Two weeks ago, on the 19th anniversary of 2Pac’s untimely demise, Kendrick Lamar penned Shakur a short open letter. In it the current king of the West Coat recalled the first time he met his idol. Kendrick was an impressionable 8-year-old rap fan that felt an immense feeling of inspiration that day. Nearly 20 years later, Kendrick has become one of the most important artists of his generation and that fateful meeting started his journey to the top of the rap game. This is the power Pac had. Since then Lamar has shown his admiration for Shakur in songs like “Mortal Man," interviews, and now with this brief, but heartfelt letter:
“I was 8 yrs old when I first saw you. I couldn't describe how I felt at that moment. So many emotions. Full of excitement. Full of joy and eagerness. 20 yrs later I understand exactly what that feeling was.
The people that you touched on that small intersection changed lives forever. I told myself I wanted to be a voice for man one day. Whoever knew I was speaking out loud for u to listen.
Kendrick’s letter describes Tupac’s impact perfectly. Pac wasn’t the most technical lyricist. He was honest, though, and said things with authority. Like Chuck D and Ice Cube, he wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power. This is why he has a cult following that refuses to believe he’s dead. Pac is rap game Elvis.
Like most us, he was also a complicated individual. Pac was an art school kid who embodied a thug’s persona as a political statement. He was the son of a Black Panther. He spoke beautifully in interviews which caused some, including a young me, to scratch their heads when they watched him spit at cameramen. Shakur was an activist who wanted to start a political party. He told former Eight Tray Gangster Crips member Monster Kody by phone that he wanted to unify the coasts by starting youth leagues all over the country backed by rappers, and registering voters. For better or for worse, 2Pac relished being the center of attention.
Unfortunately, he was also naive. You know the saying, “you’re only as good as the company you keep?” That’s what did him in. For all of the positivity he talked in interviews it was the negativity that ended his life. Likely being an alcoholic didn’t help, neither did his signing with Death Row Records in 1995. You could sense his heightened recklessness when he teamed up with Suge Knight.
Now as K. Dot sits on the West's throne as Pac once did, it's tough for fans not to compare the two. While Pac made an indelible impression on Lamar, Kendrick has clearly learned from his idol's mistakes. He doesn't drink or do drugs. He doesn't hang around negativity—on the contrary, he's very careful with the people he surrounds himself with. It's refreshing to see.
Like Pac, Kendrick doesn't shy away from speaking about issues that he believes plague the black community. But the game almost turned on him when he made the statement below in a Billboard interview when speaking on Ferguson:
"I wish somebody would look in our neighborhood knowing that it's already a situation, mentally, where it's f---ked up. What happened to [Michael Brown] should've never happened. Never. But when we don't have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don't start with just a rally, don't start from looting -- it starts from within."
Instead of letting the backlash break him, Lamar let his music do the talking. To Pimp A Butterfly was the perfect album for these times. It touches on the emotions running through the black community and highlights our frustrations, our hopes, our dreams.
When he landed a deal with Reebok, Lamar used the partnership as a platform to unify the Bloods and the Crips by releasing a pair of kicks that had one "red" sneaker and one "blue" sneaker. He even went so far as having a Blood and a Crip share their thoughts on the idea. Like Pac, he understood the importance of community.
Still Kendrick Lamar isn’t the new 2Pac. He’s not as controversial. He’s not as confrontational. He's not as prolific. And that is perfectly fine. We can get a bit too nostalgic about the old days instead of allowing the next generation to evolve and build upon the foundation that was laid out for them. Ever since the sudden deaths of rap’s two biggest stars we’ve been scrambling to replace them in order to, as they say, bring the feeling back. This is especially true when it comes to Tupac and the recent resurgence of West Coast rap. While NYC found solace in Jigga and Nas carrying the the torch, it wasn’t until K. Dot came along that the West had someone worthy of the crown. No shots at The Game but he hasn't had the same impact Lamar has had.
In terms of pure rapping ability, Kendrick is better than Pac ever was. But what Pac lacked in technicality he made up for in delivery. He made you believe whatever it was he was rapping about. Some people would have followed him into the depths of hell if he told them to. He was boisterous, he was honest, he was vulnerable, he was fearless. Tupac Shakur was the closest thing our generation has had to Malcolm X.
Only time will tell if Kendrick will have the lasting impact that Pac had. Like the great Max B once said: “Who gonna be talked about the most 50 years from now? We all dying...but who's gonna leave the biggest legacy? Who's gonna leave the energy out here?" Rather than trying to emulate Pac’s career Lamar instead pays homage by acknowledging his idol’s influence on him. K. Dot is the mind 2Pac sparked. Let's sit back and watch him be great.