Credentials: All Eyez on Me, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, drops epic diss track, "Hit 'Em Up."
2Pac’s tireless work ethic and prolific output made him a legend, and 1996 saw both of those habits at their highest efficiency. For most of the previous year, he was incarcerated, after being found guilty on three counts of molestation. 2Pac was released from Clinton Correctional Facility in October 1995 and Suge Knight successfully recruited ‘Pac to Knight’s infamous, powerful record label, Death Row, and the rapper launched into the next year with unprecedented resilience.
2Pac’s historical tear through 1996 began with the release of All Eyez on Me in February. By then, ‘Pac had become a mainstream fixture—an icon larger than rap—and it was evident in the album’s reception. It debuted at No. 1 on the pop charts and moved 566,000 units in its opening week, achieving 5X platinum certification by April. But 2Pac’s appeal that year goes much deeper than sales statistics.
Commercial and creative peaks don’t always correspond, but they did for 2Pac. When his Top 40 presence reached its pinnacle, so did his rapping. Consider the urgent tenacity that embellishes All Eyez on Me’s opening lines: “So many battlefield scars while driven in plush cars/This life as a rap star is nothing without heart.” For the first time, ‘Pac brought all of the lyrical dexterity of his East Coast peers, without sacrificing the emotional delivery for which he’d become known. He was a master of what he said and how he said it.
The masses recognized this, and that summer, the singles “How Do U Want It” and “California Love” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. They were the first rap songs not bathed in pop-slanting crossover tactics to hold claim to such a feat, and proved that, for this very specific moment in time, Tupac Shakur was absolutely unstoppable, in every field. You could finally say that 2Pac’s potential was fully realized. His voice resonated with the public as much as it did with those on the block, a fact of which he was fully aware: “My lyrics motivate the planet/It’s similar to Rhythm Nation, but thugged out, forgive me Janet.”
This run appeared as if it might end when 2Pac was shot on September 7, 1996, but he continued to rule the year, even from the grave. Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, released two months after his death, was more successful upon its release than any of 2Pac’s preceding albums, selling 664,000 in its first week. He wasn’t floating on meticulous instrumentals with Redman and Method Man on this album, either.
2Pac’s work as Makaveli was more about bombast and calculated rhetoric. That approach gave way to some of the sharpest rhymes of his career. “Bomb First (My Second Reply)” and “Hail Mary” played like battle cries. Rhymes like, “I take this war shit deeply/Done seen to many real playas fall to let you bitch niggas beat me,” channeled his anger into commodity, with an artful consistency.
1996 is a case study for every aspect of why 2Pac is so celebrated. He was a viable, competent artist in multiple arenas, and had the discipline to incorporate his varied and conflicted missions into a single mantra. That savvy paid off in this year more than any other. It’s a shame that 2Pac’s ride had to end early, and on someone else’s terms, but the dedication to his craft that was on such full display in 1996 is why he’ll live forever.
Honorable Mentions: The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Jay-Z
After what was, at that point, the best year of his career, Biggie remained a formidable competitor in 1996. He didn’t have much to offer in the way of new solo material, but his flawless streak of guest appearances was awe-inspiring. His verses on works like 112’s “Only You” remix and Lil Kim’s Hard Core kept him in the conversation.
New to that conversation was then-rookie Jay-Z, whom Biggie had also given a feature for his fellow Brooklyn MC’s classic debut, Reasonable Doubt. It took some time for appreciation of the album to set in, but looking back, it’s clearly a remarkable project. The same can be said for Jay-Z’s eventual foe, Nas, who released his sophomore album, It Was Written, the same year.
While the album was more commercially successful than Illmatic, it was met with a tepid response from hip-hop fans looking for a rehash of Nasir’s debut. But it was only a total disappointment to the hypercritical. Jay-Z rapped, “Who’s the best MC—Biggie, Jay-Z, or Nas?” the following year for a reason. — Ernest Baker (@newbornrodeo)