Wednesday, June 27, 2007

a riff on Tupac Shakur

Out of all the rappers that dropped around 1990, Tupac Shakur tops them all by having crossed the line of icon and idiot. This is apparent by the life that was provided for him, verses the life he chose in the end. For those of us who followed Tupac since the beginning of his career watched him grow from neo-Black nationalist to gangsta rapper in the blink of an eye. 2Pacalypse Now, his most powerful album next
to Me Against the World, displayed a self-taught poet in the making. He managed to gain fans of all cultures based on his original approach to lyricism (a trait that Emenim admits to have stolen for his own style) and vocal distinction. You always knew when Tupac was on the track; not to mention he proved his acting chops in the underrated Gridlock’d (eclipsing the pointless Poetic Justice – a vehicle for Janet Jackson that suffered behind her telegraphed acting which did nothing to honor her later work, on The Velvet Rope – her best album to date) and Above the Rim (not a good movie; but an important film for the times, that also created perhaps the best soundtrack of the 90s, including the ground breaking song “Pain” by Tupac). Yet Shakur’s death was of no surprise, which plays into the “Tupac’s still alive” silliness that has infected popular culture to no end (get a clue, people…HE’S DEAD!). The theories come from the “Tupac is still releasing albums” talk and yet most people forget to sit back and think of one simple fact: Tupac was prolific! It doesn’t occur to pop culture lovers – who give Tupac the Elvis image -- what true genius is, in that Tupac wrote and recorded quickly and was serious about himself as an artist from day one even though before his life ended he was forced (by gun point) to hold up a “gangsta” image that he finally had no choice but to play into. What is missed is that Tupac feared for his life since the day Suge Knight bailed him out. The Mafioso mentality that infected Death Row Records was a syndrome that was nearly impossible to escape (and most are scared to admit that All Eyes On Me was Shakur’s most amateurish album that held one song of brilliance: “Got My Mind Made Up”. And that was because of the surprise guest rappers that continued to appear – Dat Nigga Daz, Kurupt, Method Man & Redman) and despite the fact that Shakur recorded like a mad man to celebrate his “get out of jail free” card, he was still under the pressure of maintaining his “Thug Life” image:

"...I live Thug Life,
baby I’m hopeless.
Chokin’ off indo,
Tryin’ tuh keep ma’

This would be enough to drive any person to insanity. Shakur maintained the image of being misunderstood, while screaming for help through his music. It’s clear in “Ain’t Nothin’ Butta Gangsta Party” with Snoop Dogg that Shakur was so deep into the American psyche that even to put out garbage like that would win him world wide praise and presence in boomin’ systems across the nation. Shakur searched for loyalty in his peers but couldn’t shake the fact that they were all hanging on his coat tail for popularity and pussy, so much to the point that it drove a man ahead of his time to an early grave. Had Shakur not been killed he would have killed himself and gained a bigger media memorial than Hunter S. Thompson based strictly on his iconic status. Before he died Shakur had just scratched the surface of his ability; and, like Malcolm X who before his death was ready to take America to the World Court for racial misconduct, Shakur was ready to show his fans that he could be forgiven for his latter-day Death Row bullshit that fooled listeners into believing they were hearing ground breaking hip-hop. It’s like people who thought that Stankonia was Outkasts first album -- inaccurate and ridiculous. It only proves of a popular culture (white kids) so far behind that they caught up in the aftermath, and this brings rage to those of us who were there from the beginning. It’s unfortunate that most people didn’t experience Shakur’s “Definition of a Thug Nigga” where he breaks down, in plain English (so plain, it would be easy to misunderstand his true nature) what a “thug” really is:

“…before I go broke,
I’ll be a drug dealer,
A thug nigga.”

Shakur took the victim hood mentality and turned it over so that it could resonate to everyday life. The struggle of a “thug nigga” seems no different from your everyday corporate mover and shaker. Shakur brought a necessity to survival that seemed as though we were all living this struggle, making his music – perhaps – the most relevant of it’s times. In the gut wrenching “So Many Tears” which is the truest forecast to Shakur’s death :

“…now that I’m strugglin’ in this business
by any means
label me greedy gettin’ green
but seldom seen
and fuck the world cuz I’m cursed
I’m havin’ visions of leavin’ here in a Hurst,
God can you feel me…”

He goes on to predict:

“Now I’m lost and I’m weary,
so many tears,
I’m suicidal
So don’t stand near me
My every move is a calculated step
To bring me close
To embrace an early death
There’s nothin’ left…”

This was pre-Suge Knight and post-Digital Underground, putting Shakur at the mercy of his own brilliance. It seemed as though everyone wanted a piece of him (Digital Underground being the most genuine) and Shakur was stuck in the middle of staying true to his gifts and giving over to super stardom. Shakur couldn’t avoid his popularity. In a world where individuality is taboo, Shakur was the exception and eventually a traitor of his own self. He conformed to what was asked of him because he didn’t have a choice: Shakur was TRULY a victim. Perhaps one of the only victims of the last fifty years who was asked to sell his soul to the Devil in order to be free (literally) which caused him to be the most important tragic hero of our times. He was a man of contradictions. It’s hard to forgive Shakur near the end of his life (the alleged sodomy, pulling a gun on a police officer) and yet, it’s hard to argue with his rage. Shakur was a man who was born to a black panther crack-mother (now recovered, so to speak) and yet went to Baltimore’s school of arts. He found his creative chops and excelled; though we praise hacks like 50 Cent, Nelly, and Ja’ Rule (the fake Shakur “replacement”) one has to understand that there will be no other artist like Shakur. He was intelligent, violent, loud, skilled, motivated, self-deprecating, cocky, sweet, respectful, beautiful, and stupid all at the same time; and most people don’t allow for these types of contradictions to shine through. He knew how to pump gangsta-isms and still find some of the most resonating lyrical boundaries that have ever been explored, as he did on “If I Die Tonight” from Strictly for my N.I.G.G.A.Z.:

“…jealous niggas and broke bitches
Equal packed jails…”

Even when he did the powerful and melo-dramatic ass-kissing “Keep Ya Head Up” to send “support” to black women, he still followed up the track with the classic fuck-fest “I Get Around”, which crushed the point to “Keep Ya Head Up” and still got those black women he was supporting to dance along with enthusiasm to his masochistic madness. Shakur understood that his audience went beyond the ghetto. He understood that through his misunderstood nature that he would still find a core of listeners to relate to his chaos. One can only give Shakur praise for what he did and hopefully understand what it truly means to be a victim in black America.

-- anthony d'juan

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writer, actor, & producer in training. in 2005, along side my partner in film and best friend since childhood, we produced and executed 3 films. to this day i am still working in "the business" to the best of my abilities and moving forward to the "next level." currently i am producing a film project, co-writing another, awaiting word on a stage play for New York, and pursuing my next one-person show. i'm also in school pursuing my Ph.D in Social Science.