Túpac Shakur at 50: Remembering an underdog prophet
“There will be no insufficiency in love.”
-Túpac Shakur, “After the Miscarriage” in The Rose That Grew from Concrete
Túpac Amaru was the last Incan monarch, hunted down and publicly executed by the Spanish in the presence of the Bishop of Cuzco. At his execution, as his former subjects cried out, the captured king calmed them with these Quechuan words: “Pacha Kamaq, witness how my enemies shed my blood.”
Túpac Amaru Shakur II was born Lesane Parish Crooks on June 16, 1971, in East Harlem. He would have been 50 years old this week. At age one, his mother renamed him after the 16th-century Incan monarch. He never entirely replaced it in the common hip-hop custom when he became a rapper. (This excludes a short period when he identified as MC New York.) 2Pac released four studio albums, including his 1991 debut, “2Pacalypse Now,” and his final historic double album in 1996, “All Eyez on Me.” His first posthumous album was released under his pseudonym, Makaveli. He is commonly addressed as “Pac.”
Shakur suffered a tragic and violent death at the age of 25. At 4:03 p.m. on Sept. 13, 1996, he succumbed to his wounds after being shot six days earlier in Las Vegas. His murder, which remains unsolved, was widely disbelieved and mythologized; numerous theories and explanations continue to this day. Some have called him “Black Elvis.” “Hip-hop ain’t been the same since Tupac moved to Cuba on us,” raps Eminem in “Fubba U Cubba Cubba.”
Shakur’s formation was marked by the suffering of struggle and poverty, but also by love expressed through Black empowerment and the arts.
Shakur’s formation was marked by the suffering of struggle and poverty, but also by love expressed through Black empowerment and the arts. He was a lover of Shakespeare and Van Gogh, Geronimo and Machiavelli, but above all he loved his mother, Afeni Shakur, a frequent subject of his music and interviews.
In “Dear Mama,” his mother—who was an activist and a member of the Black Panther Party— is heard recounting her acquittal and release from prison a month and three days before Shakur was born. Her activism informed his socially conscious or “woke” Black upbringing. Túpac Shakur was also a member of the Young Communist League USA and studied jazz, poetry, dance and theater in high school at the Baltimore School for the Arts.
In a 1988 interview, a 17-year-old Shakur comes across as a soft-spoken but assertive teenager, giving quick but thoughtful answers, including an ambitious critique of American educational curricula and contemporary politics. A sudden cross-country move to the San Francisco Bay Area disrupted his schooling, which then ended when he dropped out of Tamalpais High School.
Shakur’s songs were never motivated by the kind of shocking hyperbole or gratuitous raunch so typical of young rappers seeking fame.
Shakur’s artistic break came with the Digital Underground, an alternative funk-based hip-hop collective from Oakland, Calif. He worked as a roadie and dancer extra for a tour that landed him a feature in their EP “Same Song.” In the music video, he appears as an African king and sets himself apart from the more comedic commercial and conventional rappers.
This period of hip-hop was a time of departure from the harder, aggressive gangsta rap of West Coast groups like N.W.A. The rise of MC Hammer’s simplistic, apolitical pop-rap was reliant on repetition and samples, paving the way for entertainment-driven rap, like Vanilla Ice, and offering a marketable and safe cultural product for white audiences.
Shakur broke away from this trend, even breaking from the alternative rap of Digital Underground. In his solo work, he returned to the West Coast gangsta rap genre with the addition of conscious and critical social commentary. While he treated many of the same themes and subjects as gangsta rap, like street and gang violence, drugs and sex, Shakur’s songs were never motivated by the kind of shocking hyperbole or gratuitous raunch so typical of young rappers seeking fame. His emotions, while often indignant and angry, had a wider range of expression. And he always respected the “Old School”: “What more could I say, I wouldn’t be here today/ If the old school didn’t pave the way.”
His vocal flow had a sing-song musicality with precise phrasings, especially at the end of bar phrases that could be elongated, like a sung note, or cut off in a more spoken staccato. Shakur clearly favored an intelligible delivery over style and speed, avoiding performance pyrotechnics or mumble rap, and his sense of syncopation and swung time was notably jazz-like. His delivery didn’t rap over beats so much as enter into their musical environment. For this reason, many of his most iconic tracks are remixes or R&B-styled productions rather than breakbeat loops. His voice timbre could be direct and ballad-like but could also growl.
Shakur's version of gangsta rap was rebellious, protesting police brutality and racism, but it never celebrated this rebellion as an end unto itself.
Shakur embraced rap as poetry, in the ancient spiritual sense of being oral and musical but with modern freedom and improvisation. He was known to enter a studio or vocal booth with no material and walk out with a track and, in a few days, an album.
Shakur’s writing was realistic in its imagery and psychologically forthcoming, with magical moments of aphoristic insight. Above all, Shakur’s verse was raw with an unparalleled economy of expression. His denuded and painful descriptions were always accompanied by political and social interpretation. He was an immoral moralist whose moralism was in part a protest against himself but also a protest against the society that had made and unmade him. In this sense, he was a tortured artist.
