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The 10 Best Rappers of the '90s Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

2. 2Pac

Solo Albums: 2Pacalypse Now (1991), 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) with Thug Life, Still I ride (1999) with Outlawz
Biggest Hits: "I Get Around" f/ Shock G, Money-B (1993), "Dear Mama" (1995), "California Love" f/ Dr. Dre, Roger Troutman (1995), "How Do U Want It" f/ K-Ci, JoJo (1995)

While Tupac ranks high in the debate over the best rappers of all time, it's usually with an asterisk next to his name. In 1999, in a special issue about "The 50 Greatest MCs Ever," Blaze magazine opined that 'Pac (ranked at number seven) compensated for his "average rhyme skill" by captivating the world with controversy and heartfelt subject matter. Indeed, the notion that Tupac was a mediocre rapper who was only famous because of his charisma and off-stage antics was a charge that got considerable ink when he was alive, too. In early 1995, weeks before the release of 2Pac's best album Me Against The World, Touré wrote in the Village Voice that 'Pac was "merely an average vocalist and lyricist, even by West Coast standards."

Average. It's a peculiar criticism to hear applied so regularly to someone widely known as one of the best rappers of all time. New York hip-hop tradition demands that a rapper master all manner of word play (similes, double-entendres, puns, metaphors) to be considered one of the greats. Tupac wasn't interested in being semantically clever, preferring a more straight-forward approach that emphasized emotion and wisdom over pure lyrical style. "This ain't just a rap song, [it's] a black song/Tellin' all my brothers get they strap on," he rhymed on 1993's "Holler If Ya Hear Me."

 

Tupac believed that by avoiding winking punchlines and pretentious wordplay, his music would be more meaningful to the outcasts of America. Throughout all his stylistic changes, it was this goal of representing the real, neglected America that stayed constant.

 

At its core, hip-hop is an endlessly inventive post modern exercise. But 'Pac represented an alternative, a plain-spoken realism that was aching to be heard outside of NYC's jurisdiction. "Being in Marin City was like a small town, so it taught me to be more straight foward with my style," Tupac told Davey D in a 1991 interview. "Instead of being so metaphorical with the rhyme, I was encouraged to go straight at it and hit it dead on and not waste time trying to cover things." The formal simplicity left room for his searing intensity to shine through, free from gimmicky distractions.

Tupac believed that by avoiding winking punchlines and pretentious wordplay, his music would be more meaningful to the outcasts of America. "This is for the masses, the lower classes, the ones you left out/Jobs were given, better livin', but we were kept out," he spit on "Words of Wisdom" from his debut album. Throughout all his stylistic changes, it was this goal of representing the real, neglected America that stayed constant. 'Pac was an intellectual who believed everyone who lives through struggle had something important to say, even criminals. And he eventually became one to prove his point. "I never had a record until I had a record deal," he said.

His blunt approach cast a wider net than so-called "lyrical" hip-hop, inspiring a jaded generation to make rap music without worrying about the critics. "It's all sort of entertaining, but 2Pac is not an especially deep thinker," Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times said in 1993 while reviewing his second album, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. But as the album title implied, Tupac's music was not meant for Jonathan Gold. Far from an asterisk, being an "average" rapper was 'Pac's secret weapon, a trojan horse designed to inspire the uninspired. —Brendan Frederick

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