Freedom or jail, clips inserted, a baby’s being born
Same time a man is murdered — the beginning and end
~ Nas “Nas is Like” (1999)
There is a new youth culture entering college campuses this fall, as well as 21-year-olds ordering their first drink, who were just being born or not yet conceived when Tupac Shakur was killed in September of ’96 or when The Notorious B.I.G. was slain soon afterward in March ’97. XXXTentacion, one of the hottest and most controversial of the new generation of hip-hop stars, was born in January of 1998 and by then DMX, Jay-Z, No Limit and Cash Money were taking over rap (but more on that later).
In Benny Boom’s long-delayed 2Pac biopic, All Eyez on Me, nostalgia for the innocent era of the Clinton years is spliced with Shakur’s own personal protests against social injustices that have become the topic de jour. The film is basked in hip-hop’s second golden age of the mid to late ’90s, where 2Pac and Biggie Smalls were unquestionably the two most important artists and living legends before their lives were taken. Shakur, with his parental roots sewn in the Black Panthers, is shown in the film as a young child who identifies with his step-father, the revolutionary Mutulu Shakur. There is a dichotomy that exists in that Shakur’s parents were targeted by the FBI and police due to their political actions, while later in 2Pac’s life he was incarcerated more so due to some of his own personal transgressions, real or perceived. Yet Pac was assaulted by the police and also charged with shooting two off-duty police officers in Atlanta (the charges were dropped when dirt emerged about the officers, who it seems initiated the incident). Theories abound about just how closely the government was watching 2Pac and there is evidence that the FBI was investigating certain aspects of his life, including extortion of himself and Eazy-E by the Jewish Defense League. With his musical group and movement, Thug Life, which he famously inked across his belly, 2Pac was assembling a movement that falls somewhere between the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter.
All Eyez on Me chronicles Shakur’s musical beginnings with the Digital Undergound in the early ’90s where he started out as a roadie, hypeman and dancer, gyrating to the booming base of their smash single “The Humpty Dance” and later landing a guest verse on “Same Song.” The music video for the latter song is recreated in the film, with Demetreus Ship Jr. playing the young Tupac with striking charisma to the real man, almost as a hologram at times. Even on a party jam such as “Same Song,” a silly crossover dance number featured on the soundtrack to Dan Ankyord and John Candy comedy Nothing but Trouble, Tupac was able to blur the lines between party and pundit, rapping “Get some fame, people change, wanna live they life high/ Same song, can’t go wrong, if I play the nice guy.”
As a director of some of the early aughties’ biggest hip-hop music videos, from 50 Cent to Nas, Benny Boom engulfs All Eyez on Me with the same dramatic aesthetic, where scenes between the bigger musical showpieces often resemble those music video’s cinematic interludes. In the real video for “Same Song,” released in 1991, Eazy-E and Dr. Dre make cameo appearances and Shakur’s connection to N.W.A. is a plot point not fleshed out enough in the film. Boom does however follow some of the storytelling facets of Straight Outta Compton, with a young Pac frustrated as a “back-up” to Shock G and Digital Underground, not unlike how Dr. Dre felt stymied as part of the World Class Wrecking Cru — although Shock G would go on to encourage Shakur to go solo, producing many of his early songs and shopping his solo demo, which would evolve into his 1991 debut album 2Pacalypse Now.
All Eyez on Me depicts some of Shakur’s first meetings with Interscope record executives as similar experiences to the ones a solo Ice Cube had with Priority Records after leaving N.W.A. Corny white guys behind big desks attempt to “white-mansplain” the music business to Shakur and Ice Cube and both of them ain’t having that. In Straight Outta Compton, the late Jerry Heller (a vibrant Paul Giamatti) provides Eazy-E the “access” to the mainstream and the film draws the conclusion that he and Eazy conspired to screw over the other members of N.W.A. and in the end even Eazy-E was duped by Heller. The recent HBO documentary The Defiant Ones dives deep into the relationship between Dr. Dre and another white label boss, Jimmy Iovine, where it seems things were always kosher between them. Heller had a complex relationship with Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, at once his mentor, defender and perhaps exploiter. Ice Cub was the first to jump ship over contracts and Dr. Dre later left for Death Row. That N.W.A. and 2Pac (and possibly Biggie Smalls) didn’t understand their recording deals has been documented, but All Eyez on Me and Straight Outta Compton capture how it led Dr. Dre and 2Pac into the grasp of the predatory Suge Knight.
