Twenty Years After His Death, Tupac Still Lives

Note: This story originally appeared on my blog on September 13, 2016.

Twenty years ago today, a rapper by the name of Tupac Shakur died of the gunshot wounds that he’d incurred a week earlier after a fight in Las Vegas.

On September 13, 2016, Tupac Shakur is no longer just a rapper; in the twenty years since his untimely passing, Shakur has become a legend. His records have sold 75 million copies and several of his posthumously released albums have gone platinum. Sprite and Powerade both featured the voice and lyrics of Tupac in their ads. A CGI likeness of Tupac — not a hologram as widely reported — wowed the crowd at Coachella in 2012. His face is emblazoned on graffiti art all over the world (type the words “Tupac Street Art” into Google if you don’t believe me) and anybody who walks through Time Square has encountered cartoonists who sell pictures of Tupac fist-bumping Al Pacino’s Tony Montana. Successful rappers like Drake, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and 50 Cent have all cited him as an influence. It is not uncommon to meet teenagers, many of whom weren’t even alive during Tupac’s career, who feel that he is the best rapper of all time. And, like Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison before him, many of Tupac’s fans postulate that he isn’t really dead.

I’ll be frank. I am ambivalent about Tupac’s elevation onto pop culture’s Mount Olympus. His lyrics glorified gang violence and drug use. I disapproved (and still do disapprove) of Tupac’s use of the word “nigga” to describe himself and other young black men, a word choice that is still controversial in the black community. And I found his schizophrenic attitude toward women — decrying their plight in songs like “Keep Your Head Up” and “Brenda’s Got a Baby” but repeatedly using words like “bitch” and “ho” to describe them in others — to be off-putting.

Still, I feel a stab of nostalgia whenever I hear “California Love”; the song was released a few weeks before my nineteenth birthday and I will forever associate it with my youth. Tupac’s “Gangsta Party”, the epitome of Golden Era G-funk, manages to be compulsively danceable and eerie all at once. And although I hated the video, I cranked up the volume every time I heard “How Do U Want It” back in 1996.

And his music served as a soundtrack to a very specific time in American musical history — a time when an alchemical mix of heavy video rotation on MTV and radio airplay plus a peculiar mix of undeground street cred and mainstream marketability still made or broke rap artists. The then nascent internet hadn’t yet been harnessed into Youtube, Vimeo, or social networking sites and reality shows were limited to Cops, The Real World, and The People’s Court. Back in those days, a rapper who wanted to become a musical legend had to do more than buy spambots on Twitter or punch someone out at a reality TV reunion show; he had to pound pavements, lay tracks, and court controversy the old fashioned way.

Tupac, for all his shortcomings, did exactly that. And for that, he will live on forever.