It is a strange misfortune. Despite their many successes, legends like JAY-Z, Snoop Dogg, and Nas are now cursed with the unhappy fate of growing older, less interested, and ever more mortal. Death, on the other hand, preserves. The Notorious B.I.G., Big L, and Aaliyah will always be in their prime.
Nobody benefits from this gone-too-soon bonus more than Tupac Shakur.
By 1996, 2Pac was at the center of a violent explosion of creativity and media-saturated drama. Then he was struck down in mythical fashion—something he called for early and often, in both word and deed—in Las Vegas, on September 17 of that year. His killer remains at large, though numerous conspiracies unsurprisingly point to Suge Knight.
In the years following his death, Pac was ready-made for Internet godhood: His life was fully documented and rife with street intrigue, conspiracy theories, and a massive collection of songs, video, the works—a fully scripted multimedia docudrama.
Twenty years later, Tupac's image as king rebel poet and unrelenting voice against injustice remains untouched by the ravages of time and commerce. Imagine if JAY had lived through the release of The Blueprint and then got cut down right before dropping The Black Album. How many churches would have been erected in his honor of him and music? Instead, he has to contend with rumors about the Illuminati and faking a pregnancy.
MAKAVELI REMAINS BECAUSE HE IS STILL HERE. NOT IN SOME CUBAN HIDEAWAY, BUT IN HIP-HOP’S EVERY NOOK AND CRANNY.
Pac struck mythic chords in large part because he was all in. His records are a testimony to his complete commitment to building his own legend. He tapped into the matrix like Neo, finding a formula that resonates around the globe. A formula only a handful of artists ever attain. Like his Peruvian namesake (we dare you to Google Tupac Amaru—ill), Pac consciously made himself a sacrifice. It also made him one of the most prescient and influential artist of his time. Just like he planned it.
Makaveli remains one of the greatest because he is still here. Not in some Cuban hideaway, but in hip-hop’s every nook and cranny. We see his tattoo game reflected in how overboard the ink thing has gotten. T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. begat Fear God begat thunderous ice cream Brr-Brrs. We see his hyper-prolific approach to recording becoming the standard on the mixtape circuit, partly thanks to his great fan and acolyte Lil Wayne. And we've seen his rebellion become a commodity that can be mass-produced.
Wayne, JAY, 50, and T.I. all borrowed and reconfigured the blueprint Pac authored. We can go on and on. But there's one thing about Pac nobody has been able to duplicate: He bared his soul, to its very core.
Intense and passionate, Pac ran with thugs and killers, starred in a cult classic, and shot cops and walked free—only to be shot five times, survive and then go to prison and be reborn. But somehow he remains the rapper that your mama could love. Very few have been able to manage this sort of high-wire act with such bluster. He didn't live long enough to become a rap mogul, but his outsized presence in America's pop culture landscape cannot be overstated.
Pac lacked the intricate rhymes or flow patterns deemed worthy of praise by rap puritans, but his sometimes prophetic lyricism ran the gamut from player to rider to revolutionary. As such, he remains the blueprint for 75% of these so-called rappers out here. Here is a walk through the many highlights of one of hip-hop’s most influential artists—one that set the tone for all that would come after it. These are the best Tupac songs.
2Pac f/ Notorious B.I.G. "Runnin' (Dying to Live)" (2003)
2Pac f/ Outlaw Immortalz "When We Ride” (1996)
2Pac "16 on Deathrow" (1997)
2Pac f/ Cocoa Brovaz and Buckshot "Military Minds" (2002)
Too $hort f/ 2Pac, MC Breed, and Father Dom "We Do This" (1995)
2Pac f/ Nate Dogg "Thugs Get Lonely Too" (2004)
2Pac f/ Big Syke, Kurupt, and Natasha Walker "Check Out Time” (1996)
2Pac "Out On Bail" (2004)
2Pac f/ Natasha Walker "Bury Me a G" (1994)
2Pac f/ Elton John "Ghetto Gospel" (2004)
2Pac f/ Danny Boy "Heaven Ain't Hard 2 Find” (1996)
2Pac f/ Yaki Kadafi and Big Pimpin' "Who Do U Believe In?"