Yo Mo Bee mayn!, drop that shit!
~ 2Pac “Temptations” (1995)
One of the easily forgotten storylines of 2Pac’s tenure with Death Row Records was the label’s planned east-coast expansion, christened by Knight as Death Row East, which he used as a carrot stick to keep 2Pac from leaving after he fulfilled his contract, promising Pac an executive role. Reenacted in the film, 2Pac touted the label’s plan for bi-coastal domination during an interview at a MTV awards show, calling to overthrow Nas and Bad Boy and debunking the East-vs-West Coast rap war as a divide-and-conquer diversion. Although Pac was iconized flashing the West coast W on the All Eyez on Me album cover, he was often a hip-hop ambassador for unity, as even on that album he was collaborating with Method Man and Redman. Pac’s music was polished from the New York bomb-squad sound with a more glossy, funky veneer thanks to Dr. Dre and Daz Dillinger, but one album earlier on ‘95’s Me Against the World he worked alongside Easy Mo Bee, one of the chief architects behind Bad Boy Records’ early sounds on Ready to Die and Craig Mack’s smash hit “Flava In Ya Ear.”
Mo Bee was also the producer behind 2Pac and Biggie’s collaboration “Runnin’ from tha Police” from ’95 during their initial friendship phase that predated their bitter rivalry. Mo Bee’s juxtaposition among the two rap giants is left out of All Eyez on Me, but the film does devote a chunk of time depicting the blossoming kinship between the two rappers as well as their relationship with the infamous “Haitian Jack” Jacques Agnant (who goes by “Nigel” in the film). Rumors abound that “Haitian Jack”, a shady gangster/music promoter who helped both Pac and Biggie early in their careers, may have been involved in Pac’s shooting at Quad Studios in Times Square. Mike Tyson, a friend of Shakur, even warned him to stay away from “Haitian Jack” and some speculate an interview 2Pac gave where he bad-mouthed Agnant may have led to the subsequent shooting as a retaliation. Benny Boom focuses more on Pac’s paranoia surrounding Sean “Puffy” Combs and Biggie, who were both famously present at the studio that night, being behind the robbery. However, recent developments have suggested Pac may not have been shot as many times in that incident and might’ve accidentally shot himself when reaching for his gun and then lied about the incident to save face. Boom does draw some conclusions that “Nigel” was probably somewhat responsible for Pac taking the fall in the sexual assault case that sent him to prison. 2Pac addressed this on “Against All Odds” from the Makaveli LP, labeling “Haitian Jack” a snitch.
In the film, after the shooting at Quad studios, 2Pac is rushed to the hospital, where his security guards prohibit Biggie from visiting him, which Pac witnesses, only furthering his suspicions. Upon discharge from the hospital, Pac stands trial for sexual assault and is convicted. One of the films’ strongest scenes features Shipp Jr. addressing the court and specifically the judge, scolding the honor for never once looking in his eyes to see the man standing before him, or as another of his famous tattoos and anthems goes: Only God Can Judge Me.
I hear the doctor standin’ over me, screamin’ I can make it
Got a body full of bullet holes, layin’ here naked
Still I can’t breathe, something’s evil in my IV
’Cause everytime I breathe I think they killin’ me
~2Pac “Only God Can Judge Me” (1996)
The premonitions of death that radiate from both 2Pac and Biggie’s lyrics have been well documented and discussed by fans and critics alike. Shakur’s hospital death bed visions on “Only God Can Judge Me” could be viewed as a flashback to the Quad shooting or a prediction of his eventual death. When 2Pac was incarcerated in Rikers Island in 1995, his third album, Me Against the World, became a watershed moment in his discography and also a reached a perverse milestone, he was the first artist to have a №1 album in the country while being in prison. The record finds Pac undeniably at his most vulnerable, baring his soul on the somber blues of “So Many Tears” and incredibly sensitive and tender on “Dear Mama” a beautiful ballad where Pac exorcises his family demons. The album’s intro and ensuing Easy Mo Bee orchestrated opening cut “If I Die 2Nite” drum up the suspense for Pac’s revenge against those who double-crossed him. Yet Me Against the World balances Pac’s hair-splitting lyrics by sprinkling in slow-jams such as “Temptations” and radio-ready, easy-listening soul and g-funk backdrops that encompass the majority of the record’s production. Although Pac wasn’t yet signed to Death Row during the recording of Me Against the World, one can easily pick-up on the west-coast influences such as The Chronic and Doggystyle, that are meshed with the grimy subterranean New York sound and this album could be an example of what a Death Row East record would be.
