But though skeptical, I was hardly impervious to that mystique, especially as Tupac embodied it physically. A star on the beauty of his eyes alone--soulfully mocking, suggesting more than their possessor ever delivered verbally, simultaneously arrogant and penitent--Shakur always struck me as a graven image unjustly forced to compose his own psalms. Or, since film was more his métier, a character actor sentenced to a lifetime of improv. He did better when someone else penned his scripts. What made Tupac alluring was his apparent artlessness. But what made him effective was an outside force--Juice director Ernest Dickerson, "California Love" producer Dr. Dre, even public tastes--insisting he focus his artistic energies instead of dissipating them over two-disk rambles.
The executive producers of Still I Rise are too forgiving to help. This low-bumping rat-a-tat, synth-and-wahwah mush is the sound of gangsta ambient, dissipating into swirls like secondhand chronic smoke. And the lyrics are equally wispy. Those who say Shakur was about to flip the script, return to his Black Panther roots, and emerge as Eldridge Cleaver 2000 are directed to the socially conscious "The Good Die Young," which, while admirably pro-choice, pro-AIDS education, and anti-Buchanan, is also adamantly anti-"Planes falling from the sky." Way to speak truth to power, Pac! (At least he didn't sample Billy Joel--probably because BJ wouldn't lend Afeni his copyrighted hook gratis.)
Most telling, the very first track here fades into a cry of "Ain't nothin' changed," a fatalist mantra that sadly grows truer with each repetition. It's no fluke that Tupac scored his last hit by sampling Bruce Hornsby's "The Way it Is." His career demonstrates how violent spontaneity triggers stasis, how rage can lead to complacency. The premonitions Biggie had of his own death never sapped his conviction that he deserved his upward mobility; the rewards Tupac enjoyed never tempered his ascetically grim pessimism. As with most pop icons, Tupac's secret weapon was his essential unknowability, and death confirmed not only this essential distance, but also the futility of his vision. And so, eternally ineffectual, Tupac can never really die. Some things never change.