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Black Music Month Masters: Tupac Shakur

His life was brief but his catalog of music is plentiful and timeless.

This is part of The Shadow League’s Black Music Month Masters series celebrating the vibrating musical excellence within our wide cultural tapestry.

There have been many different biopics and documentaries about the life of Tupac Shakur, one of the most impactful, intelligent, and polarizing Hip-Hop artists in music history.

In fact, Pac’s birthday is today, so there’s even more reason to celebrate his incomparable legacy.

All Eyez On Me Narrative

The man born Lesane Parish Crooks in New York City was reborn into a figurehead for the revolution of the oppressed and downtrodden young black males in ghettos across America. His mother fortuitously later gave him the name Tupac Amaru Shakur, after the last Incan revolutionary emperor who defied the Spanish conquistadors.

From the outset, it must be noted that Shakur’s mother and father figure were political revolutionaries. Afeni Shakur birthed her son while incarcerated on Rikers Island for allegedly trying to bomb skyscrapers in New York City. His stepfather, Mutulu Shakur, is still incarcerated from a 60-year sentence stemming from the effects of the FBIs COINTELPRO operation on black revolutionary organizations.

The struggle is intertwined in everything Tupac did, from acting to his now-iconic music. His music is laced with pain. It can be labeled as the major contributor to his often contradictory persona on wax. However, he was just a young man growing extremely rapidly.

From his debut album, 2Pacalypse Now, Shakur takes you through a melodic angst-filled stroll through Every Hood, USA ,where all the issues affecting black people are described. The lead-off single, Trapped, and subsequent video shows the struggle of poverty, incarceration and being held hostage in a system meant to enslave or kill you. Every bar is telling as to why his name change was so important to his mentality and his uplift of the lifestyles of black men in urban environments if tantamount to his message.

But the monumental single from this album was Brendas Got A Baby, where Shakur describes the plight of single black motherhood under impoverished conditions. Many male rappers only discussed black women under the pretense of sexual property, but Shakur highlighted the realities of their plight.

Not surprisingly, it took the album four years to be certified gold (500,000 copies sold in the U.S.) and although Shakur continued his version of verbal activism, he eventually threw in some commercial appeal.

His second album, Strictly For My N.I.G.G.A.Z., yielded his most commercial singles at the time, I Get Around and Keep Ya Head Up. Both catered to the street essence of popular Hip Hop culture while still keeping social activism in the message. The duality of a man who could infectiously declare, “break out or be clowned, baby darling you down, I get around” and on the same album make an appeal to the world to understand a black woman’s struggle is remarkable. Tupac was not afraid to be human and like an onion, his layers unraveled painfully before our tearing eyes.

When his third album, Me Against The World came out, it was on the heels of his conviction and imprisonment for sexual abuse charges. While in the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York, the album went multi-platinum and is considered his most introspective album to date. The singles, Dear Mama, So Many Tears and Temptations solidified the album’s success and tracks like Old School showed his knowledge and appreciation of Hip-Hop history.

Before his untimely death in September of 1996, earlier that year in February, Shakur released his most celebrated masterpiece, the double album, All Eyez On Me. The creation of a double album attests to the amount of music Shakur had stored, which later we would realize was a treasure trove greater than anyone could understand then.

California Love, featuring production and vocals from Dr. Dre, defines the spirit of the entire West Coast to this day. 2 of Americaz Most Wanted, featuring Snoop Dogg, thumbed its nose at the police and prosecutors chasing him. How Do You Want It, featuring K-Ci from Jodeci, kept his thuggish ladies man image firmly intact and I Ain’t Mad At Cha revealed a side of returning convicts searching for peace amid friends who want to do the same things they used to. It was a touching reminder of Shakur’s growth and attention to the details of the urban victims of the Diaspora.

Shakur only lived to see four of his now 26 albums released; an amazing accomplishment for someone who only gave the world 25 years old life. As we reflect on his commitment to telling the stories of the disenfranchised in both beautiful and guttural detail, never forget he was born from pain and suffering.

We can only hypothesize that he was sent to effect positive change in the world with his gifts. Even though we have to grapple with the unknown circumstances that took his life, we were left with a virtual soundtrack to instantaneously transport us back to when he had the ability to record his manifestos.

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