Benny Boom’s film offers up two key nods to nostalgia in the scenes where Pac is serving his prison sentence. As Pac was incarcerated and unable to tour and promote his new album, Biggie Smalls was morphing into a megastar as his debut Ready to Die was both a critical and commercial blockbuster. If Pac was a chameleon flipping between East and West coast sounds, The Notorious B.I.G. blended the ideology of Doggystyle and Illmatic with his bombastic Brooklyn braggadocio while Puff Daddy craftily executed a record that was the most cinematic and commercially appealing of them all. While Pac had party jams like “I Get Around,” the buoyant and sultry “Big Poppa” and “One More Chance (Remix)” transformed the chubby Biggie into a cuddly, irresistible playboy. Biggie was both Superfly and James Bond, a slick hustler who was never outfoxed and this action hero persona was played out on “Warning” and “Who Shot Ya” the former a heavily rotated music video in the burgeoning age of the short rap films that speckled MTV. But it was “Who Shot Ya”, which 2Pac interpreted as a taunt to the Quad shooting incident, that sent the imprisoned rapper in a rage. All Eyez on Me shows Pac becoming furious when he hears the song on the prison yard and when he sees The Source Magazine cover with Biggie cropped into the New York skyline, a giant standing tall amongst the Twin Towers.
Pac must’ve felt entirely helpless during his prison stint, especially in the hip-hop world where the players and stakes in the game change with the blink of an eye. Along with the success of Ready to Die, Biggie’s group Junior Mafia was blowing up with the bouncy hit singles from their debut album Conspiracy, “Get Money” and “Player’s Anthem,” which introduced the world to the young femme fatale Lil’ Kim. Pac’s group, Outlawz, would be waiting in the wings once he came home, as they recorded “Hit ’em Up” a scathing diss track aimed at the Biggie Small’s entire crew as well as Mobb Deep, flipping the “Get Money” sample with menace. Pac’s beef with Mobb Deep (as well as with Keith Murray) stemmed from their guest verses on the remix to LL Cool J’s “I Shot Ya,” a tongue-in-cheek posse cut released later in ’95 after “Who Shot Ya” had already created much controversy.
Cool J, who by the mid-nineties was a rap veteran beginning to transition to a career in Hollywood, had laid out a more mainstream, pop-rap lothario sound on his ’95 album Mr. Smith. With the sensual “Doin’ It” and slow-burning Boyz II Men assisted “Hey Lover,” Cool J found his niche as a buff Romeo making joints for the ladies — but the man who once clashed with Kool Moe Dee, who was “Bad” and made “Mama Said Knock You Out” — still wanted to be respected as a dominant emcee, hence “I Shot Ya” being squished among the erotic grooves of Mr. Smith. Cool J also hails from Queensbridge and paved the way for not only Mobb Deep and Nas but Biggie and Tupac. Debuting in 1985 with a gold-rope chain and Kangol hat, showing off his sculpted body and six-pack abs, Cool J’s first album Radio, which featured head-knockers like “Rock The Bells,” instantly made him a rap superhero. Signed to a deal with powerhouse Def Jam, Cool J would be one of their flagship artist for over 20 years, outlasting many trends and beefs to the point where he christened himself the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time) on a 2000 album barring that title.
