Kaleb explores the complicated character of Tupac Shakur through his most famous songs.
People unfamiliar with rap often picture it as either an early 80s Will Smith or 50 Cent boasting about how many times he’s been shot. Although it is true that these styles certainly exist, and are large parts of the genre, rap encompasses so much more than that. I freely admit that I was guilty of this same misconception before I began to take an interest in rap, and what I found out shocked me. In my exploration of rap, I began to realize just how deeply young black men are stereotyped. Perhaps it is best to start off with one of the most complex and misunderstood rappers of all time, Tupac Shakur.
Due to his portrayal in the mass media and misinterpretation of his lyrics, many people casually dismissed Tupac as a criminal or prototypical loser. The stereotyping of young black men in the media led people to believe that Tupac could be nothing more than the aforementioned labels. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although he was a deeply flawed individual, Tupac was an exceptionally dedicated and caring person, as well as a gifted poet, rapper, and ballet dancer. To fully understand Tupac’s mindset, one must first understand where he came from.
Tupac was extremely close with his mother, Afeni Shakur. Afeni was an active member of the Black Panther party, although after Tupac was born, she renounced the violent aspects of the Panthers. However, Tupac was raised with his mother’s sense of social responsibility and empowerment through social change. His rapping reflected the trials and tribulations of a young black man growing up in the ghetto, as well as the problems with the overall community. In his rapping, Tupac masterfully toed the line between his individual struggle and the struggle of his community as a whole. This article will analyze and showcase five of Tupac’s most famous songs, ones which I hope will show a side of him that is often overlooked.
Part of what makes Tupac such a legend is that even though his stories are specific, many of the messages and stories that he imparts are universal. I dare not compare my life with his, but when he frames his struggle in an emotional context that I, as a human, can understand, the songs become that much more powerful.
Tupac’s interpretation of Bruce Hornsby’s 1986 hit “The Way it Is”, “Changes” was the first single released posthumously on his Greatest Hits album. It is the only song to ever be nominated for a Best Solo Rap Performance Grammy even after the artist has died. This song is an excellent example of Tupac’s work, as it includes much of his ideology from the get-go. The first verse includes a furious indictment of police brutality and institutional racism, but does not shy from criticizing the black community as a whole as well. Despite the East Coast-West Coast rivalry, Tupac was incensed with gangs who attempted to create discord within his own people. He claimed to be both a Blood and a Crip, in an effort to show that gangs were nothing more than fake social institutions that had no bearing on real life.
The next verse returns to the theme of unity, but sees it on a larger scale. Tupac attempts reconciliation between the black and white communities, emphasizing that crack is a problem among the impoverished in both of them, and chides both sides for failing to see the other. Next up, Tupac tackles his anger with the ghetto youth. He confronts a stereotypical youth, proud of the money he made while dealing drugs. Tupac chastises him for failing to see the larger social implications of his actions, and thinking only about his own well being at the expense of others. The final verse is Tupac describing his own personal struggle in the stagnating ghetto, as he attempts to deal with racism, poverty, and internal rivalries in the ghetto.
Keep Ya Head Up
Tupac’s ode to the black matriarchal figure, originally off his second album, this song is considered by many to be his finest early work. Behind a funky beat, and a catchy hook, Tupac delivers an absolutely beautiful message. He starts off by exploring the struggles that mothers have attempting to raise their sons in the ghetto, delivering a message of understanding and compassion. He openly chastises the stereotypical “deadbeat dad,” one who leaves a woman with a child, but makes sure to keep room for hope, as he ends the verse by encouraging the “real men” to get up, acknowledging that they exist. In the next verse, he contrasts his own personal and familial struggles with those of a mother, emphasizing that he understands their plight, and again, pushing them to get through it. In the final verse, he assumes the role of a single mother raising a son, and articulates her problems beautifully.
This song is, at its very heart, the antithesis to rap’s misogynistic portrayal in the media. Time and time again Tupac has been typecast as hating women. This is patently untrue, and he rejected the notion that his characterization of certain women as “bitches” applied to all women. He felt that he was merely describing a certain type of woman, and in fact noted that he had been raised primarily by women and most of his friends and role models, including his mother, Jada Pinkett, and Gloria Steinberg, were women. Additionally, people also tend to forget how young he was. He was only twenty-five when he was murdered, and honestly, who hasn’t heard young men act a bit misogynistic or sexist, or blame the entire female species after being spurned? The idea that Tupac was doing more than youthful boasting in many of his lyrics is untrue, as he himself admitted.
Tupac’s most widely recognized and revered song, this masterpiece was so influential and respected that the Library of Congress placed it in the national recording registry, along with this citation: “In this moving and eloquent homage to both his own mother and all mothers struggling to maintain a family in the face of addiction, poverty and societal indifference, Tupac Shakur unflinchingly forgives his mother who, despite a cocaine habit, “never kept a secret, always stayed real.”
The song displays further evidence of hip hop as a musically sophisticated and varied genre that can artfully encompass a wide variety of themes and musical influences.” The influence of this song cannot be overstated. Despite the fear of being seen as a “mama’s boy” or in some way, soft, Tupac recounts his childhood and recognizes the difficulties his mother faced when trying to raise him. Eminem has called it his favorite song, despite his publicly tenuous relationship with his own mother, and Snoop Dogg has said that it solidified Tupac’s status as a legend, because he was one of the first rappers to bare his soul to the world. Part of the brilliance of this song is that analysis is largely useless; unlike some of Tupac’s and other rappers’ great songs is that it is not multilayered or complex.
