Thug Life & Times

Tupac Shakur gets out of jail and makes half a masterpiece.

Thugs don't come any more marketable than Tupac Shakur. A gorgeous movie star and convicted criminal, he's a manchild of 24 who has walked the delirious walk of the gangsta lifestyle and talked its talk for fame and fortune. His street credibility was forever cinched on the night of November 30, 1994, when he was shot five times in an incident the police categorized as a robbery; Tupac claimed he was set up, and implied that a number of prominent New York hip-hop artists may have been involved.

Since then, tensions which have always existed between East- and West-coast rap cartels have been exacerbated, and the result has become a sinister soap opera. There have been media reports that Tupac was raped in jail, where he was serving a sentence for sexual assault handed down just days after his shooting; and that he revenged himself against former protégé Biggie Smalls (a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G.)--whom Tupac suspected of being involved in his setup--by "stealing" Biggie's wife, R&B singer Faith Evans. While either of those tales might be shrugged off as incendiary gossip, there is no getting around the fact that another former ally, also accused by Tupac of potentially playing a part in his setup, was murdered last year--on the first anniversary of the shooting.

Obviously, the controversy hasn't hurt Tupac's profile. In recent months, both before and after the February release of his new CD, All Eyez On Me, he has graced the covers not only of hip-hop bible The Source and mainstream black music magazines like Vibe, but also The New York Times Magazine. It's as if Tupac's career were being scripted by Paddy Chayefsky; the screenwriter whose best movies (Network and The Hospital) moved briskly between riveting hyperreality and broad farce.

All Eyez On Me, which Tupac's label trumpets correctly as the first double CD of original material in the history of rap, manages something similar to Chayefsky. Having dropped the band name Thug Life (though the phrase remains tattooed across his stomach), Tupac now occasionally refers to himself as Makaveli, a clear tribute to the ruthless master tactician Niccolo Machiavelli. And the set's first disc--"Book 1"--may be the most integrated manifestation of gangsta pop yet. It's a masterpiece of hummable menace, pride, and anguish, gleaming with brilliant mixes that open the ears for the most sage and succinct messages Tupac has ever delivered. "Book 2," however, is full of crotch-grabbing clichés, merely raw meat for those whose sorry dicks get hard over thoughts of abusing women and killing men.

On both volumes, Tupac leans hard on concrete experience for context and resonance, simultaneously revealing his gangsta bona fides and his creative limitations. His rhymes flex little in the way of vocabulary or metaphor (he's no Keith Murray), his flow is rock-solid but sticks to the basics (compare his delivery to Snoop Dogg's slippery cool on the duet "2 Of Americaz Most Wanted"), and his tone lacks any distinctive attribute like the nasal whine of B-Real or the deadpan of Too Short. But for Tupac, tone or metaphor would only add static to the purity of his message. Whether he's mourning the cost of violence on the ballad "Life Goes On," or threatening his enemies on "No More Pain" and "Holla At Me," he grabs words that cut to the bone.

This is especially true of All Eyez On Me, which Tupac has described as a cleansing spew, the product of getting shot and then landing in jail for nearly a year on what he believes is a trumped-up charge. Death lurks all over these discs: "They shot five times/but real niggaz don't die," he declaims on "No More Pain," yet acknowledges two songs later, "Be a lie/If I told ya/I never thought of death/My niggaz we're the last one's left." And on "Only God Can Judge Me," even the heavy vocal effects can't blunt his paranoid stream of consciousness, a ramble through hell that moves from "They say it's the white man that I should fear/But it's my brothers doin' all the killin'," to a plea for his mother to save him, to a cry of "fuck peace," to an assertion that no man can judge him. Sure, contradictions abound, but if you're looking for coherence, you stumbled into the wrong autobiography.

Sometimes Tupac's boneheaded arrogance topples in on itself, especially when it comes to women: After boasting that "bustin' bitches is a hobby" on "Check Out Time," his romantic pretensions on the very next track--"You need a thug in your life.../Give this thug a try"--are a tad inadequate. But those who can stomach this part of the gangsta rap terrain will be richly rewarded by Book 1's silky funk, crisp hooks, and memorable samples. On "Skandalouz," producer Dat Nigga Daz bathes the mix in jazzy, ethereal keyboards and percussion. "How Do U Want It" features a beautiful guitar hook and a slinky groove supporting the guest vocals of Jodeci's KC and JoJo. Quality control is so high here that Dr. Dre's Zapp-style jam, "California Love" (the CD's first single) is no better than half the songs on the disc. I count a half-dozen instant classics, more than one could assemble from all of Tupac's previous work combined.

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