It's the latter.
These are the things we know: On November 30th, 1994 on the eve of the verdict in his sexual abuse trial, 23 year old Tupac Shakur was on his way into Quad studios in Manhattan to do a track with rapper Little Shawn when he was shot twice in the head, twice in the groin and once in the arm. Bad Boy luminaries Lil Cease, Sean Combs and Christopher Wallace were upstairs on the eighth floor during the shooting. After being shot Tupac was rushed to Bellevue hospital where he bled through the night until around 1:30 in the afternoon the next day, when doctors were finally able to operate on him, repairing a damaged blood vessel in his right leg. He was out of surgery by 4:00, and by 6:45 he checked himself out of the hospital, moving to Metropolitan in fear that along with Bad Boy, people in his own circle had facilitated what he believed to be an assassination attempt. Tupac would claim to suffer from vicious recurring headaches and troubled sleep as a result of the shooting for the rest of his life. The next day Pac showed up in court, being wheeled in by the Fruit of Islam with a wool Yankees hat pulled over his bandaged head, proudly displaying the diamond encrusted Rolex the men who robbed him didn’t get. He was acquitted of the lesser charges of sodomy and weapon possession, but found guilty of sexual abuse. He was sentenced February 8, 1995. At the sentencing he stared down his accuser, charged the judge and court system of racism, and was promptly sentenced to between 18 months and 4 ½ years. He began serving his sentence at Clinton Hill Correctional Facility in upstate New York on February 14th.
The majority of Tupac’s third album Me Against the World was recorded between Shakur’s shooting and his sentencing, it was released March 14, 1995. To me, it’s his most fascinating work. It’s a claustrophobic, dark, haunting piece of music, a nearly perfectly crafted effort which, on an almost track by track basis you can chart his fatal descent from Idealistic community mouthpiece to nihilistic gangster caricature. This is the Hip Hop album as a blunt instrument, a desperate assault, a hate fuck and an intimate confession. A prolonged, frustrated “fuck it” over 15 harrowing tracks.
Me Against the World serves as a kind of moment of pure being for the artist. The album found Tupac in a traumatic state in which he had come as close to dying as humanly possible and he saw nothing but the worst in life and those around him. Understandably, the majority of the album’s songs are all emotion, which tends towards tortured, angry, morose or paranoid. (“Death Around the Corner”, “Me Against The World”, “Temptations”, “Fuck the World”, “Outlaw” among others) Even “Can u get away”, the requisite love song is an ode to infidelity bred by dissatisfaction. On the hook a woman sings “So much pressure in the air/and I can’t get away/I’m not happy here” open to any number of interpretations.
As a result, the album’s rare, reflective moments of respite are its finest. Shock G’s “Shed so many tears” deserves mention, but for me two others stand out as Pac’s finest work here. “Dear Mama” is produced by Tony Pizzaro, who contributes the albums best production, and contains an interpolation of “Sadie”, the Detroit Spinner’s own ode to single mothers. Comparing the two is instructive. As beautiful and heartfelt as the Spinner’s take on the subject is, it is decidedly singular in its praise. Shakur’s song is a masterwork rightly lauded as one of the greatest Hip Hop songs ever written for his ability to wrap his hand around a traumatic, universal experience and deliver it with stunning clarity. The conflicted feelings of intense love and underlying resentment which come through as part of a whole which is not necessarily contradictory exhibit an artist with a keen ability to relate experience. It is nothing less than brilliant.
“It Ain’t Easy” on the other hand contains conflict which is not as clearly implied. It’s Shakur’s best job rapping in terms of cadence and delivery on Me Against the World, keeping a nimble bounce to his flow over a light, summery Pizzaro beat. The content on the other hand, is bleak as anything we’ve heard from him. It’s a series of seemingly horrific life circumstances and Shakur’s reactions. Dependency on substance to subsist, tragedy and the inability to process it, maddening poverty. The mastery comes in the wording. It is all presented with an air that boarders on the romantic. As he smokes roaches with his friends out of necessity and rails against an unjust system, what comes across is a rare moment of indecision. Here, Shakur finds a semblance of kinship in his marginalized status and seemingly ponders, as difficult as it may be, whether it’s all worth the struggle. A more fitting song title might have been “Us Against the World.
Tupac’s strength as a writer was his ability to see contradiction in many aspects of the American experience and attack them with levels of ferocity and poetic eloquence no rapper I can think of has ever been able to match. Tupac would take sides on an issue and was talented enough to argue his point with self righteous conviction, often winning the listener over in the process. The logic he would bring to his argument was divorced from any sense of a grand value system, completely unique to the immediate song and as a result many of his POV’s can be viewed as contradictory, and that was his “failing” if you want to call it that. He’s seemingly incapable of tempering the righteousness in his rants, unable to see there is merit in both sides of an argument, though he may side against himself on the very next track. He’s either all prosecution or all defense.
These are the things we know: Tupac would be bailed out by Suge Knight for $1.4 million dollars eleven months later. Following his release Tupac would live to drop two more albums. It’s impossible to know what his catalog would look like today had he lived to compile it on his own. All Eyez On Me, Shakur’s bloated, Outlawz infested Death Row initiation came first. 7 Day Theory is as close as Pac would ever come to releasing a perfect album, from start to finish. The album featured a rendering of Shakur being crucified on its cover and accordingly, while not free of fire, replaces MATW’s righteous rage with fatalistic despair. Moments like the laughable East Coast cabal theory floated during it’s intro using his rehashed conceit of a fake news anchor make the paranoia of “I See Death Around the Corner” look downright healthy and the idea that he possibly could’ve believed this himself make you wonder if his calculating gangsta posturing wasn’t as calculated as we presume it to be. Christopher Wallace died 12 years ago today. I believe as a result of 2pac’s role in making the final couple of brief years in Biggie’s life miserable, a vengeful, contrarian, taste making literati has sent him up as a venomous empty wind bag, a product of MTV generation hype his work doesn’t measure up to. Perhaps it’s time to accept history for what it is, to recognize that Tupac Shakur was wrong in his beef but he was also a tortured individual who made great music. Of course, this is all hindsight. When Me Against the World was initially released there was only one thing we could know for sure. The world never had a chance.