Tuesday, June 11, 2013

"Few rap stars filled their music or their lives with as much violence" as Tupac Shakur, proclaimed Time in its obituary for the performer, adding, "his murder forced a culture that glamorized hate to consider the consequences." While Shakur's 1996 death by multiple gunshot wounds certainly inspired reflection in the rap world and beyond, Time's reduction of his life and work to violent content was not the only point of view. Other observers saw Shakur as a much more complex figure, one who struggled with issues of violence, political power and personal commitment in his music and approached greatness in his film work. "He glowed," journalist dream hampton declared in a Request magazine roundtable following Shakur's death. "He was a star, and that's such a rare thing." Shakur's notoriety among mainstream audiences had much to do with his outlaw image, which was derived in large part from his frequent and high-profile scrapes with the law. Given his upbringing, however, this was perhaps to be expected. He was in prison, he often reminded interviewers, before he was born. His mother, Afeni Shakur, was a member of the militant Black Panther movement; in 1969 she and 20 others in the organization were arrested in connection with an alleged conspiracy to blow up several buildings in New York City. By 1971 she was pregnant and living in the Women's House of Detention in Greenwich Village. Though she was acquitted, she soon found herself raising her newborn son, Tupac Amaru Shakur--named for an Inca prince--by herself. "My mother was hella real with me," Tupac noted to Vibe interviewer Kevin Powell. "She just told me, 'I don't know who your daddy is.' It wasn't like she was a slut or nothin'. It was just some rough times." Afeni and Tupac struggled to get by during those rough times, living in the Bronx and Harlem, at times sleeping in homeless shelters. They moved repeatedly, the rapper recalled, and each time "I had to reinvent myself. People think just because you born in the ghetto you gonna fit in. A little twist in your life and you don't fit in no matter what." He admitted to feeling "like my life could be destroyed at any moment." He took refuge in writing poetry; his mother tried to bolster his creative side by enrolling him in Harlem's 127th Street Ensemble, which was the site of Tupac's acting debut, as Travis in the play A Raisin in the Sun. It was here that the acting "bug" bit him. "I remember thinking, 'This is the best shit in the world!'" he remembered. fter he and Afeni moved to Baltimore, Tupac attended that city's School for the Arts, studying acting and dance. He also wrote his first rap there and felt himself beginning to "fit in," at long last. But by his junior year he was packing up again, moving this time to Marin City, a desolate stretch of northern California known locally as "The Jungle." Moving out of his mother's home, he began selling drugs and establishing himself on the streets of his adopted town. "It was like a 'hood and I wanted to be a part of it," he explained to Powell. "If I could just fit in here, I'm cool. And I thought I did." At the same time, he began to entertain thoughts of a music career. In 1990 he auditioned for the Bay Area rap group Digital Underground, and was hired as a dancer and roadie. He joined the ensemble's "Sex Packets" tour of the U.S. and Japan, and made his recorded debut on their 1991 This Is an EP Release. His newfound success , however, was tainted by some unwelcome news: "I was on the road with D.U. and called my homies just to say whassup, and they told me my moms was buying dope from somebody," he related to Vibe. "It f---ed me up. I started blocking her out of my mind." Afeni's battle with crack addiction would try their relationship sorely. By the end of the year he had released his solo debut, 2Pacalypse Now, on the Interscope label. He paved the way for his solo career while touring with D.U. "Everybody knew me even though my album wasn't out yet," he told Vibe. "I never went to bed. I was working it like a job. That was my number-one thing when I first got in the business. Everybody's gonna know me." Soon everyone would, though perhaps not as he might have hoped; his album's tough stance--in the increasingly popular "gansta" mode--created his first major controversy. In April, 1992, a Texas state trooper was shot to death by a young man who later claimed to have been listening to the album and cited the track "Soulja's Story" as the impetus for his violent act. The song narrates a fugitive with "cops on my tail"; pulled over, he decides to "blast [the officer's] punk ass/ Now I got a murder case." This incident, along with other descriptions of cop-murdering, led a number of politicians, including then Vice-President Dan Quayle, to call for the record's removal from stores. "He changed the direction of hip-hop ~ hijacked it, some would say ~ and ceremonialized its status as the art politicians love to hate," declared RJ Smith in Spin. Of course, such controversy ended up boosting sales of 2Pacalypse. Tupac himself, meanwhile, had filed suit against the Oakland police department, alleging brutality in a jaywalking arrest. Even as his rap career was heating up, Tupac broke out as a film star in Ernest Dickerson's 1992 film Juice, portraying Bishop, a kid who becomes addicted to the high of violence. Though reviews of the film were mixed, his performance received uniform raves. Soon, however, his name was making headlines attached to another tragedy, an armed confrontation in Marin City; a six-year-old boy was killed in the crossfire between Tupac's posse and their antagonists. Spin reported that many in the rapper-actor's adopted hometown began to refer to him as "Tu-faced." But controversy sells records, and Tupac's 1993 effort Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z... went gold in a matter of months, thanks in part to the hit track "I Get Around". Ironically, given later developments, one of the album's other hit singles was the upbeat "Keep Ya Head Up," a paean to the strength and survival of black women. Meanwhile, his other "rap" sheet--listing his run-ins with the law--continued to pile up: he was arrested after allegedly beating a limo driver, served ten days in jail after attacking another rapper with a baseball bat, and was busted for allegedly shooting two off-duty police officers shortly after relocating to Atlanta. He was acquitted of the latter charge. He co-starred with pop singer Janet Jackson in John Singleton's 1993 film Poetic Justice, once again receiving accolades even though the film was poorly received at the box office. In November