2Pac f/ Stretch "God Bless The Dead" (1998)
MC Breed f/ 2Pac "Gotta Get Mine" (1993)
2Pac "This Ain't Livin'" (2001)
2Pac "Black Cotton" (2004)
2Pac f/ Michel'le, Napoleon, and Storm "Run tha Streetz” (1996)
2Pac "Nothin' 2 Lose" (2001)
2Pac f/ Dramacydal "Outlaw" (1995)
2Pac f/ E.D.I. Mean and Young Noble "The Uppercut" (2004)
2Pac f/ Stretch "Crooked Ass N*gga" (1991)
Album: 2pacalypse Now
Pac shows an early penchant for getting on tracks with inferior rappers and having to drag them to the finish line. Stretch–RIP–of Live Squad was hot garbage on the mic and at this early stage of his life, Pac was only marginally better. Still the contrast comes out in Pac's favor, mostly because Stretch sounds like gravel at a skatepark.
Stretch's production brings back a less cynical time in hip-hop, even as Pac fetishizes guns and fantasizes about killing cops. To be fair, 75% percent of the rappers circa 1994 were talking tough about guns and police officers, but never going quite as far as young Shakur—nor saying it with as much meaning. You can already tell that this Pac character is headed for trouble.
2Pac f/ Treach, Apache and Live Squad "5 Deadly Venomz" (1993)
2Pac f/ Stretch "Tha' Lunatic" (1991)
2Pac "Str8 Ballin'" (2003)
2Pac f/ Eric Williams of Blackstreet "Do For Love" (2001)
2Pac "Life of an Outlaw" (1996)
2Pac "My Block (Remix)" (2002)
2Pac "Young N*ggaz" (1995)
2Pac f/ Method Man and Redman "Got My Mind Made Up" (1996)
2Pac f/ Ray Luv and Shock G "Rebel of the Underground (1991)
2Pac f/ Eminem and Outlawz "One Day at a Time (Em's Version)" (2003)
2Pac f/ Live Squad "Strugglin'" (1993)
2Pac f/ Outlawz "Fuck Em All" (2002)
2Pac f/ The Click, C-Bo, Richie Rich and E-40 "Ain't Hard 2 Find” (1996)
2Pac f/ Anthem and Tena Jones "Letter 2 My Unborn” (2001)
2Pac "Just Like Daddy" (1996)
2Pac "Ghost" (2003)
2Pac f/ Richie Rich "Ratha Be Ya Ni**a” (1996)
2Pac "Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z." (1993)
2Pac f/ Sleep Brown "Hennessey (Red Spyda Remix)" (2004)
2Pac f/ Dramacydal, Jewell & Storm "Thug Passion” (1996)
2Pac "Hellrazor" (1997)
2Pac f/ Nanci Fletcher "Holla At Me” (1996)
2Pac f/ Outlawz & DJ Quick "Late Night" (2002)
2Pac "Krazy" (1996)
2Pac f/ Faith "Wonda Why They Call U Bitch” (1996)
2Pac "They Don't Give A Fuck About Us" (2002)
2Pac f/ Digital Underground "Same Song" (1991)
2Pac f/ Nate Dogg "Skandalouz" (1996)
Producer: Daz Dillinger
Album: All Eyez On Me
Label: Death Row/Interscope
Daz and Nate Dogg bring that lush L.A. sound—a jazzy version of Dre's g-funk—inspiring Pac to tell a few hedonistic hoochie tales. Nate Dogg, master of the seductive hook, makes you a believer. There is something in how Nate and Pac put it down that convinces you that they know a thing or three about these scandalouz women of which they speak.
