Illustration via Wikimedia Commons
Tupac Shakur is one of the most influential rappers of all time, known for his progressive lyricism, impactful sound, and role in shaping the direction of hip-hop. Although he died in 1996, he continues to be a source of inspiration and fascination to audiences around the globe. Noisey was provided previously unreleased handwritten poetry through our friends Citizens of Humanity by his first manager, Leila Steinberg. The poems, written over a three year period starting when the rapper was 17, offer a glimpse of Tupac before many people knew him. With the hope of beginning to understand the significance of Tupac Shakur on today's modern world, we asked writer Jeff Weiss, who co-wrote 2Pac vs. Biggie: An Illustrated History of Rap's Greatest Battle, to pen an essay on why we care.
If you want to understand 2Pac, abandon the delusion that there’s one 2Pac to understand. Some called him a chameleon, but its better to process him as the rap game magic lantern—a vessel to project any shape, impeccable at throwing shade. Revolutionary ideals and gangsta nihilism were props, sincere and passionate ones, but capable of being discarded when it came to shoot the next scene.
The early details of his life seem so preordained that you’d think they came from an animated Disney boy-to-king film scripted by Huey Newton. Most of his mother’s pregnancy was spent in solitary confinement, while she awaited trial for conspiring to blow up multiple federal landmarks. His Godfather was Black Panther potentate, Geronimo Pratt. He was ferried into hip-hop on a King’s rickshaw in the video for Digital Underground’s “Same Song.” Yes, a fucking rickshaw.
Digital Underground back-up dancers shouldn’t become the most influential ever, but nothing about this makes logical sense in 2014. The best artists are willfully elusive. Some create myths of childhood fantasy; others just stumble into some corkscrew of divinity. All are too complicated to be compartmentalized. 2Pac’s greatest trick was convincing people that he was exactly like them, until he wasn’t.
Originally named Lesane Crooks, his mother quickly re-christened him Tupac Amaru Shakur. The re-branding gave him alias of the last Incan emperor, who upon execution by the Spanish declared: “Mother Earth, witness how my enemies shed my blood.” Basically, Tupac’s namesake did everything short but tell Habsburg emperor Phillip II, “I fucked your bitch, you fat motherfucker.”
Raised in New York, Baltimore, and Oakland, 2Pac was one of the first stylistically rootless rappers. Aggressiveness trumped aesthetic. He was the diaspora incarnate. In a 1992 Source feature, he claimed that the Geto Boys’ Grip It On That Other Level was his favorite rap album ever. He lived part-time in Atlanta years before it became an industry mecca and even got acquitted there for shooting a pair of off-duty police officers. Before being slain on a sweltering 1996 night in Las Vegas, he’d written “To Live and Die in LA,” which has mercifully replaced “I Love LA,” as the City of Angel’s municipal anthem.
None of this accounts for the random sidebars, including a lifelong bond forged with Jada Pinkett at a Baltimore Arts school (a friendship that later made Will Smith feel some kind of way). During time spent in New York filming Above the Rim, he forged alliances with holy terror Haitian Jack and Madonna and Mickey Rourke. While incarcerated on sexual assault charges, 2Pac became pen pals with Tony “Who’s the Boss” Danza. It’s been said that he was up for the role of Bubba Gump. He wore “Versace Hook-Ups” before Biggie “copied his style” and decades before the Migos.
Before, during, and after interviews for the book I co-wrote about 2Pac and Biggie, I was given different reasons to explain his legacy. Some said that he was the greatest rapper ever because he was the only one intellectually and stylistically rich enough to teach a college course on. Others couldn’t articulate it; they just pounded on their chest and said, Pac “hits me right here.”
This jibed with an Armenian Uber driver who told me that 2Pac was his favorite rapper growing up in post-Soviet chaos. Neither he nor his friends understood English, but they fully absorbed the anguish and rage. If you travel to Sub-Saharan Africa, you’re apt to find 2Pac murals and paintings at every market. He transcends linguistic and cultural differences. Maybe it’s partially the leather-bound rock star look (they’re currently selling his All Eyez on Me black leather coveralls at Top Shop). But maybe it’s just raw power unhinged, several centuries of rage converted to nitroglycerin.
You can point to a young Boosie “spitting that real” in the studio, 2Pac poster hanging from the wall as a reminder. Or Gibbs or Jeezy or DMX or Eminem or Wayne or whoever. Ja Rule had the “Pain is Love” tattoo on his arm; 2Pac radiated it.
Maybe Biggie was right when he told VIBE in 1995 that the last years of 2Pac’s life essentially had him method-acting Bishop from Juice. But bodies under your belt matter less than hearts won over. His voice bled. He cried without seeming soft. He avoided the simple binaries that shackled many of his imitators.
One anecdotal conversation with Kyambo “Hip-Hop” Joshua, the current Executive Vice President of Def Jam, stuck with me. He said that he’d found that 2Pac spoke to young kids of this generation in a way that Biggie couldn’t. His messages were more simple and direct. The closest thing that rap has to a Bob Marley. Maybe they weren’t the most skilled the genre has to offer, but they were the best at capturing the blood-simple basics that connect every human. He never lost the don’t-give-a fuck-sneer and volatility of being a teenager. Slang and sonics become dated, but hate and love never go out of style.
Hence, these recently discovered poems. They’re essentially bonus tracks of the Rose That Grew From Concrete era, confused teenage blurts that spoke to the core of who he was. The layers are there. The mask isn’t. They won’t replace Leaves of Grass anytime soon, but they’re unvarnished primary sources from one of the greatest ever. As a post-adolescent, he attempted to figure out what to give and what to keep to keep to himself. They’re sad and lonely signals from a seeker who never lived long enough to find what he was searching for. You can see the corny romantic and the bitter skeptic, the outsider waiting to be accepted. You can see yourself. Maybe.