There is a very special class of artist in Hip Hop. It is a space that only those that master the craft occupy. Tupac Shakur reached the soul’s boiling point and became something bigger than a mortal man; he became an idea. And as far as I’m concerned, it all started with Me Against the World.
Evolution is the mark of a true artist. In 1995 Tupac was just 4 years removed from his entrance into the rap game and at the tender age of 24, already dropped 3 albums, was in the midst of mobilizing streets all across the country, struck fear in mainstream America, and made a laundry list out of his rap sheet. Born from and raised by the Black Panthers and more specifically by Afeni Shakur, this man’s mission statement was clear. He was out here for Black people and he made it clear he was out here for Black women; and in a world so resistant to his energy regarding these communities, he was met with the most extreme of backlashes.
The title Me Against the World says it all.
He was hurt. People familiar with the man may be familiar with his now famous High School interview. A 17 year old Tupac is seen bright eyed, delicate in the way he carried himself, and soft to the touch in the way he spoke. In hindsight, hearing that young man’s take on the world made it obvious that he was bred as almost a mission statement; a reaponse to the evils of America already endured by a community. This was a Black boy already more articulate than most men, passionate as anyone in his age group but with the sharpness of any OG; but with a gentleness to him. He was young, optimistic, and hell bent on saving the world. Then that boy met world, entered the rap game, and America’s response to that passion brought on an energy even someone as wise beyond their years as him couldn’t have fathomed.
His 4th album (3rd solo) went platinum while he was in prison. By then he had been beaten by Oakland PD, shot two drunk off duty cops in Atlanta, got robbed and shot by Black men he thought were connected to artists he considered the closest of friends, and was locked up due to a false claim by a Black woman on part of a conspiracy by other Black men he trusted. He was betrayed not only by those he considered enemies, but those he considered friends; those he went out of his way to protect and look out for. The very people that young boy in that interview so clearly loved and advocated for. He took not only the Black experience directly to the face, but the experience of a Black revolutionary. He was a force strong enough and smart enough to challenge the status quo and that status quo, no matter the body it manifested itself in the form of, came through to chop him down. To the point where it was just him. It was just him alone in that prison cell against the world.
As far as I’m concerned, this was the start of the Tupac we know and revere today. It was the begining of something almost uncomfortably introspective. His first single, Dear Mama, almost doubled as a letter from his prison cell as well as a boy returning to his mother after being beaten down by a cruel world. Songs like “So Many Tears,” “If I Die 2nite,” and “Lord Knows” had very open, honest, and blatant references to his own depression, feelings of being trapped, and even suicidal thoughts. I hear those tracks and I think about that 17 year old from that interview and the things his bright-eyed optimism was met with.
It was his most reflective album.
If you look at the climate of the genre today, it might not even be a big thing to hear an artist open up about their deepest and darkest personal stories. One might not bat an eyelash at someone openly admitting to their mother being a one-time crack fiend from the first person or say things like “if I wasn’t high, I’d probably try to blow my brains out.” Scanning through the zeitgeist of Hip Hop albums, I honestly can’t think of a time before that moment when a rapper pinpointed their own vulnerabilities to that degree. It was at this moment where ‘Pac became performance art. Knocked on his ass, he was forced to reboot who he was and how he approached life and we got to witness it in real time through his art. And as any fan would know, what happened after this album was an energy different from anything he brought to the table beforehand. This album was reflective, it was melancholy, it was personal, it was reminiscent; almost like the calm before the storm.
All Eyez On Me was more the equal and opposite reaction to all of the vile actions done to him that he build up in that prison cell. It was the all the anger he felt he needed to project once he got out. The 7 Day Theory had him assuming another role entirely, wielding that dark energy quite literally like a Machiavelli or Sun Tzu. As far as I’m concerned, those albums are all part of his unprescedented stride that formed a blueprint for artists that live alongside their music; that bring that fans with them into the unknown, with all of its highs and lows. There’s a famous quote by James Baldwin where he states that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” I think about that quote when I think about those last three albums before Tupac Shakur’s death. They are the documentation of a Black man’s emotions in reaction to the evils and bloody hands of America.
And it started with Me Against the World.