2Pac’s catalog is a mess of experimentation, contradiction, and revolutionary promise. His first two albums are rather tattered around the edges; his third album, the self-titled group project Thug Life, is strong though neglected; and even Me Against the World sounds retro and lo-fi compared to 2Pac’s later (and posthumous) albums. Mid-career hits like “Death Around the Corner,” “Keep Ya Head Up,” and “I Get Around” revealed 2Pac to be a potentially blockbuster dramatization, however—more volatile and complex than his West Coast predecessors, and with an ideology to rally the proud black masses.
In 1996, the radical vision of Chuck D and KRS-One was once again viable in hip-hop, via the life and raps of Tupac Shakur.
All Eyez On Me, the crown jewel of 2Pac’s catalog, is a superhuman spectrum of virtue and vice, invincibility and paranoia, and sheer pettiness regarding the fairer sex. As his stardom caught fire in ’96, 2Pac would frequently shatter the fourth wall, with “Ambitionz Az a Ridah” being his anthem: “So many battlefield scars while driven in plush cars/This life as a rap star is nothing without heart.” All Eyez on Me is also the crux of so much 2Pac mythology; “Ain't Hard 2 Find” features the man rapping ahead of his own grave: “I heard a rumor I died, murdered in cold blood; dramatized/Pictures of me in my final stage; you know mama cried/But that was fiction, some coward got the story twisted/Like I no longer existed, mysteriously missing.”
The Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac’s most obvious rival in the East/West Coast wars of the mid-’90s, was the more proficient rapper on various rhythmic and lingual counts; though critical retrospect tends to exaggerate the simplicity of 2Pac’s rhyme schemes and vocab. In any case, B.I.G. was never quite the font of rage and grandiose action that’s inspired three (so far) generations of rappers—from Eminem and 50 Cent, to Lil Boosie, to Meek Mill and J. Cole—to follow 2Pac’s blueprint after the rapper’s violent demise.
And what a blueprint it was. Volume. Affect. Rage. Bass. In the 21st century, hip-hop is made in 2Pac’s image, his mark is indelible, and he’s the greatest rapper who’s no longer among us. May they all rest in peace.