2Pac f/ Shock G "Trapped" (1991)
2Pac f/ Anthony Hamilton "Thugz Mansion" / 2Pac f/ Nas and J. Phoenix "Thugz Mansion (Acoustic Version)" (2002)
2Pac f/ Outlawz "Hell 4 A Hustler" (1999)
2Pac f/ Nate Dogg "How Long Will They Mourn Me?" (1994)
2Pac f/ Yaki Kadafi, Nate Dogg and Snoop Dogg "All Bout U" (1996)
Bone Thugs N Harmony f/ 2Pac "Thug Luv"
2Pac "Blasphemy" (1996)
2Pac f/ Rappin' 4-Tay "Only God Can Judge Me" (1996)
2Pac "When We Ride On Our Enemies" (2002)
2Pac f/ Dave Hollister "Brenda's Got a Baby" (1991)
2Pac f/ Synar "Shorty Wanna Be a Thug” (1996)
2Pac "Unconditional Love" (1998)
2Pac "Death Around the Corner" (2004)
2Pac f/ Outlawz "Starin' Through My Rear View" (2003)
2Pac "Toss It Up" (1996)
2Pac "Life Goes On" (1996)
2Pac "Ballad of a Dead Soulja" (2001)
2Pac "White Man'z World" (1996)
2Pac f/ 50 Cent "The Realest Killaz" (2003)
2Pac "No More Pain " (1996)
2Pac "Me Against the World" (1995)
2Pac f/ George Clinton "Can't C Me” (1996)
2Pac "Hold Ya Head" (1996)
2Pac "Pour Out A Lil' Liquor Thug Life" (1994)
Funkmaster Flex f/ 2Pac & The Notorious B.I.G. "Live Freestyle" (1999)
2Pac "So Many Tears" (1995)
2Pac f/ RL "Until The End of Time" (2001)
2Pac "To Live & Die in L.A." (1996)
2Pac "I Wonder If Heaven Got a Ghetto" (1997)
2Pac "Holler If Ya Hear Me"
2Pac "Intro/Bomb First (My Second Reply)" (1996)
Scarface f/ 2Pac "Smile"
2Pac "Troublesome 96"
2Pac f/ Big Syke "All Eyez on Me” (1996)
2Pac "Against All Odds" (1996)
2Pac "Heartz of Men" (1996)
2Pac "Temptations" (1995)
2Pac f/ Big Syke, CPO, and Danny Boy "Picture Me Rollin'” (1996)
2Pac "Changes" (1998)
2Pac "Me and My Girlfriend" (1996)
2Pac f/ Snoop Dogg "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” (1996)
2Pac "If I Die 2Nite" (1995)
2Pac "Ambitionz Az a Ridah" (1996)
2Pac f/ Danny Boy "I Ain't Mad at Cha" (1996)
2Pac "Keep Ya Head Up" (1993)
2Pac f/ K-Ci & JoJo "How Do U Want It?" (1996)
2Pac f/ Outlawz "Hail Mary" (1996)
2Pac f/ Shock G and Money-B "I Get Around" (1993)
2Pac f/ Outlawz "Hit 'Em Up" (1996)
2Pac "Dear Mama" (1995)
2Pac f/ Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman "California Love" (1996)
Producer: Dr. Dre
Album: All Eyez on Me
Label: Death Row/Interscope
This track represents a defining moment for the g-funk era, for 2Pac, and for West Coast rap as a whole. Dr. Dre was already crowned Cali's reigning producer, and when he connected with rap's most controversial star, they created an anthem as colossal as hip-hop itself. Pac was clearly ready for his moment.
He jumped on this "bomb beat from Dre" in rare form: his energy was high, even for him, and his rhymes and cadence were precise and infectious. While Dre kept his attention on praising California, Pac couldn't help but clown the “other” side as not being as real. “L.A. is where we riot not rally.” Dre came away with the illest line tho: “I been in the game for ten years making rap tunes/Ever since honeys was wearing Sassoons.” With the gangsterific Suge Knight scaring the bejeesus out of everyone in the industry, this track could only be interpreted as the opening salvo of a prolonged and potentially violent propaganda war—a takeover bid, if you will.
The futuristic Mad Max style video only added to militaristic underpinning of this hometown funk celebration. Dre's layered production is full of suspense and big basslines. Zapp's Roger Troutman, the original Auto-Tunist, kills the hook, tying the record directly to its electro-funk roots. 15 years later, "California Love" still hits like an earthquake.