Tupac Amaru Shakur was born on June 16, 1971 in New York and died on September 13, 1996 in Las Vegas. In-between, he represented Oakland, Los Angeles, and young black men (and to a lesser, but still present, extent, women) everywhere.
A lotta heroes came out of the civil rights movement in the ’60s and the period shortly after, when the movement flamed out and was replaced with… something else. The three most significant men for me were Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Richard Pryor. I love Ali because he showed that you can stand unbowed in the face of racism and let your confidence do the talking for you. I love Malcolm because he showed the importance of being plain spoken, of being a regular guy, but being razor sharp enough to slice strips off anyone who tests you intellectually. I love Pryor because he demonstrated how corny and stupid racism is, how to laugh at it, and when to stop and say, “Y’all probably done forgot about me… but I ain’t gon’ never forget.”
What the three have in common is that each of them pushed back in their own ways. They held out their hand and said, “You don’t get to go past this point.”
Tupac is complicated. He’s contradictory, or inconsistent, maybe. He walked on both sides of the street, so to speak. You can see it in “THUG LIFE,” the word he had tattooed across his belly. For some, it’s an indicator of a fetishized attachment to the darker side of black culture. For others, it’s “The hate you give little infants fucks everyone.” Tupac expanded “nigga” to mean “Never ignorant, getting goals accomplished.” Contradictions that aren’t contradictions, really. People can be a lot of things at once without being inconsistent, I think, and Tupac definitely walks that line.
One vein that runs throughout Tupac’s work is the idea that we didn’t get here by accident. We made this world, or our parents did, and now we have to live in it. And the only way to live in it is to know your worth, be honest with yourself, and make your own way.
I can’t write a eulogy for Tupac. I don’t think I have it in me. But I want to share this video. It’s “I Ain’t Mad At Cha” off that All Eyez On Me album, and it’s my favorite Pac song for a number of reasons.
This is a remix, actually. The album version sounds fuller, obviously isn’t censored, and Tupac’s delivery is different. Faster, more urgent. The drums are more prominent. The last verse is different, too.
It’s sorta funny how the radio edit makes the song more uplifiting. “Motherfucker” to “young brother,” “get fucked down” to “loved down.” Food for thought. I prefer the original, honestly, because the third verse is much better on the album. But it’s a good song.
Tupac is generally referred to as a gangsta rapper, but that’s not right at all. It’s ignorant, it’s too small. It’s not the whole story. The thing about Tupac, the reason why he was a legend before and after he died, is that he rhymed about life. Living it, losing it, everything. And he did it from several different perspectives. He had something for everyone, from the bougiest conscious rap stan to the cat that only likes songs about hoes and Alizé.
“I Ain’t Mad At Cha” is about change, discomfort, and love. Three verses, and each one tackles a different type of change. The first is about a friend going straight, the second about a girl who stands by Tupac’s side, and the third is about Tupac himself.
I think this is my favorite song because it’s so melancholy, but positive. After reminiscing over how him and his boy used to be two niggas of the same kind, quick to holler at a hoochie with the same line, Tupac takes a look at his man’s new life and gives him a regretful blessing. There’s something I like a lot about “And I can’t even trip, ’cause I’m just laughin atcha/ You trying hard to maintain, then go ‘head/ ’cause I ain’t mad at cha.” That thing about “trying hard to maintain” tells me that Tupac knows how hard changing can be, but he respects the effort, even if it isn’t particularly for him at this point.
I get a lot of things out of Tupac. I love that he was able to be not just explicitly pro-black in his music, but commercially successful, too. It’s more rare than I’d like these days. David Banner and 9th Wonder dropped a positive album that hit with a thud and Kanye and Jaÿ-Z nodded in the direction of how screwed up life is on Watch the Throne, but the deepest thing anyone popular’s kicked recently is Kanye on “Hell of A Life”: “Tell me what I gotta do to be that guy/ She said her price’ll go down if she ever fuck a black guy/ Or do anal, or a gangbang, it’s kinda crazy it’s all considered the same thing.”
But here’s Tupac, making bank off painting a picture of the spectrum of black life, of American life. Striking that balance between thug thizzo and Black Power.
A lot of times, even though the idea of the best of all time is a juvenile idea, I feel like Tupac is the GOAT, or at least one of maybe two dudes (Rakim being the other) who deserves that title.
Rest in peace. Thank you.