There may never be a more transcendent figure in hip-hop than the late Tupac Shakur. No rapper’s existence and contributions to the world have been examined—as a tool to criticize or uplift—as closely as his. In his life and death, Pac has been the most divisive figure the genre has ever seen.
Some view him as a revolutionary extension of the Black Panther movement due to his family ties to the organization and his ability to articulate the black struggle in a way that was equally palatable to mainstream masses and people whose experiences actually reflected his music. Others saw him as a loudmouth who irresponsibly romanticized street culture in order to bolster himself, while ignoring the example he set for American youth. Pac contested his perceived two-faced identity. “Like me, they say ‘This guy is Mr. Duplicity. He’s always saying this good shit to the females. Then he say hoe and this and that.’ See that’s where you’re wrong,” he said in an interview with VIBE six months before his death. “What does the world want? They have to sit they politically correct ass down and figure out what it is they want. ‘Cause they bullshitting.”
While covering Shakur’s 1995 trial for allegedly raping a woman in a hotel in 1993 for the Village Voice, hip-hop journalist Touré proposed that while Pac was one of the most famous rappers on the planet, he was “merely an average vocalist and lyricist” and had “yet to record one aesthetically important song” by that point. In a 2016 piece explaining why rap beef did not need to return to the intensity of the 90s, writer Craig Jenkins dug up a 1996 thread from a forum called Rec.Music.Hip-Hop which took on Pac’s Mobb Deep, Chino XL, and Biggie Smalls diss track “Hit Em Up.” Users accused Pac of pimping out the gangsta persona once signing to Death Row, while others cited his shooting of two off-duty cops in Georgia as reason for why he was the realest of all rappers.
Songs like “Brenda’s Got a Baby” and “Dear Mama” are some of Pac’s more well-known efforts that would dispel Touré’s take on his artistry, but it is crucial to note that not everyone was in complete awe of his sheer existence while he was alive. Pac’s death and continued impact in the afterlife has made straying from hero-worship around him a punishable offense. But as we get further and further away from the time when he was actually alive, it is unrealistic to expect every newcomer to rap to idolize someone who died either before they were born or during their early childhood. Few people born in the early 90s are diehard EPMD fans. People born in the mid-2000s are unlikely to grow up and be devout followers of Lupe Fiasco and Kid Cudi. And the same applies to those born in the mid-to-late 90s when it comes to Biggie and 2Pac.
The two most recent instances of Pac criticism come from opposite ends of the spectrum. First, California rapper Lil Xan—whose music is in line with the regularly-reviled mumble rap generation—said that Pac made “boring music” in a Revolt TV interview. It led Waka Flocka to propose he be banned from hip-hop altogether. LA newcomer 03 Greedo, a street artist from Watts, came to Xan’s defense by not only expressing his disdain for his out-of-touch rap elders, but also by sharing his doubts of Pac’s skills and thug credentials. “Tupac sucks...He's delusional. He's a great actor. Part of his music shit was acting,” he told Billboard earlier this week. “Tupac was a bitch ass nigga.” In the context of the interview, it’s plausible that while Greedo’s rant may have had genuine feeling behind it, a creeping element is the annoyance that new artists feel when expected to revere something that they do not believe is relevant to their lives. This constant tension inevitably breeds resentment on both ends.
It’s imperative that we examine what made 2Pac so impactful when trying to make sense of how he resonates with today’s youth. The lasting impression that Pac made was much deeper than his musical output. Much like Kanye West's place in contemporary pop culture, people were able to grow with him in real time, through his hiccups and through his triumphs because he fearlessly shared every step of the way with the world. There was a courageousness that Pac displayed in his convictions that the average person only aspires to. He was a master at charisma, he was dangerously charming, and an unparalleled public speaker.
When he was alive, those qualities could actively help someone appreciate Shakur’s acting and music, which was not conventionally great, more. 2Pac was not the lyrical wizard that his longstanding rival Biggie Smalls was. People didn’t listen to him to be wowed by his bar structure and wordplay. Pac’s calling card was his fervor. He was the blueprint for how to touch people with raw emotion. In that way, Pac was much more innovative than his peers because his impact wasn’t predicated on skill alone. But now that he is dead and the societal circumstances that made him so effective in the early-to-mid 90s have changed, the music won’t translate to everyone at face value.
“He was like a performance artist and I don’t mean that in any negative way,” Touré said in recent sit down with Vlad TV. “Every moment, he was on, he was alive, he was emoting Pac-ness. A lot of people take a break. They go on stage, they do their thing, and then they get off, and they repose a little bit or a lot. But Pac was always on.”
There’s justification for the urgency hip-hop culture puts behind protecting 2Pac’s legacy. During his short time in the public eye, Pac gave everything he had. He didn’t care if that offering of self would result in his punishment or death because he knew that he was walking with a clearer purpose than most. He made songs that supported violence and the hyper-sexualization of women, but he also showed—better than all of his peers—that he was compassionate and cared about the condition of Black America in equal measure. He did so in a time where it was becoming increasingly evident that a rapper’s role was changing from being the voice of a misunderstood and mistreated people, to that of an entertainer who could milk the game for riches without a single line about societal ills. For that, we are forever grateful for Pac and, at times, that gratitude seems to approach outright worship. But for people who were not born or who were still developing when this was happening, there shouldn’t be an expectation for them to hold him in the same regard—though it would do much more for generational unity if they treated his legacy with respect. Tupac Shakur was a hero, but we don’t need to deify him to cement his place in history. If we do, we disregard the humanity that made him transcendent.
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