That shit was the worst rhyme I ever heard in my life
’Cause the greatest rapper of all time died on March ninth
God bless his soul, rest in peace, kid
It’s because of him now at least I know what beef is
~ Canibus “Second Round K.O.” (1998)
It’s hard to pinpoint when hip-hop made a transition from the second golden age to its third wave, many point to the deaths of Biggie and Tupac as the tipping point, but the true sea change seemed to begin with LL Cool J’s “4,3,2,1” and by 1998 the entire landscape would change. On “4,3,2,1”, the up-and-coming Canibus made reference to Cool J’s microphone tattoo on a lyrical rec-room banger that also featured heavyweight rhymers Method Man, Redman and DMX. Cool J took offense with the rookie Canibus’ rhyme and re-recorded his verse, sinking his teeth into the new-comer like an angry lion: “Now let’s get back to this mic on my arm/ If it ever left my side it’d transform into a time bomb/ You don’t wanna borrow that, you wanna idolize/ And you don’t wanna make me mad nigga you wanna socialize.” The verse sparked the first big rap beef since Biggie vs. 2Pac sans the gun violence. Canibus, taken under the wing of Wyclef Jean, began working on his promising, much-hyped solo debut album that was fueled by the wicked Cool J counterpunch “Second Round K.O.”
With an opening monologue from boxing heavyweight Mike Tyson (the fighter who 2Pac watched defeat Bruce Seldon in Vegas the night he died), Canibus sought to embarrass the legendary Cool J on his own iconic “Mamma Said Knock You Out” turf. Iron Mike Tyson, who would enter the ring to Shakur’s music, represented an authentic co-sign to be in Canibus’ corner. Unfortunately for Canibus, he could never make it past the second round, as his mishandled album failed commercially and two other rappers featured on “4,3,2,1”, DMX and Master P (who was added to a later mix), began to take over hip-hop along with one other name: Jay-Z
You cats is home screaming the fight’s on
I’m in the fifteen hundred seats, watching Tyson
Same night, same fight
But one of us cats ain’t playing right, I let you tell it
~Jay-Z “I Love The Dough” (1997)
Biggie Smalls had plans for Jay-Z, he was going to be a part of his supergroup The Commission and the two had recorded “Brooklyn’s Finest” a rapid-fire collaboration from Jay-Z’s ’96 debut Reasonable Doubt that still stands as one of the hottest tag-team tracks ever. Biggie had a few clever digs at 2Pac on the cut, including the line: “If Fay’ had twins she’d probably have two Pacs/get it? Tu-Pac.” When Jay rapped the coded lines about a Tyson fight on the Life After Death’s “I Love The Dough” (also produced by Easy Mo Bee), there was some speculation that the song was in fact about the murder of 2Pac in Vegas after the Tyson fight (it has been explained by Jay’s camp that it was about another Tyson fight). Just as Pac had suspected that Biggie and Puffy had something to do with the Quad robbery, some have theorized that some sort of conspiracy consisting of members of Bad Boy and Roc-A-Fella were part of the Vegas assassination plot. Benny Boom’s film sticks to the more widely accepted theory that 2Pac was murdered by gang-members, recreating the MGM Grand lobby security footage of Shakur, Suge and various other Death Row crew members jumping South Side Crip Orlando Anderson, who had stolen a Death Row chain from one member of Suge’s entourage some time earlier. Orlando Anderson was never formally named a suspect by the police, but evidence points to a convincing likelihood of his involvement.
Illuminati want my mind, soul and my body
Secret Society, tryin’ to keep denying me
~Prodigy “I Shot Ya” (Remix) 1995
The title of Shakur’s first record on Death Row, All Eyez on Me, might not be referring to his celebrity and troubles with the law but rather the all seeing eye of the Illuminati, the eye atop the pyramid printed on the American currency. Released posthumously in November ’96, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, depicted on the liner notes the exit of 2Pac and the entrance of Makaveli as his artistic resurrection and vengeful alias. On the sinister opener “Bomb First (My Second Reply)” 2Pac aimed his venom at Bad Boy, Nas, Mobb Deep, Jay-Z and anyone else who dared step to him. But it was the album’s second track, the spine-tingling “Hail Mary” that featured a chilling performance by 2Pac, who hung over the beat like a ghost haunting the hip-hop world in the aftermath of his death.
