WHEN THE YOUNGER generation asks me if the late Tupac Shakur was in the same class as a Malcolm X or MLK, 15-odd years down the road, will I back their claims that he was a hero? Or will I tell them what I really felt about the hostile rap artist/actor? That his music wasn't life-changing at its best, and degenerated into commercial garbage by the time his final album was released. That I saw him as an inherently good person with mad smarts who chose to live a self-destructive sham of a life in public in order to be admired by those behind-the-scenes who had once ridiculed him.
The new book on Tupac Shakur by the editors at Vibe magazine should allow many of those kids to make their own decisions. As most already know, the hip-hop wunderkind was the child of a former Black Panther, and his entire career--from his days as a roadie for the Bay Area's anti-gangstas, Digital Underground, through his final moments as a self-styled mafioso/lackey under Death Row executive/thug Suge Knight--was marked with one mishap or tragedy after another. Imagine Tupac as rap music's answer to the biblical Job--shit just kept happening to him.
In some ways, the mere publication of the book confirms what many are already predicting: that Tupac will go down in the (hipper) history books as the volatile representative of a generation of misunderstood black youth. However, rather than create a glorified monument to their oft-examined subject, the editors have instead put together a surprisingly unbiased and insightful catalog of the tragic entertainer's life. Told through a compilation of stories--some new, most previously published in issues of Vibe magazine--the book reads almost like a hip-hop Hoop Dreams as readers follow Tupac on his road to becoming rap's best-selling artist, all the while trying to "keep it real."
The collection is worth its price for the insight of the first piece alone, a stunning introduction by Danyel Smith, which is both the most accurate summary of his career in print as well as the most honest, compelling, no-holds-barred examination of 'Pac's troubled life ("He's another hero we don't need, but Tupac's built, in death even, to last... his life was made-for-mythologizing."). Lest the writers fall into the mistake of deifying their subject with high-minded conjecture, the prose is grounded by reader letters that offer incredibly blunt criticism and praise: "Stop making movies and videos with gangs and guns and start showing some more productive shit," one such note reads.
This impressive compilation of young writing talent is complemented by beautiful photos of Tupac throughout, many first published here. The end result is a fitting testament to 'Pac: the dead man of the past, and the legend-in-progress of the future. Quincy Jones captures this best in the book's opening passage: "Who knows what (Tupac) would have gone on to?" Jones writes. "He was only 25 years of age.... If we had lost Malcolm X at 25, we would have lost a hustler named Detroit Red... just a sliver of his eventual life potential." A sobering thought--regardless of the fact that Tupac chose to follow a dangerous road for which death seemed the only logical outcome.