Kind of Red

July 28, 2011

2Pacalypse Now

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Painted One @ 4:19 am

Tupac Amaru Shakur

 Editor’s Note: This article appears in the July 2011 Issue of Hip-Hop Stardom 101

“The tragedy of Tupac is that his untimely passing is representative of too many young black men in this country . . . If we had lost Oprah Winfrey at twenty-five, we would have lost a relatively unknown, local market TV anchorwoman.  If we had lost Malcolm X at twenty-five, we would have lost a hustler named Detroit Red.  If Martin Luther King died at twenty-five he would’ve been known as a local Baptist preacher.  And if I had left the world at twenty-five, we would have lost a big-band trumpet player and aspiring composer—just a sliver of my eventual life potential.”

-Quincy Jones

Quincy Jones penned those famous words as part of the foreword in the commemorative book Vibe Magazine issued in the fall of 1998 celebrating the life and legacy of slain rapper and actor Tupac Shakur.  As Mr. Jones astutely opined, an “untimely” death robbed legions of adoring fans, ardent critics and casual onlookers alike from the opportunity to observe how the rose that grew from concrete would ultimately bloom.  We will never learn what Tupac would have become were he still with us.  Nevertheless, one thing is certain, nearly fifteen years since his death, Tupac Amaru Shakur remains a cultural icon.

His life and professional career are well documented.  Born in the East Harlem section of Manhattan one month after his mother’s acquittal on more than 150 charges of “conspiracy against the United States government and New York landmarks” in the New York Panther Party 21 case, it would seem Tupac was destined to live the life of a revolutionary artist.  His mother named him after José Gabriel Túpac Amaru II, one of the leaders of the indigenous Peruvian people’s uprising against the Spanish in 1780.  As an adolescent, he displayed his considerable artistic gifts as he bounced from Harlem to Baltimore to Marin City California.  It was in Marin City where his immense gifts led to a chance meeting with Atron Gregory, who later set Tupac up as a roadie and backup dancer for Digital Underground in 1990.

Tupac, 2pac, Same Song, Digital Underground

Tupac and Shock G of Digital Underground

With an outstanding verse in Digital Underground’s Same Song, a tune that appeared on the soundtrack to the 1991 film Nothing But Trouble, Tupac emerged as a rising star in urban music.  He subsequently released his debut studio album, 2Pacalypse Now, in November of that year. The album ignited fiery debates about the propriety of its release (Dan Quayle once famously quipped, “There’s no reason for a record like this to be released. It has no place in our society.”) and received Gold certification from RIAA.   In that same year, he appeared in Juice, to critical acclaim, as the combustible character Bishop.  He followed the success of 2Pacalypse Now and his appearance in Juice with his platinum sophomore album, entitled Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z, in addition to a critically acclaimed acting performance in the film Above the Rim and a smattering of television appearances.  Afterwards, he continued releasing material that garnered critical acclaim and commercial success, beginning with his seminal work, Me Against the World (widely heralded as a hip-hop classic and RIAA certified as 2x platinum). Tupac followed Me Against the World with All Eyez on Me (also regarded as a hip-hop classic and RIAA certified as 9x platinum).

In short, Tupac transcended hip-hop and dominated the culture with his five short years in the spotlight.  He sold tens of millions of records, topped Billboard charts, appeared in major motion pictures, sparked numerous national debates on censorship and was a central figure in the legendary inter-coastal hip-hop rivalry.

On a cool evening in September in 1996 it all came to an abrupt end when an unknown gunman fired a barrage of bullets into the car he rode in on the way to a Las Vegas nightclub.  In the first several years after his death, the public was inundated with Tupac: nine posthumous albums, three posthumous film appearances, fourteen documentaries covering his career and legacy, et cetera.

Nevertheless, in recent months, it is as though Tupac is more alive today than ever.  Around this time last year, the Library of Congress added Tupac’s highly revered single Dear Mama to the National Recording Registry, calling the song “a moving and eloquent homage to both the murdered rapper’s own mother and all mothers struggling to maintain a family in the face of addiction, poverty and societal indifference.”  President Obama made a passing reference to Tupac at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner in April.  In May emerging rapper Meek Mill released his enormously popular single, Tupac Back feat. Rick Ross (the song subsequently spawned a slew of uninspiring remixes).  Last month, Dexter Isaac confessed to participating in the November 1994 shooting of Tupac.  This summer, Tupac’s fortieth birthday celebration seemed more elaborate and more publicized than prior celebrations.  Such is a testament to his lasting impact, and while also begging the question, “Is Tupac back?”

Tupac, Poetic Justice, Tupac Shakur, 2Pac

Tupac in a scene from Poetic Justice

In a word, “No.”  Regardless of the number of radio spins and digital downloads Meek Mill’s Tupac Back might accomplish, none of them will prove sufficient to warrant apt comparisons between Tupac and Meek Mill.  If anything, the song serves as a vivid reminder of the stark difference between the two and all other rappers who have emerged after Tupac’s death.  There is yet another reason the answer is no, and that is because it is as though Tupac never left us (all conspiracy theories aside).  Tupac embodied what hip-hop purports to be.

Hip-hop, when done right, is merely a microcosm of a larger cultural, economic, historical, political, spiritual struggle of African Americans in their quest for developing an identity in American society initially, and now other cultures across the world who have subsequently become impacted by that expression. At its core, hip-hop is a distinct expression of the people.  Tupac’s catalog encapsulated that expression.  As scholar Michael Eric Dyson stated, “[Tupac] spoke with brilliance and insight as someone who bears witness to the pain of those who would never have his platform.”  His work captured the joys, struggles, desperation and triumph of African Americans wrestling with an inherently unequal access to this nation’s most precious promises.  It also captured the violence, bigotry, misogyny, lasciviousness and covetousness that have plagued our society.  As Quincy Jones noted in his foreword, Tupac was a man “cloaked in contradictions.”  Indeed he was; the same man who wrote Keep Ya Head Up wrote I Get Around, the same man behind Brenda’s Got a Baby thrust How Do You ant It upon the world.

Perhaps Tupac’s greatest strength doubled as his greatest weakness, his unflinching ability to speak his mind.  This innate quality allowed for him to speak his mind, regardless of whom such thoughts might offend.  He simply had little regard for the consequences of his words.  Tupac seemingly feared the wrath his conscience would inflict upon him for keeping silent more than he feared the backlash of any person.  That desire to tell the truth of what lay in his heart, even when it revealed unseemly desires simultaneously captivated fans and incensed his critics.   It also still fascinates us today, as is evidenced by his continued relevance in the culture.  If Tupac is truly back, perhaps his reemergence will show us of who we truly are and remind us the perilous path where many of our inordinate affections lead.

Tupac, Suge, Vegas, Tyson fight, Tupac and Suge Knight

Tupac and Suge Knight moments before the shooting that resulted in Tupac's death



  1. Nice writeup….”Changes” was also the first American song to be put on the Vatican’s playlist….check it:

    http://www.prnewswire%5Bdot%5Dcom/news-releases/tupacs-changes-named-as-one-of-the-vaticans-12-favorite-songs-for-new-myspace-music-playlist-78752967.html <—.replaced .com with [dot]com

    Comment by Jason — December 13, 2011 @ 10:10 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for your kind words Jason, and thank you for you the information. I will be sure to note it.

      Comment by The Painted One — March 19, 2012 @ 11:06 am | Reply

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