The “kill illuminati” Makaveli mindset was aligned with his Black Panther roots, meanwhile Jay-Z’s record label shared its moniker with the Rockefeller ruling class (though it’s said Jay actually named it after a famous Brooklyn hustler who went by that nickname) and would later flash a pyramid sign on his The Dynasty: Roc La Familia album cover. In the hip-hop landscape of ’96, Jay-Z was an afterthought in the midst of Biggie, 2Pac, Nas and Snoop, but a list of the Top 50 MCs of all time in a ’99 issue of the long defunct VIBE spin-off Blaze Magazine was telling: Jay-Z was ranked #9 (Biggie was #3, 2Pac #7 — Nas #15). With the release of 4:44 this year, Jay-Z has added another solid album to his classic catalog as he has since risen to the top of the list of those considered among the greatest of all time. Jay’s ascent hit an apex with the release of The Blueprint, a record that was released during the tragic day of 9/11, cementing his status with an instant, soulful classic that would introduced Kayne West, help to heal a nation and light the fuse for a historic rap battle with Nas (and Mobb Deep).
Jay-Z and Nas — both targets of 2Pac, Nas a rival of Biggie while Jay was a close friend — had always been circling each other like boxers waiting for the perfect moment to land a knock-out punch. The feud would reawaken a slumbering Nas from his half-baked commercial reaches and kick-start a beef trend that would continue with 50 Cent battling numerous rappers later in the decade. Nas would roast Jay-Z on “Ether” and call him out for imitating Biggie, spitting his lines and replicating the Bigge and Puffy dynamic with himself and Dame Dash. If time has shown anything, relationships in hip-hop can shift and change. Despite their war of words, Nas would eventually squash the beef with Jay-Z and ink a deal with Def Jam during Jay’s time as label boss. One wonders what sort of friendships 2Pac and Biggie would’ve bonded or burned had they lived longer. Jay has since severed ties with Dame Dash and isn’t currently on good terms with Kanye West, one could envision he and Biggie eventually bumping heads. For one, Jay-Z was involved in the infamous stabbing incident of Biggie’s friend Lance “Un” Riveria, who had signed Cam’Ron early in his career. Cam’ron, who strangely enough later signed with Roc-A-Fella due to his friendship with Dame Dash, had come up with Ma$e prior to his Bad Boy fame. Ma$e’s debut in late ’97, Harlem World (which would be a huge influence on a young Kanye West), kept Bad Boy burning hot on the charts. Along with Life After Death and Puffy’s No Way Out, Bad Boy was on top of the world in ’97 and Jay-Z was right there in the background, featured on songs from all three albums. The throne was up for grabs and the sharks were circling.
Your reign on the top was short like leprechauns
As I crush so-called willies, thugs, and rapper-dons
~The Notorious B.I.G. “Kick In The Door” (1997)
With the release of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… in 1995, Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon and Ghostface Killah kicked-off a mafiaso rap trend that would be emulated in a slew of mid-90s rap albums from Nas, AZ, Jay-Z, Mobb Deep as well Biggie’s Life After Death and 2Pac’s first two albums on Death Row. Biggie’s Frank White persona and verbal darts on “Kick In The Door” were always interpreted as a retort to Nas (who by then had also picked up a crimelord alias as Nas Escobar) that he was still the King of New York. This battle over the crown would eventually spill over into Jay-Z and Nas’ feud years later in the early aughts. On Cuban Linx, “Wu-Gambinos” Raekwon and Ghostface composed a Godfather-esque epic of cinematic hip-hop, marrying the aesthetics of classic gangster movies with John Woo and classic kung-fu flicks. Nas, who had debuted his “Escobar” persona on Mobb Deep’s The Infamous album earlier in ’95, laced a glittering golden verse on “Verbal Intercourse” that reflected on the prison system. Nas would be the only non-Wu-Tang member to feature on the album, as a tight-knit clique of Mobb Deep, Nas and Wu-Tang’s Raekwon/Ghostface drew a line in the sand opposite of Bigge and Bad Boy: with Method Man being the one exception. Johnny Blaze would feature on “The What” on Biggie’s Ready to Die as well as “Got My Mind Made Up” with 2Pac and Redman on All Eyez on Me.
