Ready or Not, Hip-Hop Classics Turn 25

2Pac (PhotoFest) and Fugees (David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

All Eyez on Me — Tupac Shakur

His voice cracks the silence on the first track, “Ambitionz As A Ridah”, a few seconds before the beat drops, his lyrics hang menacingly until the bass line hits, and it’s right then that you know you’re in for some shit. The first time I heard this song was in my friend’s mom’s car out in the mall parking lot listening to it while his mom wrapped up her shopping. My friend had it thumping so loud he blew out the midrange speakers, but it simply did not matter. This song was an act of aggression and a notice to rap industry. 2Pac came back with a vengeance.

As “All About You” starts with that familiar Cameo sample, I remember getting into an argument with a classmate in high school a couple of years after Pac was killed about misogyny in rap music. She used this song as one example, and she was right. It’s misogynistic. It’s also pretty silly. I mean, Snoop is cracking jokes about seeing the same video girl at the “Million Man March”. The wild, sexually aggressive talk was part of the appeal of the music. These first two tracks on All Eyez on Me are the essence of 2Pac’s gangsta persona.

“Skandalouz” usually loses my attention. It’s not a bad song. It does sound a little generic, but I think the real issue with it is that it’s wedged between better tracks. I’d just rather get to those. “Got My Mind Made Up” is one of my favorite songs on this album. It came out when the 90s East Coast/West Coast beef in hip-hop was at its absolute zenith, and it featured the Dogg Pound, who had just put out a video for “New York New York” in which they were giants stomping around NYC with Snoop, knocking down buildings. Featured along with those G-funk titans on “Got My Mind Made Up” were Method Man and Redman, East Coast heavyweights. What gives, right? It’s a banger, and the synth that Daz laces the beat with throughout the track certify it as a product of mid-90s LA sound.

It would be another few months before the Lakers would draft high school phenom Kobe Bryant and then sign Shaq as a free agent. A couple of months after that, just barely into my freshman year of high school, 2Pac would be shot in Las Vegas. He would die in the hospital six days later on Friday, September 13, seven months to the day after his Death Row debut, All Eyez on Me dropped. I was at my first high school football game when a friend of mine approached where I was sitting in the bleachers, tears in his eyes, to tell me Pac had died.

After a steady rise beginning with Digital Underground, it seemed like he was going to dominate hip-hop for the next few years. He was finally at the top of the game, but in retrospect, 2Pac’s stardom was a comet streaking through the galaxy, giving us mortals here on Earth a brief glimpse of celestial magnificence before he passed on into the heavens. Like his peer and rival, Biggie, murdered six months later, we lost 2Pac when the world was only beginning to know him. Remember, the Internet was just barely sneaking into homes via free America Online trial discs, so it took a bit longer for the word to spread if you weren’t already plugged into the community.

All Eyez on Me doesn’t carry all of the fatalism and paranoia that I heard in Me Against the World, but there’s an undercurrent of that below the surface of the gangsta raps and braggadocio. Pac was in fact out on bail, fresh out of jail, from his 1 to 4-year stint in prison. On All Eyez on Me, 2Pac feels like he’s a man on fire spitting across the twenty-seven tracks of the double disc album. He’s on borrowed time. I still feel that energy from the jump, and it carries right through “How Do You Want It,” “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted,” “No More Pain,” and “Heartz of Men”.

At this point, we’re just under an hour of music when Pac hits us with “Life Goes On”. It’s a definite down shift in gears, but it never felt abrupt. There’s still over thirty minutes left on Disc 1, but this half of the double album is the anchor for the entire work. Two of the last three tracks are “California Love” and “I Ain’t Mad At Cha”. Those are top ten 2Pac songs right there. That’s a hell of a way to drop the curtain.

My feeling is that twelve of the fourteen tracks on Disc 1 are fantastic. Had this only been a single disc album, and 2Pac replaced “Skandalouz” and “What’s Ya Phone #” with “Can’t C Me” and “Shorty Wanna Be a Thug” — and added “Picture Me Rollin” and the title track — All Eyez on Me would have still been a 16-track classic, with zero filler. It’s kind of crazy to consider that a month before his murder, 2Pac recorded his last album The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. The energy on that album is more sinister than anything we’d gotten from Pac. He was on one hell of a run between March ’95 and (posthumously) November ’96, releasing his three best albums in that stretch, before he was killed.

