In 2019 we have politicians openly reminiscing about having smoked weed with Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur booming out of their cassette decks.

The times are changing.

We’re a far cry from what the way things used to be. My age group and those younger can’t properly appreciate this quantum leap in pop culture and how the climate of mainstream America shifted. Rappers are Grammy winners now; raw rap, dangerous rap, at that. Rappers are Oscar winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, White House visitors, museum installations, the subject of college courses, and so on. This is the norm.

But to listen to Tupac’s sophomore album Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. is to experience the chaotic climate of 1994 in audio form: when Shakur’s cassette tapes among others were literally piled up on the ground and stomped on by politicians and protestors as if the sounds coming from them were a National Emergency. Let’s take a second to appreciate where we are now.

25 years ago this was a Shakur whose face was smashed into the gutter by Oakland PD and falsely charged by Marin PD. This was police brutality, riots, the war on drugs, and a Clinton administration that peddled terms like super-predator to describe Black boys. Not intended to be the original title of the tape, I understand the reason for its edit. It must be a trip for some of the older heads to see Pac in museums these days, but it’s refreshing to see his and others’ works seen through the lens of what was reserved for so-called legitimate art. And this is art, no different a statement piece than a Warhol in his prime. In this piece, the artist’s bold choice of title was a statement of the times. It was ironically more anti-pop and critical of the establishment than one would expect for a work that launched him into the mainstream. The title alone left nothing to the imagination in telling us who this project was for: reclaiming a word that this country gave us and him.

The title left nothing to the imagination telling us what this was about.

“Holler If Ya Hear Me” is track 1. A chest-pounding cry to the East Bay skies meant to ring from the ghetto to the prisons to 1600 Pennsylvania, it was a mission statement. It was a statement of pain, rage, and revolution upon the artist seeing fire all around him, setting the tone for an entire LP that kept that same energy.

It was also the beginning of Pac’s curious duality. It was curious for the times at least. The way I hear it described, times were much more black and white back then. Politicians absolutely did not talk about smoking weed and listening to rap music and rappers like Shakur were an unbridled menace, simple and plain. But what he offered on this tape included songs like “Keep Ya Head Up,” a softer tune partly dedicated to empowering the women in his life. And on the flipside was the tongue in cheek feel-good party anthem “I Get Around.” This was an artist who was just as likely to roar a call to arms to all those like him with empty stomachs as he was to show a side more gentle to the touch.

It must have been hard for the powers that be to put this young Black male in the box America insisted on narrating. Just the same, it must have been quite an experience to music executives to hear an artist who could be such perceived polar opposites at once. It set a blueprint for rappers for decades to come, this duality. In a business sense, this blueprint revolutionized what it meant to be a brand in rap and how one could market themselves but perhaps what resonated the most, to this day, is how one could articulate themselves as a human being. In 2019 we are living in a legacy partly attributed to him in that we are all living contradictions. Or rather, he helped us realize these very human qualities of ours were never contradictions in the first place. All of us are complex calculations of our environments: the hard, the soft, the wise elder, the charged youth, the inspired intention, the flawed execution, the mortal person and the larger than life persona. We all oscillate between these opposites and he put his own oscillation on full display at all times. He was keyed in in a way that we as a people could only properly catch up to decades down the line.

He once poignantly stated “what makes me saying ‘I don’t give a fuck’ different than Patrick Henry saying ‘Give me liberty or give me death’?” Rap was at one point low art. Now it is in museums, the home of high art, and way back in the 90’s he let it be known that those on the soil are no different and have just as much to contribute as the heroes America props up on pedestals. The tapes that were once stomped under the feet of politicians are now embraced with open arms, a transition that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

And what he laid down on this album so appropriately embodied that sentiment.

Happy anniversary to Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.

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