But Wu-Tang’s neutral overlapping would also be present on Life After Death, with The RZA contributing production to “Long Kiss Goodnight” which interestingly enough featured some of Biggie’s (and Puffy’s) most aggressive barbs towards 2Pac. This criss-crossing web of collaborating between coasts, allies among enemies, was starting to blur the lines. Both All Eyez on Me and Straight Outta Compton fail to touch upon Dr. Dre’s working with Nas and The Firm, as Dr. Dre produced Nas’ “Nas Is Coming” from ‘96’s It Was Written, in which both of them downplay the rap feuds, instead favoring getting money. Profits would become an overwhelming force as the late ’90s emerged and Life After Death could be viewed as the kick-start of cashing in. If All Eyez on Me was a double-entrendre of fame and big-brother omnipresence, Life After Death, which often plays like a long-play subtle opera about Bigge’s beef with Pac, almost reads as “Life After Pac”, in which it was safe to dance again, party and even go out west as “Goin’ Back To Cali’ “ suggests. Easy Mo Bee, who produced “Going Back To Cali’,” voiced his reservations to Biggie at first, concerned the track could be viewed as slight to the West Coast in the wake of Pac’s death, yet Biggie relented that it was a tribute and the song, incubated with the low-rider anthem of Zapp’s “More Bounce to the Ounce” is as poignant of a tribute as Pac’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” Easy Mo Bee was conscious of not restricting himself to who he’d work with in a rap-beef climate and this sentiment was echoed by Redman who viewed the era of the late ’90s as “money time” as labels and artists were cashing in, racking up platinum and gold plaques. There was also a geographical shift occurring as well as a appreciation for a more mainstream sound aimed at the charts.
The South got somethin’ to say, that’s all I got to say
~Andre 3000–1995 Source Music Awards
While the ’95 Source Awards went down in infamy for the high tensions between Death Row and Bad Boy, with Suge Knight calling out Puffy and Snoop snarling at the New York audience, it was actually Outkast winning the award for Best New Artist that has the most significance. With their ’94 debut Southerplayalisticcadillacmuzik ushering in a Dirty South sound that was sonically rich and authentic, OutKast crafted a world of celestial pimps and supernatural playas that they would further elevate by pushing the boundaries of creativity on their subsequent albums ATLiens and Aquemini. Meanwhile, more rugged street sounds where brewing in New Orleans with Master P and his No Limit Records empire. His breakout ’96 smash single, “Bout It, Bout It,” off his Ice Cream Man album brought his shine outside of the regional scene.
Percy Miller, an observant business man who had watched other rap stars get screwed by shady recording contracts, turned his independent No Limit Records operation into a phenomenon, flooding the market with releases on what seemed to be a weekly basis. This mindset would also be executed by Cash Money Records, who rode their early underground success into a gigantic distribution deal with Universal Records as Bryan “Baby” Williams, who operates as southern blend of Puffy and Suge Knight, would unleash the Hot Boys onto the rap world. But perhaps more valuable in the long run, Miller provided a safe haven for artists to record music and mature, as even Snoop Dogg signed to No Limit after the chaotic collapse of Death Row. Snoop enjoyed an artistic resurgence during his time in the Dirty South, releasing three platinum albums and reconnecting with Dr. Dre, who was on the verge of a huge comeback with Aftermath, releasing 2001 in late ’99 and introducing a new artist from Detroit named Marshall Mathers.
But “Dre Day” only meant Eazy’s payday
~Eazy-E “Real Muthaphuckkin G’s” (1993)
One of the best scenes in Straight Outta Compton is the recording session of “Boyz ‘n The Hood” which starts off with a insecure Eazy-E hilariously tone-deaf learning to rap Ice Cube’s penned lyrics on the fly. It’s Dr. Dre, showing his knack for studio wizardry and the ability to bring the best out of artists, who coaches the frazzled Eric Wright into being himself on wax. Dr. Dre’s golden touch would continue when he went to Death Row as he mentored Snoop Dogg into stardom and catapulted 2Pac onto the top of the charts. Sadly, money, jealously and miscommunication sours the best of kinships. Suge would bully Eazy-E and Heller into releasing Dr. Dre onto Death Row, which led to the classic albums The Chronic and Doggystyle, along with a beef between Eazy’s Ruthless camp and Dre’s Death Row inmates. Ice Cube left N.W.A. in 1990, releasing AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, which was a pre-cursor to the 2Pacalypse sound and Cube also began to dabble in film with movies such as Boyz n the Hood, another move the multi-talented Shakur would make. Cube beefed with Eazy and Dre, but as shown in Straight Outta Compton, that animosity began to cool by the mid-nineties. Dre and Cube would reunite with “Natural Born Killaz” on ‘94’s Murder Was The Case soundtrack and Dre would lace the Friday soundtrack with the hypnotic jam “Keep Their Heads Ringin’”.
