Dead On Arrival

There are rumors on the Internet that Tupac Shakur faked his own murder. One conspiracy theorist offers up no fewer than 18 detailed reasons to suspect that the incident was an elaborate hoax. Many of them were circumstantial curiosities: Why wasn't Shakur wearing his everpresent bulletproof vest at such a public event like the Tyson fight, where he was just before the shooting? Why, despite the desert setting of Las Vegas and the presence of numerous bodyguards, has no one been able to locate any trace of the killers? Why were two public memorial services abruptly cancelled?

This, of course, is the stuff of after-dinner bullshit sessions and Oliver Stone movies. Sad to say, but the more persuasive argument for a hoax is conjured from the premise that Shakur has a motherlode of product--two movies and a CD--coming through the pipeline that he needs to hype. If you think that kind of cynical reasoning disrespects the memory of the man, consider the posthumous CD that has just been released on the Death Row label. On it, Shakur adopts the alias Makaveli, a phonetic variation of Machiavelli, the 16th-century political tactician who wrote of, among other things, staging his own death. The cover art depicts Shakur crucified on a cross, like Jesus Christ before the Resurrection. On the last of the CD's dozen tracks, Shakur--an East Coast native now forever representing the West in a geographical battle of words and bullets he helped foment--again declares war on the New York rappers he considered his mortal enemies. Entitled "Against All Odds," the tune ends in a hail of audio gunfire probably not much different from the barrage Shakur took on that street in Las Vegas. So if there's irreverence or cynicism with respect to Tupac's death, it begins at Death Row.

Such is the nature of the gangsta rap game over the past few years. Evolving from the motto of "keeping it real" (ostensibly by exposing and separating the "bitch-ass pretenders" from the legitimate street players), a three-ring soap opera has spiralled out of control, resulting in the corporate equivalent of gang warfare between the friends and supporters of New York-based Bad Boy Entertainment, owned by Sean "Puffy" Combs, and Death Row, whose President and CEO, Suge Knight, was sitting next to Shakur on the night he was killed. While undeniably stupid and tragic, the feud shows how rebellious attitudes and lifestyles get co-opted in a capitalistic society, and highlights the odd, unsettling relationship between mainstream commerce and the violence that too often connotes street credibility in gangsta rap. Obviously, much of the animosity between various East and West Coast rappers--not to mention the threats and weaponry that accompany it--is genuine. But it's equally obvious that the rappers and their record labels are pocketing plenty of dollars because of the publicity generated by the feud and the way it feeds consumer fantasies.

The people at Death Row proudly proclaim their respect for the bottom line, enclosing a "Company Overview" of their marketplace success in the publicity materials for each new CD they release. The latest update notes that over a four-year period through September 1996, Death Row sold over 26 million records, generating gross receipts in excess of $170 million. More than a third of that came from just three CDs: Tupac's All Eyez On Me (6 million sold), Dr. Dre's The Chronic (4 million), and Snoop Doggy Dogg's debut disc (5 million). To move that many units, each record had to "crossover" to the predominantly white, MTV generation of consumers in suburbs and rural areas. And while each of the three multiplatinum sellers was good-to-great musically, each also had a crucial cache of danger, menace, and illicit behavior that enhanced its appeal.

Nobody was wiser--at once more real and more disingenuous--about this game than Tupac Shakur. As fate and Christmas marketing strategies would have it, his Makaveli CD was released almost simultaneously with new records by Dre and Snoop, and with a two-CD set entitled Death Row's Greatest Hits that features all three artists. But what Snoop's Tha Doggfather and Dre's The Aftermath reveal is that neither man has his heart in even pretending to be a gangsta anymore--probably, and understandably, because Shakur's murder was a little too "real" for them.

Dre, who co-founded Death Row, left the label after a dispute with Knight. On The Aftermath, he hedges his bets on a new stylistic direction, serving as the CD's executive producer but appearing under his own name on only one cut, the intentionally jaded "Been There Done That," which sort of announces his exit from the pure gangsta genre. The song, and the entire CD, for that matter, is the polished work of a solid pro, but lacks the languid arrogance that galvanized The Chronic. With that groundbreaking disc, Dre appropriated the mosquito whine The Bomb Squad had executed for Public Enemy, then set it to a droogy haze that approximated a marijuana high. When he came with the menace, it had a hallucinatory quality made all the more giddy by the P-Funk rhythms that alternated with the smoke. The new disc is exactly what it says it is, an aftermath--a clearing and an internal accounting before new ground is conquered.

Snoop's slippery-smooth deadpans and deadly smirks provided the perfect complement to Dre's production. But with Dre's departure and Shakur's death, the pressure was on Snoop to deliver a CD without his sonic alter ego that would nevertheless reestablish the primacy of the Death Row label. Tha Doggfather isn't up to it. The production from DJ Pooh and Dat Nigga Daz mostly reiterates Dre's P-Funk inclinations. Snoop is still a marvelous rapper--his rhythmic grace and timing are impeccable and his pinched tone remains utterly distinctive--but his passions here are bragging about how rich and popular he is and how much he likes to abuse women, in between advising kids to become doctors and lawyers. Suffice to say that the best track on Doggfather may be a rock-inflected remake of Biz Markee's "Vapors."

With R&B-oriented yet roughhewn production and more impulsively tossed-off raps (delivered in his nondescript, staccato style), Shakur's Makaveli is nowhere near as well-crafted as either the Dre or Snoop disks. But, sounding like outtakes from All Eyez On Me, it's gangsta rap to the core. With a mind that twirls like a roulette wheel and a bravado intent on turning his life into a game of Russian roulette, Shakur disses Dre for leaving Death Row, telling him and all others who engage in "peace talk" that they can "Kiss my ass from here to across the street/ It's on."

His pressurized universe is made all the more apparent on "Krazy," a profoundly sad song about being drug-addled and exhausted. But Shakur holds forth with his doomsday mission: "Life Of An Outlaw" is set to some flamenco guitar line and bumpity bass, while "Me and My Girlfriend" establishes his parallel fantasy with Bonnie and Clyde. But the most memorable lyric is on the appropriately titled "White Man'z World," when Shakur says with an equal mixture of contempt and glee, "All these muthafuckahs want to be like us/ Be the have-nots."

Listening to Death Row's Greatest Hits, it is that sinister luxuriation in thug privilege that comes through, that sense that not only are they in the promised land, but that they get to tear shit up along the way. You hear it in the molasses drawl of Snoop's introductory greeting, "Bow wow wow/ Yippee yo yippee yea.."; in Dre's gorgeous production and matter-of-fact brutality, even on relatively recent tracks like "Keep Their Heads Ringin'"; and in Shakur's psychological ricochet between odes to his mama and paranoid screeds against the world.

But now, it seems, the Death Row juggernaut has been broken--even Knight is feeling heat over a potential parole violation that could strip him of day-to-day control of his company. While Shakur nemeses like Mobb Deep are making records that point toward the future of gangsta rap, Death Row's best meal ticket is gone forever; their best producer is literally consorting with the "enemy" (the East Coast collaborations are among the highlights on Dre's Aftermath); and with Doggfather, their remaining superstar has proven himself in need of visionary producer to maximize his talent. Death Row has too much momentum, geographical loyalty, and pure skills among its personnel to fall off totally. But the aura of commercial and creative invincibility that once surrounded the label has faded like the haze of blunts already smoked.

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