of that year, a young woman with whom Tupac had been involved claimed that he and three of his friends had sodomized and sexually abused her. His troubles continued into 1994; in March he spent 15 days in jail for hitting filmmaker Allen Hughes. But he scored again with critics in the movie Above the Rim; Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly called Tupac perhaps "the most dynamic young actor since Sean Penn," adding that he "gives each of his characters a unique spiritual temper." With his group Thug Life, Tupac also contributed to the film's soundtrack, which sold 2 million copies. Thug Life--the words were tattooed on the rapper's stomach--then released its own album, Volume One, which Entertainment Weekly described as "a 10-song meditation about life under the gun. Where [Tupac's] solo releases have often dragged, One crackles with kinetic energy." Yet the Thug Life that he advocated--"Thuggin' against society. Thuggin' against the system that made me," as he put it to Rolling Stone--was taking its toll. Out on bail on the previous sexual abuse and sodomy charges, he was shot several times on the ground floor of a building that housed an acquaintance's recording studio. He was ambushed as he prepared to rap on another rapper's record, shot and robbed. Although he sustained multiple injuries, he survived. Over the strenuous objections of his doctors, Tupac appeared in court shortly before sentence was passed. Despite whatever mitigating effect the sight of the wheelchair-bound Tupac could have had on the jury, he was found guilty of sexual abuse. Although this was the lesser charge against him, he was sentenced to 1 1/2 to 4 1/2 years in prison. Though he'd previously said that jail would destroy his spirit, he told Vibe's Powell that he now saw his incarceration as "a gift--straight up. This is God's will." Adding that getting clean after years of incessant marijuana smoking had cleared his head, he claimed a new perspective on his work. "If we really are saying rap is an art form," he declared, "then we got to be true to it and be more responsible for our lyrics. If you see everybody dying because of what you saying, it don't matter that you didn't make them die, it just matters that you didn't save them." Meanwhile, his new album, Me Against the World, began moving up the charts. The first single, "Dear Mama," praised his mother for her strength. Tupac couldn't appear in the video, obviously, but Afeni is featured in the clip, watching clips of her son on television. Having recovered from her addiction, the rapper's mother had been working for Tupac's production company. Though some may have found the sentimental single an attempt to drum up sympathy for its jailed author, Interscope executive Tom Whalley said otherwise. "It wasn't like, 'Well, Tupac's in jail, let's find the most sympathetic song on the record and put it out so that the audience will be sympathetic to him," he asserted to Jerry Crowe of the Los Angeles Times. "I just thought it was a great song, an emotional song." Me Against the World climbed to the top of the Billboard magazine sales chart, selling half a million copies within weeks. "Dear Mama" also reached the top ten singles chart. Actress Jada Pinkett- -a steadfast friend and supporter who'd allegedly helped, along with superstar singer-actress Madonna and actor Mickey Rourke, to pay Tupac's bail--was slated to direct the video for the album's subsequent single, "Can U Get Away." Shakur had just completed filming with Rourke on the film Bullet. Writing in the Village Voice, critic and pop-culture analyst Toure limned what she called " massive distance between Tupac's fame and the quality of his work so far." While she praised his acting talent, Toure disliked most of the films Tupac appeared in, and argued that though he remains "along with Snoop [Doggy Dogg] one of the two most famous rappers in the world, he is merely an average vocalist and lyricist, and has yet to record one aesthetically important song." Yet, Toure insisted, Tupac's experiences on the public stage have been remarkable "performances" in their own right, and have lent an air of importance to his otherwise unimpressive records. The Source, however, praised Me Against the World as the rapper's "best so far," while Jon Pareles of the New York Times admired its "fatalistic calm, in a commercial mold." From prison, Shakur alleged that he had changed his ways, "The addict in Tupac is dead," he vowed to Vibe. "The excuse maker in Tupac is dead. The vengeful Tupac is dead. The Tupac that would stand by and let dishonorable things happen is dead. God let me live for me to do something extraordinary, and that's what I have to do. Even if they give me the maximum sentence, that's still my job." Yet after his release from prison, the rapper-actor showed little sign of change. He threw himself into the East Coast vs. West Coast feud in which his new boss, Death Row Records chief Suge Knight, was embroiled. In typically contradictory fashion, Shakur publicly taunted Knight's rivals, including Bad Boy Records head Sean "Puffy" Combs. This conflict may or may not have led to Shakur's shooting in September, 1996, as he and Knight drove through Las Vegas after a boxing match. Shakur died of his wounds a week later. An aura of mystery surrounded the shooting; no suspects were ever caught, one alleged witness was apparently murdered a few days after the shooting, and Knight ~ who was barely wounded by the hail of bullets ~ refused to tell the press anything substantive about the incident. He did, however, release Shakur's first posthumous album. Appearing in stores under the name Makaveli ~ suggesting a reference to Niccolo Macchiavelli, a Renaissance Italian who is largely considered the father of political maneuvering ~ The Don Killuminati: Seven Day Theory debuted at the number one on the charts and was immediately a huge success. This commercial success in the immediate wake of Shakur's demise led some to speculate that he had faked his own death to boost his and Knight's careers. The 7 days between his shooting and his death, his many predictions of his own death, and his use of "Makaveli" only added credence to such theories. In the meantime, the handful of unreleased recordings and films that remained in the vaults suggested that even if Shakur's life had really ended, his career had not. Yet the possibility remained that it was his death that would leave the strongest mark on pop culture; his murder sparked considerable debate about the end of the "Gangsta" era and the futility of the "Thug Life.

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