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MUSIC: OUT OF JAIL–AND IDEAS

3 minute read
Christopher John Farley

DESPITE HIS CONTROVERSIAL REPutation, Tupac Shakur was always an ambivalent gangsta, at least on record. His 1993 album, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., included an anthem called Keep Ya Head Up that was chivalrously supportive of black women; on his last album, the confrontationally titled Me Against the World, he rapped a surprisingly tender tribute to his mother titled Dear Mama. Even as Shakur was being vilified in the mainstream press as a tough-talkin’, gin-and-juice-drinkin’ gangsta rapper, his songwriting was becoming increasingly intelligent and introspective.

Too bad the trend comes to a halt with the release of his ambitious new album, All Eyez on Me–the first double album in rap history. A year ago, Shakur was convicted of sexually abusing a female fan; now, thanks to recent court decisions that allowed him to be freed while he appeals his conviction, he’s out on $1.4 million bail, and he’s angrier than ever. As the title of his highly anticipated album brags, all eyes are indeed on him–and it’s not a pretty sight.

Shakur seems to have decided that if people were going to criticize him for things he wasn’t doing, if the justice system was going to convict him of a crime he claims he didn’t commit, well, then, he was going to become the most dysfunctionally fearsome gangsta in America just to spite them all. In Wonda Why They Call U Bytch he offers up a dishearteningly crass justification for calling women cruel names. In Ambitionz az a Ridah he raps, conspiratorially, “Now these money-hungry bitches gettin’ suspicious/ Started plottin’ and plannin’ on a scheme to come and twist us.” Since his last album, Shakur has switched from Interscope to Death Row Records, home to controversy-courting rappers Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre, and in the song 2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted Shakur engages in a boastful duet with Snoop that revels shamelessly but tellingly in their shared notoriety.

The songs on Me Against the World had a hard, gritty poetry. They felt confessional, intimate. In So Many Tears Shakur eulogized dead friends; in Can U Get Away he offered up a clever attack on domestic violence in the form of a love song. The lyrics on All Eyez on Me seem rushed, inchoate–we don’t get a look at Shakur’s wounded heart, just a peek at the scribblings in his notebook. Musically, he’s also regressed. On the last CD the melodies were strong and tight, but while there are a few winning tunes on All Eyez on Me–including the soulful I Ain’t Mad at Cha and the amiably defiant Only God Can Judge Me– far too many of the songs sound like the typical drive-by hip-hop–big, smooth grooves and a lot of F words.

Shakur is fiercely talented. He has an ear for tough-but-sweet tunes, an ability to write colloquially eloquent lyrics, and a husky, passionate delivery when he raps. The white power structure he denounces so vehemently must enjoy seeing him squander his gifts reifying its stereotypes of blackness–that is, if the white power structure thinks about him much at all. By leaving the lockup for the world of gangsta rap, he’s just entered another prison.

–By Christopher John Farley

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