By the time Pac landed on Death Row, Eazy-E had met his untimely death from AIDS. Wright’s passing came just as his new artists, the melodic rap-crooners from Cleveland, Ohio, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony were beginning to enjoy success with their hits “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” and “Foe tha Love of $.” Bone Thugs would inject a unique sound into hip-hop that blended rapid-fire bars with angelic melodies, predating the grim grooves of modern acts such as Future and The Weeknd. For “Notorious Thugs” on Life After Death, Biggie Smalls breathlessly adopted the Bone Thugs flow, connecting with the group on a thunderous joint that still blazes strong 20 years later. Ironically, Bone Thugs would also team-up with Pac on the equally savage “Thug Love” from their ’97 double disc Art of War. If only Eazy had been alive to experience such heights — had he not got sick would the feud between Biggie and Tupac escalated to its sad climax? The unsolved murders of Biggie and 2Pac have gave way to countless conspiracy theories beyond what has been discussed here. Eric Wright’s death from HIV/AIDS complications, in which he succumbed to the disease within weeks of learning of his diagnosis, has raised suspicions of foul play as well. Leave it to Suge Knight to deliver this creepy quote when appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2003: “Technology is so high, right? So, if you shoot somebody, you go to jail forever. So kids, you don’t want to go to jail forever, right? So they got this new thing out, that people sell them all the time. They got this stuff they called… they get blood from somebody with AIDS and they shoot you with it. That’s a slow death. The Eazy-E thing, you know what I mean?” Further stirring the pot this past September, Suge told Ice-T and Soledad O’Brien, who were working on the FOX special “Who Shot Biggie & Tupac?” that he thinks 2Pac could still be alive.
From the womb to the tomb, presume the unpredictable
Guns salute life rapidly, that’s the ritual
~ Nas “Verbal Intercourse” (1995)
War breeds heroes and tragedy creates legends. Straight Outta Compton and All Eyez on Me (and Notorious for that matter) are as imperfect as their complex subjects. Dr. Dre and Ice Cube were producers on the film and meddled in some omissions and revisionist history. 2Pac’s mother Afeni Shakura was the caretaker of his estate and her reservations, along with director shuffling and studio drama, were factors delaying the film for many years. In the hands of Benny Boom, the end product lacks the breadth perhaps only a premium cable mini-series could deliver. But both are as much about the music as they are the artist, and they offer a key-hole view into an era, in which both those who lived it and today’s unbaptized youth will want to enter into that vault door and dive further into the albums, the music videos, the b-sides and all the other relics.
In 2017, XXXTentacion digs up archival footage of the Rodney King beating, along with other documents of police brutality in the music video for “Look at Me!”/”Riot” — the two songs showcasing two different sides of the artist, one moment an obnoxious spazz and the other a lucid poet. A scene in the video displays XXXTentacion rapping as he’s hung from a tree by his gold chain and later a lynching of a white kid is acted out on a stage. Such a thing would’ve cause a storm of controversy 20 if not 10 years ago, but perhaps the current political climate has numbed the collective psyche — nobody is shocked anymore. XXXTentacion, who follows in the vein of the gothic undertones of DMX, has caused more trouble for himself outside of music, having been arrested in the past for assault and gun possession and is currently awaiting trial for a disturbing domestic abuse charge involving a pregnant ex-girlfriend. Like 2Pac and Biggie Smalls, XXXTentaction too is preoccupied with his fate. The battle for the soul of a brilliant, tortured artist is hard to watch, but we can’t turn our eyes away.
Will I survive? Will I die? Come on, let’s picture the possibility
~2Pac “All Eyez on Me” (1996)