His writing was also in constant conversation with the Black abolitionist intellectual and artistic tradition, a tradition that now includes his music. Take “Keep Ya Head Up,” a song dedicated to Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old girl unlawfully shot whose murder is attributed as one of the causes of the 1992 L.A. riots. Shakur opens the song with a double allusion to a Harlem Renaissance novel by Wallace Thurman and the blaxploitation film “Foxy Brown”: “Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” The same line inspires its own track in Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 tribute to Shakur, “2 Pimp a Butterfly” (which ends with a simulated interview of Shakur from the grave).
Shakur was also an actor and a visual artist, an active part of the MTV music video era. The official video for what is perhaps his most classical tragedy, “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” begins with the note: “Based on a true story.” Mournful R&B harmonies sing the title as a refrain, as a quick 166 beats per minute in 4/4 time keeps it from dragging. Shakur enters at the 40-second mark, telling the harrowing parable and horror story of an abused 12-year-old girl who brings a child to term without anyone noticing until, on a hard bathroom floor she “didn’t know what to throw away and what to keep.” This line captures her grim situation and foreshadows a desperate infanticide. The story concludes with Brenda’s ultimate fate on a headline that reads “Prostitute Found Slain” before hitting the three-minute mark. The story ends with the sung finale: “Don’t you know she got a, don’t you know she’s got a, don’t you know she’s got a baby”—leaving the listener to process what they have just heard. It is every bit as beautifully brutal as a Cormac McCarthy novel except the style is that of a journalistic documentary, not epic and biblical.
Shakur refused to provincialize Black expression as a class apart from the classical or historical canon.
Shakur’s gritty and graphic realism was part and parcel of what “thug life” entailed. His version of gangsta rap was rebellious, protesting police brutality and racism, but it never celebrated this rebellion as an end unto itself. Shakur was a tortured tragedian. He frequently discussed contemplating suicide, both socially and personally. Alongside his signature political consciousness was a profound literary awareness. Shakur praised Shakespeare in a 1993 interview with Chuck Phillips: “He wrote some of the rawest stories, man. I mean look at ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ That’s some serious ghetto shit.... Real tragic stuff.” Across his interviews, Shakur was deeply aware that violence and perversity are as old as the Greek epics and tragedies, or the transatlantic slave trade and chattel slavery. He refused to provincialize Black expression as a class apart from the classical or historical canon.
In the original Portuguese edition of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he dedicates his book to the “esfarrapados do mundo”—“the ragged of the world.” This historical reference describes the warrior who will not stop fighting even though he or she keeps losing, from the Guerra dos Farrapos in Brazil to all those fighting injustice across the world. This Freirian sensibility would include Shakur’s Incan namesake. A thug for Shakur was a tragic underdog, a farrapo, a worn and ragged fighter trying to live while being aware (conscientização was Freire’s term of choice in Portuguese, meaning conscientization) of the prospect of death. In Shakur’s own words, “A thug is an underdog, 1,000 against one and still fighting.”
In The Prophetic Faith, Martin Buber defines the prophet in the following way: “[T]he connection of the nabi [prophet] is not that of one who predicts.” Rather, “To be a nabi means to set the audience, to whom the words are addressed, before the choice and decision, directly or indirectly. The future is not something already fixed in this present hour, it is dependent upon the real decision, that is to say the decision in which man takes part in this hour.”
After his death, the image and posthumous album acquired even greater meaning. The Christological portrayal of himself formed part of his notion of thug life.
In this sense, Shakur was a prophet. He did not so much predict our present situation; that same situation had already preceded him. Shakur was prophetic in this Buberian sense because he unapologetically addressed his community, a Black audience, and set the decision before them. That prophetic decision was what it has always been: liberation and abolition. Shakur understood that the future was fragile and even saw himself emerge as a scapegoat and victim in a “White Man’z World,” a track ending with a quote by Louis Farrakhan: “Native Americans, Blacks and all other non-white people were to be the burden bearers for the real citizens of this nation.”
His most explicitly religious iconography appears in his posthumous album, where the cover art features a commissioned drawing by Ronald “Riskie” Brent of a crucified Shakur with a disclaimer by Makaveli: “In no way is this portrait an expression of disrespect for Jesus Christ.” After his death, the image and posthumous album acquired even greater meaning. The Christological portrayal of himself formed part of his notion of thug life. He seemed to accept his experience being shot, imprisoned and hated by his enemies, which sometimes included his own Black community, as a kind of fate or destiny. For Shakur, the life of Christ was surely a thug life, abandoned by friend and foe. His album “Me Against the World” delivers this 2Pac contra mundum message most directly, especially in the vulnerable “So Many Tears” and “Lord Knows.”
Like most Black music, from Coltrane’s “Love Supreme” to Marvin Gaye’s “God Is Love” to Lauryn Hill’s “Zion” to D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah,” Shakur’s imagination was saturated with religious imagery and metaphor, psalms and prayers, including the Our Father and Hail Mary. His song “Only God Can Judge Me” is both defiant and judgmental, presenting a penetrating and unsparing social analysis of violence. We might compare this kind of complexity to the poetry of Leonard Cohen, but where Cohen offers “the holy or the broken hallelujah,” Shakur insists on both—and seems to emerge with neither.
In “God,” a poem in Shakur’s posthumous poetry collection, The Rose That Grew from Concrete, he writes:
When all I saw was sadness
and I needed answers no one
heard me except.... GOD
So when I am asked who I
give my unconditional love 2
look for no other name