Thugs From the Same Cloth
I’ve long had this slight obsession. Okay, let me be clear, among my many obsessions, I’ve had this one specific preoccupation that always annoyed my buddy Mike. To be fair, it was really the fault of the media. I can’t remember a time when they didn’t compare a new athlete or entertainer to a previous one who had some similar characteristics. Here are some quick examples: “Michael Jordan is the next Dr. J” which was later updated to “Kobe Bryant is the next Michael Jordan.” I felt it always worked best in sports, but it works in pretty much all aspects of life. Kurt Cobain was often compared to John Lennon. Or there’s the more upsetting lineage from New Kids On the Block to N’Sync to One Direction or Madonna to Britney Spears. And now we have Nixon to Trump (or if you prefer, Trump is most like Dictator X). Mike as enjoyed teasing me for overusing the lazy phrase “the next” for over 20 years.
And in a strange twist, he’s actually right. I have totally over-used it. Way back, when I was on the high school newspaper, we had something called a “kill list.” Now, obviously, you couldn’t use that name in 2017, but it was a list of terms we could no longer use. For example, our mascot was a Husky, but we realized it didn’t read all that well for a headline to say “Husky Girls Advance to State” and so “Husky Girls” was added to the kill list. I probably should have retired “the next” around the same time. As soon as I thought Harold Miner was the next Michael Jordan, I should have dropped that phrase from my vocabulary. But I didn’t, and so I haven’t.
So I’m still using it, and today I am officially updating a 25 year old “next.” Because today I am proudly taking my daughter, and her friend, to see the Tupac biopic, “All Eyez on Me.” I realized it some time ago, but I incorrectly thought of Tupac as his generations John Lennon. My palette has grown, slowly, in the 26 years since he released (and I quickly purchased) “2Pacalypse Now.” So I feel this is a much more accurate description of, not just his music, but his connection with his fans. Tupac wasn’t his generation’s Lennon. Tupac was the Johnny Cash of his generation. Frankly, I probably knew the name Johnny Cash back in 1991, but I had no idea who he really was.
Cash didn’t have the voice that Elvis had. He probably wasn’t the guitarist that Buddy Holly was. And Cash probably wasn’t as good of a songwriter as Willie Nelson. But his fan base is as deep today as ever, and I think that’s because he was more honest, vulnerable and flawed than his contemporaries. It didn’t matter if he was singing about Folsom Prison or how he walked the line, he allowed his audience to feel every line.
That’s Tupac. It pains me to say this, but in the last 26 years, I’ve come to realize that Tupac wasn’t the most talented lyricist. And while I’ve grown to become slightly uncomfortable with his contradictions, I appreciate the fact that was part of what made him so relatable. I’m not embarrassed to say, when I discovered Tupac as a 15 year old, I was both very depressed and very angry. And his words articulated how I felt, even though my experiences couldn’t have been more different than his. On paper, it can’t possibly make sense, but the opening lines of “Trapped” perfectly described how I felt living in Kansas, “You know they got me trapped in this prison of seclusion, happiness living on the streets is a delusion.”
Vulnerability has always been the secret to Tupac’s success. While most hip hop was either egotistical, political or dance music, and he did all of that too, but Tupac came out talking about depression. In a world of machismo, Tupac unapologetically gushed about the works of Shakespeare. When hip hop was obsessed with being gangster, Tupac released “Dear Mama” and it was a huge hit. Tupac was similar to another tough guy, who played the part of rebel without a cause, and frankly the original thug, who volunteered to perform in a prison. The same guy who poured his heart out for the love of his life. And then had, perhaps, his commercial success when he covered Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” and added layers to an already incredibly personal song.
While on paper, the rapper, born to a Black Panther and later attended the Baltimore School for the Arts, can’t be more different than a country singer that was raised in Arkansas by a sharecropper, their respective legacies are written in the same language.