a letter (published on 2Pac's site) to describe first witnessing 2Pac as a child. "I couldn't describe how I felt at that moment. So many emotions. Full of excitement. Full of joy and eagerness. 20 years later I understand exactly what that feeling was. Inspired," he said.

It's a wide-eyed reaction that often arrives with 2Pac's long-lasting legacy. Memories and references to 2Pac have been so frequent and flagrant that it points to something more mythical and immortal in rap consciousness. Artists like The Game, Rick Ross, and Young Thug have compared themselves to 2Pac, with many of these statements being deemed blasphemous in the official online courts of the 'real hip-hop' collective. Others, like Lil Boosie and Dead Prez, recall shedding tears over 2Pac's passing.

Critics might state that 2Pac's technical abilities paled in comparison to his Golden Era colleagues. Still, 2Pac was a rapper who drenched every verse with so much passion that his words were taken as absolute truths not only on his home turf, but everywhere from suburban Sydney to the Libyan civil war. It's one thing to have heads nodding and club dance floors moving—2Pac's tracks still do both—but it takes more to become a cultural icon and a mentor figure to youth across the globe.

The world's first prolonged taste of the rapper, 2Pacalypse Now would leave some sour notes in the mouths of suits across America, which is what made it so attractive to disenfranchised minorities. The son of two Black Panthers and raised in the midst of a nationwide war on drugs, it's no surprise that 2Pac's 1991 debut was filled with a relentless revolutionary spirit, spilling narratives of the everyday hardships that became central to the black experience.

Taking the foundations laid by artists like KRS One and Public Enemy—who 2Pac references on 'Words Of Wisdom'—the album marked rap's more militant mindset at the turn of the decade. Tracks like 'Trapped,' where 2Pac describes police harassment, sound depressingly familiar in an era of Trayvon Martins, Eric Garner, and the Black Lives Matter movement. The album struck a chord with some of rap's most vocal activists, with Talib Kweli saying on 'Beautiful Struggle', "I'm on some KRS, Ice Cube, Chris Wallace shit, Main Source, De La Soul, bumpin' 2Pacalypse Now."

Later in his career, 2Pac would take audacious sonic swipes at Vice President Dan Quayle on 'Last Wordz' and Republican Governor Pete Wilson on 'To Live And Die In LA,' the latter of which was quoted on YG's 'Fuck Donald Trump.' With 2Pac promoting "black love, brown pride" and stating that "it wouldn't be L.A. without Mexicans," that defiant attitude inspired YG's rousing anthem from the 2016 Presidential campaign, gaining even more relevance with Trump's border wall proposal.

While 'To Live And Die In LA' showed Pac's love for the Californian city, his presence has transcended both coasts. Despite repping Westside, 2Pac was born in New York. For media and fans, it's excitingly easy to prioritise the East Coast/West Coast beef, a rap combat defined by fiery protagonists trading brutal blows and sledgehammer slurs across the country.

There's no doubt that 2Pac's missiles like 'Against All Odds' and 'Hit Em Up' were aimed squarely at New York, and added infinite allure to his menacing presence. But before his death, 2Pac was planning an album titled One Nation with Brooklyn's Boot Camp Clik to unite both coasts, while he was also set to record with Nas after settling their differences at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards.

"It hurt me to know that eventually that whole thing with Biggie was going to die out. 'Pac was a real motherfucker man. Real n*ggas don't hold grudges. I know we would've all moved on," Buckshot of Boot Camp Clik said in an interview with Billboard.

50 Cent also noted to Rolling Stone that "every rapper who grew up in the nineties owes something to 2Pac. All of us on the East Coast loved 2Pac. The music was all that mattered. That East Coast/West Coast feud was just personal beef."

With his overt gangsterisms and frequently shirtless state, it's no surprise that 50 Cent names the sinister 'Hail Mary' as his favourite 2Pac track. But as Nathan Rabin notes, 50 and fellow noughties staples like Ja Rule found "incredible success with variations on 2Pac's tormented, sensitive-thug persona." Albums like the moody Me Against The World and even the more abrasive All Eyez On Me found 2Pac complimenting his bars with spots of melody and R&B, while also balancing his hyper-masculine bravado with vulnerability and compassion.

Speaking on Me Against The World, Jill Hopkins says that "it paved the way for not just Kendrick, but for this whole generation of artists who are injecting their hip-hop with the feelings of R&B."

50 Cent displayed this duality when he had '21 Questions' and 'Don't Push Me' running back-to-back on his landmark debut album, and nowadays it seems like every rapper has a staple crossover hit. While 2Pac wasn't the first to do this, he certainly was one of the most effective on tracks like 'I Ain't Mad At Cha.' 2Pac may have hit his most powerful and poignant stride on subdued singles like 'Dear Mama,' where he publicly discussed his mother's drug addiction with enough empathy to keep it playing every time May 13 rolls around.

2Pac's influence even resonated in pop's most prolific corners, with former One Direction member Zayn Malik saying that "he's the first rapper to talk about the fact that his mom was a crack addict. For me, that's courageous as fuck. He took that risk and spoke about everything in detail openly and without any shame... It really helped me to understand that it's okay to be honest with your art."

Similarly, Tory Lanez was inspired by 2Pac's openness, telling Pigeons and Planes, "2Pac told stories that weren't fit for normal conversation... Music gives me the outlet to explain certain things. It gave me the platform to share my life, my story, my perspective. Nobody did that better than 2Pac."

And while 2Pac's intensely personal nature made his work so engaging, he also lent his perspective to other experiences throughout his career, especially on 'Brenda's Got A Baby' when discussing the tribulations of a 12-year-old girl who falls pregnant.

"When this song came out, no male rappers at all anywhere were talking about problems that females were having," 2Pac said of the track, which was later referenced on 'Keisha's Song' by Kendrick Lamar. He continued to shed light on female issues throughout his career with tracks like 'Keep Your Head Up,' yet he also derided groupies in 'I Get Around' and battled a sexual assault case which led to his incarceration.

And perhaps that's what made 2Pac so magnetic: he was a volatile concoction of contradictions. Many will remember 2Pac as a fearless warrior on the frontlines of battle, pounding relentlessly on the doors of his detractors with 'THUG LIFE' stamped assertively on his torso. Others will find solace in his softer moments, where he contemplated his own death and the solemn state of humanity. Some might even love 2Pac for being the rapper who walked on a Versace runway almost two decades before Migos wrote their catchy love letter to Medusa.

Whichever chapter you prescribe to, 2Pac's expansive ghetto gospel continues to speak volumes across the globe, in rap's traditional playgrounds and far beyond.

Follow Christopher Kevin Au on Instagram

This article is supported by All Eyez On Me, the new 2pac biopic in cinemas now. You can find out more about the film here

All Eyez On Me
hip hip
Christopher Kevin Au