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Biographical Dictionary of Rap: Tupac Shakur

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More than any of those definitive images of 2Pac, strutting down the street in a hospital gown, ‘Mad Max’-ed out in the ‘California Love’ video, or the entire ‘Me Against the World’ album- it’s the video he directed for Mac Mall’s ‘Ghetto Theme’ that gets closest to unpacking Tupac Shakur.

The video’s the kind of thing that hip-hop outsiders- the people that always break the biggest and least deserving rappers- would see and approve of because of its cloying anti-violence message. Basically, Mall gets shot over a dice game, his spirit leaves his body and accompanies his now wracked-with-guilt shooter, watches his mourning friends and family, and in the final moments, stops a mourning friend (played by Tupac) from retaliating and shooting Mall’s shooter, who still wracked with guilt, is crying at Mall’s grave. It’s quintessential Tupac, this uncomfortable mix of ghetto realness, embarrassingly sincere sentimentality, and cloying manipulation. It’s also pretty good and very affecting.

But it’s primarily good for contrast because it’s Tupac interpreting and ultimately, misreading the work of another, better, actual West Coast artist, Mac Mall. ‘Ghetto Theme’, the song, is the second to last track on ‘Illegal Business?’- that question mark at the end of the title is more political than anything Tupac ever dropped- and is the realistic but heartfelt plea to you know, “stop the violence” after an album that properly mixes street and pimp talk with frustrated indictments of violence and government corruption. Mall’s annoyed with guys like Tupac (or who Tupac would become) when he says stuff like, “Damn, I thought we were smarter than that”. I’d add, Mall reaches into the reality of reckless youth and blah blah blah in his brief shit-talking performance at the beginning of the video in a way that Tupac only performed in ‘Juice’. You feel it in the video and all over ‘Illegal Business?’; Put in a Tupac movie or a Tupac album and you feel Tupac trying to make you feel it.

Of course, people love a performance and not a performance, and Tupac gave complacent thugs, overzealous Marley/Dylan worshipping rock critics looking for the next rockist or pseudo-rockist poet to write about, sad white kids with slutty moms in middle school, and everyone else someone to embrace. And he courted these fans significantly more than actual rap fans. His apparent disinterest in the quality of beats he rapped on is an example, but more important and rarely discussed is the way Tupac mixed his vocal ridiculously high- an obvious concession to non-rap listener’s ears, making it easier to hear his convoluted and contradictory (not complex) message songs.

Tupac’s intelligence was about average and this is why he’s so appealing to the average person; he makes them feel good about themselves but rarely challenges them. His songs suck out the gray area in which hip-hop thrived and replaced it with the much easier to digest black (angry, “I don’t give a fuck” songs) or white- saccharine songs of regret and outrage that feel less like introspection and more like admitting flaws enough to cover one’s ass. ‘Me Against the World’ is essential listening; ‘Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z’ has its charms, it’s like diet, caffeine free West Coast rap.

Written by Brandon

March 20th, 2008 at 8:12 pm