There are no hidden messages or subliminal meanings (like Eminem’s magnum opus, “Stan”), nor are the verses structured in some kind of poetic way (“Unconditional Love”.) Tupac merely pours out his heart and soul, in the simplest way possible, and the result is beautiful. This is perhaps one of the easiest rap songs for people unfamiliar with the jargon and worldview to understand, because everyone has a mother, or some sort of equivalent parental figure. I am always taken aback by the first line, because every time I hear it, I am struck by how true it is: “When I was young me and my mama had beef.” Who hasn’t fought with their mother? It’s a part of growing up. Again, although Tupac’s experiences were on a totally different scale, everyone, black or white, can immediately sympathize.
Brenda’s Got a Baby
Tupac’s first single, released in 1991, this song is one of the first times a rapper seriously confronted issues in the ghetto. It features a very raw and young Tupac delivering a straightforward story about a twelve year old drug dealer turned prostitute, Brenda. Perhaps the song’s most important part is the introduction and the ending. Brenda’s ill-fated end is obvious from the beginning, but Tupac wisely decided not to start with only Brenda’s story. Instead, he chastises Brenda’s parents, her extended family, and the black community in general for not giving a care about what he sees as one of their own.
Although many other rappers, and Tupac, openly criticized the government, very few were openly willing to also indite entire neighborhoods for their failures. This is further supported by the last line in the song: “Prostitute found slain, and Brenda’s her name.” Tupac uses a newspaper headline to distance himself from this girl, even though he makes it obvious the whole song that her story is very near and dear to his heart. He comments on the hypocrisy of people who are willing to comment on the problems in the ghetto, but not willing to try to solve them. Interviews with Tupac at this age reveal he was very politically active, and indeed started campaigns devoted to stopping teen violence, promoting safe sex, and preventing AIDS, hardly things that one would realize after a cursory glance at Tupac, or any other young man in his position.
This gem, released posthumously as the second single on his Greatest Hits album, was originally written by Tupac for M.C. Hammer. The song, comprised of three verses, centers around relationships that he sees as unbreakable. Tupac makes a societal commentary by exploring various types of interpersonal bonds. The first verse is directed towards his family, the second towards his close friends, and the last, towards a female friend. In the first verse, Tupac recounts various conversations with his family, pouring out his heart and soul to his mother. Although Tupac is ashamed of the burden he feels he has caused, and his family’s struggles, his mother greets him with open arms, and they recognize that at the end of the day, nothing matters so long as they remain close.
The next verse approaches relationships between young black men in the ghetto. Tupac acknowledges that making money (to help his family) is a large part of his relationships and ambitions, but he also makes sure to approach the emotional side. The relationships he has with his friends are treasures, because they give each other emotional support through difficulties and tough times. Tupac unravels many stereotypes about relationships between young men, and emphasizes that in fact, they are not tied criminally or through gangs, rather, they are indeed emotionally connected, and all desire the same thing for their friends and families: a better life.
The last verse is centered around his relationship with a female friend. Part of Tupac’s genius is that we do not know what type of friend this is. Although we know he never was a father, he theoretically could be talking about his hypothetical girlfriend of wife, or he could be talking about merely a friend, nothing more. Tupac talks greatly of love, but within the context of this song, never in a sexual sense. He clearly delineates between sexual attraction and emotional bonds.
This is the kind of Tupac song that is, at its very heart, universal. Everyone in this world, has experienced some or hopefully all, of the relationships that Tupac describes. Hopefully everyone can recognize the nurturing attributes of unconditional love, of knowing that you will have somebody to stand by you even through the darkest times. Although Tupac offers a message of hope to the ghetto, it rings true for everyone’s ears. Does anyone disagree with: “This fast life soon shatters, because after all the lights and screams, nothing but my dreams matter?”
I hope that this article not only introduces people to a prolific musician, but also tries to dispel some of the myths about him. Even if some of them are true, but they do not present a full picture. There is a growing revisionism towards Tupac that attempts to portray him as some kind of saint, or larger than life figure, when he was neither. He was simply a person. Those who see him as a pure criminal miss out on a great deal, as to those who see him as an flawless martyr.
He was from perfect, and by his own admittance he was vain, stubborn, and oftentimes stupid. He was, as we all are, a living contradiction. If his songs appear to diametrically oppose, that’s because he did, as we all do. After much thought about why rappers have such a bad reputation, I can only comment on what I perceive to be an inherent facet of human nature, that pops up in most conversations or news stories. We tend to fixate on the bad, and when an opportunity to stereotype pops up, we take it. It’s easier to look at the frustration and anger of these young men and call them bad people, rather to actually analyze it, and attempt to figure out what’s causing it.
What makes Tupac the legend that he is, is the fact that he was willing to expose all sides of him, the good, and the bad. Those who ignore either side do themselves, and all young, black men; all young men; all men; a disservice.
Additionally, there is a very long interview that offers a rare glimpse at Tupac before stardom, and reveals an incredible amount about him. I highly suggest checking it out to learn more.