Solo Albums: Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. (1993), Me Against the World (1995), All Eyez On Me (1996), The don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (1996)
Group Albums: Thug Life: Volume 1 (1994)
Biggest Hits: "I Get Around" f/ Shock G & Money-B (1993), "Keep Ya Head Up" (1993), "Dear Mama" (1995), "California Love" f/ Dr. Dre (1995), "How Do U Want It" f/ K-Ci & JoJo (1995)
First things first: 2Pac was a disruptor, perhaps hip-hop's most significant in its three-decade history. And any rapper in contention for the Greatest of All Time—as he obviously is—is going to end up with a pretty unquestionable shot at one of hip-hop's great five year runs.
Interestingly, while Pac is one of the few rappers whose career not only included several classic albums, but also had an enormous, unprecedented impact, his is also one of the more inconsistent half-decades of dominance. He was an incredibly consistent rapper, particularly at his peak. But his early work has become so dwarfed by the artistic accomplishments of his final three albums that, while he's unquestionably one of hip-hop's foundational entities, it's difficult to suggest that his 5-year-run is the equal of his overarching importance.
That said: his early work, while spotty and not nearly as transcendent as his '95-'96 output, was still unquestionably classic and influential, and only suffers from the comparison to later heights he would achieve. From his guest spots on albums by Spice 1 and MC Breed to Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. classics (and Hot 100 hits) like "Keep Ya Head Up" and "I Get Around," it was clear even early on that there was a new voice that was fusing the populist underclass theatrics of N.W.A. with the righteous polemics of Public Enemy into a new, revolutionary model. While his rap style has been disparaged for years by those who undervalued more abstract x-factors like charisma, star power, pathos, and songcraft over the more technical aspects of an MC's toolkit, Pac had managed to more directly and effectively wed aesthetics with ideology than perhaps any rapper before or since.
His five-year run was broken up by a jail stint, court dates, a shooting, and multiple movies. And yet he still makes it onto this list with ease, because what he accomplished—a class-conscious, accessible, radical, and oppositional personality that bled from his real life into his music—is so completely singular, so entirely unprecedented in the genre. His ability to so thoroughly blend art and politics, theater with reality, and the popular with the cutting-edge spun out endless complications within the genre.
Although many pieces written about Pac act as if the story has ended, the echoes and ramifications of his short and sudden impact in the industry continue to coil outward. He had an ability to put his fingers right along the faultlines that undergirded so many of the conflicts and challenges faced not just by the artform, but by America broadly.
Many think we've learned all we can from Pac's life and death, but we are still feeling the reverberations from his all-too-short time on the planet. The vexing social problems he pushed to the forefront in his music, by and large, still remain. What has changed is the popularization of rhetorical tactics that rappers continue to use today, to speak truth to power in a way that cuts through the noise. Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Pac was more of a teacher. — David Drake