We’ll likely never know the truth behind 2Pac’s murder. Maybe it’s as it went down; a rival gang member caught up with Pac and Suge on the Vegas Strip after an earlier confrontation at the MGM, post-Tyson fight. Or, maybe it was a more complicated assassination attempt on a record mogul with a lot of bad blood out in the world, and that attempt just happened to also take the life of one of rap music’s biggest stars — one of its legends. We needed 2Pac these last 10 years, but after running through All Eyez on Me front to back, and again, for this anniversary, I don’t believe it’s the 2Pac from All Eyez on Me that we needed. This is the version of Pac, specifically the image of him on the cover of the album flashing “Westside,” that most fans will remember. It’s 2Pac being the himself to the max, and this classic double album was the product of his creative genius pushed to the limit.

“Picture Me Rollin”

2Pac is like a menthol cigarette, smooth and deadly.

Actual Compact Discs from 1996, with in Sharpie.

The Score — The Fugees

That’s a fact from 1996 that was true back then, and it still holds up now. Another fact from ’96 that still rings true in 2021 is that The Score is a brilliant album. It was made to be cinema for your ears, and Fugees pulled it off with ease — the way any master at their craft would. This particular year in history is filled with classic hip-hop album releases, and I bought all of them. The Score was from a different realm. Compare it to All Eyez on Me, an album with the sound and content that record companies were churning out at that time, and The Score is nothing like it. It has a blend of gritty, park cypher East Coast raps with a smoothness that I’d only heard from West Coast emcees. I was locked into listening to more hardcore hip-hop artists at that time — a product of being a teenage boy trying to flex machismo through his music collection — and The Score introduced me to alternative hip-hop, a genre shaped years prior by Tribe and De La Soul, and one that I pretty much ignored in my early years of listening to music. It’s Lauryn Hill’s fault that I paid attention to Fugees.

In “Killing Me Softly With His Song”, she is a siren, telling me a lie about a man’s words in a song affecting her, but she’s the one killing me, us. She holds the track down with nothing but her voice and a drum machine for the first 90 seconds before the bass line drops. It’s like the entire composition is holding its breath until that moment. This song was the precursor to what the world would get on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill — a total rejection of the type of hip-hop music that would dominate the mid-to-late 90s. She was a rebel within the genre.

Part of what I love about hip-hop music is the creativity track producers flex when they flip a sample and craft a song around it. Same thing goes for emcees who interpolate lyrics from one song and use them for their own track. My folks didn’t listen to soul music or R&B or funk, so a lot of the samples that made some of the rap hits of my youth (and some of the greatest hip-hop songs of all-time) went right over my head, unnoticed. Decades after most of my favorite albums came out, with the internet at my disposal, I took a deep dive into the songs that were sampled to make my favorite tracks.

I didn’t know a damn thing about the Delfonics or their 1968 song “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide from Love)”. Even though Fugees lifted their entire hook for their version of “Ready or Not” from that version (and did the same with Teena Marie for “Fu-Gee-La”), it only makes me appreciate how they flipped it for themselves even more. It was similar to what Puffy and Bad Boy were doing with their radio hits, but it was different.

The live instruments Wyclef added to the entire production made the sampling feel more organic, like an act of reverence for music from their past that served as the foundation for what they created on The Score. It wasn’t just used to make some fly shit people in the club could chant and dance with. Would Puffy have ever thought to sample Enya and flip that into a stone-cold warning shot?

Aside from the three singles off The Score, there are deep cuts that shine. “Family Business” and the title track showcase more of the live instruments that lift this album above the more standard hip-hop compositions that were coming out at that time. “The Mask” puts Lauryn Hill’s lyrical dexterity on full display. “How Many Mics”, “Cowboys”, and “Manifesto/Outro” put us in the center of the cypher and remind me of the type of freestyle sessions I used to find at college house parties back in the day. Wyclef’s spin on “No Woman, No Cry” doesn’t resonate like Bob Marley’s original, but it’s a proper way to mellow the listener out before the final track, the aforementioned “Manifesto/Outro” shuts it down with one more burst of fire.

“Ready or Not”

I still have no idea how the video and the song relate to each other, but when the beat bangs like this one, you could show me a video of a chihuahua two-stepping in a tutu.

Mega-hits that resonated with audiences on a global scale. They were also both “lasts” in their own right. All Eyez on Me was the last album 2Pac put out while he was still alive, and The Score was the last album the Fugees ever made before they split up. Listening to each now, I imagine that 2Pac and the Fugees somehow knew these albums were going to capture something that they could never replicate. That is probably not the case, but they both gave us a piece of their souls to be forever immortalized in their music.

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Nick M. W.

Writer by night, publishing sloppy fiction and amateur entertainment media articles weekly.