Pete Tosiello knows the best thing from ’96 was the Bulls.
The bubble has burst, the market has collapsed, the apocalypse is upon us; the Year of the Rap Anniversary has descended. We’ve now commenced the twenty-first solar orbit since the year of rap’s most discussable albums, granting long-awaited retrospective clarity to adequately assess the can’t-miss debuts (Ironman, Legal Drug Money, Picture This, Reasonable Doubt, and Soul on Ice), perplexing sophomore jinxes (It Was Written and The Doggfather), enigmatic mid-career also-rans (Beats, Rhymes, and Life, Stakes Is High, Geto Boys’ The Resurrection and of course, Keith Murray’s Enigma), and tragic last hurrahs (The Score, The Don Killuminati, and Str8 Off the Streetz of Muthaphukkin Compton).
We’ve shaken our biological cataracts, finally allowing for clear-sighted analysis of the abundance of elusive cult talismans from 1996: A+’s The Latch-Key Child, Cella Dwellas’ Realms N Reality, Kwest the Madd Lad’s This Is My First Album, Lil 1/2 Dead’s Steel on a Mission, Smoothe the Hustler’s Once Upon a Time in America, and the DJ Honda album with all the “Out For the Cash” remixes. We’ll discuss the surfeit of Rap-A-Lot, Suave House, and Young Black Brotha gems that are famous for being unfamous with insight that was impossible just weeks ago in 2015. We’ll wax poetic about Business Is Business, Death Threatz, and Wild Cowboys and grapple with what Bow Down and Firing Squad mean.
We’ll discuss what Ridin’ Dirty hath wrought and how far afield we’ve been blown from The Awakening. We’ll mourn the future forecasted by Muddy Waters and attempt to comprehend how Hell on Earth changed the world. Blahzay Blahzay, Mad Skillz, and Real Live will be recognized as the heroes we needed but didn’t deserve, and Heltah Skeltah’s Nocturnal will be acknowledged as Gen Y’s Exile on Main Street, Highway 61 Revisited, and Rubber Soul all rolled into one. Dru Down’s Can You Feel Me will at last be appreciated as an Illuminati touchstone. ATLiens is twenty and Idlewild is ten.
Still all of these reevaluations will pale in comparison to the ones occasioned by the twentieth anniversary of rap’s most discussable album by rap’s most discussable figure in the year of rap’s most discussable records. All Eyez on Me is the holy grail of rap commemoratives.
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All Eyez on Me is not a perfect record; it may not even be a great record, despite its incontrovertible status as a Great Record. It is as responsible for such high church liturgies as 2001 and The Marshall Mathers LP as it is for such low culture delights as Master P’s MP da Last Don and Ja Rule’s The Last Temptation. It is the reason gangsta rap became glutted with soap operas and double-disc marathons bloated by filler and posse cuts.
It endures not because it’s the best 2Pac record, but because it’s the most 2Pac record. It’s angry, compassionate, petty, conflicted, and self-defeating. Me Against the World has Easy Mo Bee beats and sounds as much like a Bad Boy record as a Death Row record, whereas Thug Life: Volume 1 thrills and underwhelms in its humble conceit as a g-funk record. His final album The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory is fascinating and fascinatingly half-baked, an apocalyptic jumble with way too many Outlawz appearances.
The 2Pac immortalized in murals, movies, and holograms is not the grinning dancer from the Digital Underground videos or the paranoid proselytizer who died at 25; nor is it the 2Pac who would have existed had he lived to see the year 2000 or 2005. The 2Pac of All Eyez on Me is rap’s most fully realized totem, the embodiment of everything people feared and hated about black people, poor people, young people, criminals, and men. Within six months this perfect scapegoat was warped into the bizarre martyr alter-ego Makaveli, and within seven months he was dead.
Among the iconic Los Angeles rap albums of its era it’s one of the few not constructed almost entirely on George Clinton samples. It features music by Daz Dillinger, DJ Quik, Dr. Dre, Johnny J, DJ Pooh, Rick Rock, QD3, and Mike Mosley, the most sung and unsung heroes of California hip hop. Guest verses are shared among the world’s finest rappers and pedestrians who were never heard from before or again. It is a triumph of wide-ranging collaboration which resulted in one of rap’s most effective autobiographical treatises.
It proffers artistic masterpieces next to dated, self-indulgent displays of misogyny and redundancy. “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” is the perfect rap song, and it is flanked by songs called “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch” and “Ratha Be Ya Nigga,” songs that bar 2Pac from Lennon, Marley, and Hendrix’s canon of fallen masters even if those men were guilty of crimes just as grievous as Shakur’s.
We love 2Pac for his contradictions, and All Eyez on Me is 133 minutes of them. 2Pacalypse Now and Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. were the products of a New York-born, Baltimore-raised child of Black Panthers, one who thought black men should take care of their children and railed against the objectification of women when it suited him. He voiced the immense pressure he felt even as a young man, articulating the enticement of criminal endeavors to support oneself. He was an unapologetic walking battlefield of impulses and temptations who hated shirts and police; a Texas defense attorney claimed his client had shot a cop under the influence of his music. “Thug life” is stickier, but my favorite 2Pac truism is the copout he thought absolved him from all responsibility as an international supercelebrity: “I was given this world, I didn’t make it.”
Released during a stint at Clinton Correctional for sexual assault, 1995’s Me Against the World is his magnum opus. It’s his most focused and personal record, marked by a lack of the vindictiveness which dominates his later work. Amidst his legal battles and the swirling coastal feud he’s oddly detached from his life’s mounting gravity, looking back at his childhood from the ripe age of 23 and perceiving the strangeness of his celebrity. The production is glorious, a downtempo synth-based suite more closely resembling the smooth R&B of 1995 than G-Funk. It is 2Pac’s most technically accomplished record—he employs more complex polysyllabic rhyme schemes and alliteration than ever before, interacting with the music itself more intricately than on any other record.
Me Against the World also builds upon Thug Life: Volume 1’s endless meditations on death: “If I Die 2Nite” and “Death Around the Corner” are even more direct prophecies than “Bury Me a G” and “How Long Will They Mourn Me?” All Eyez on Me is in many respects the celebration of a newly freed prisoner, but it’s ridden with an unshakeable sense of mortality. There are dramatic eulogies for lost friends and forecasts of a fiery end.
All Eyez on Me is inseparable from the influence of Death Row Records; it’s the most identifiable change between it and its predecessor. Suge Knight posting 2Pac’s bail effectively commissioned a malevolent album by a parolee who had become, alternately, a target, a hero, and a pariah.
Today’s rap cognoscenti is too easily impressed by youth. Large Professor penned “Looking at the Front Door” at 17 and Scarface recorded “I Seen a Man Die” when he was 23, so excuse me for not being wowed by Big Sean and J. Cole, those incarnations of youthful serendipity, who are respectively 27 and 31. Joey Bada$$ is impressive for as long as it takes to consider that twenty years ago rappers his age made ATLiens, Illmatic, and The Infamous.
At 24 2Pac was a Hollywood leading man, a sex offender, and a survivor of multiple attempts on his life. He was the most charismatic rapper of all time, a seemingly invincible messiah obsessed with his imminent demise. Yet even his starkest and most violent music is the work of a cunning, cockeyed youth conscious of the error in his ways but reveling in his lifestyle just the same.
The image of 2Pac as a Christ figure is misbegotten. Shakur didn’t die fighting for a cause or struggling to impart an enlightened way of life upon the masses. He was the product of violent environments and the victim of a venomous narrative manufactured by record labels and a voracious media cycle, one that came to resemble the gang-infested warzones he’d escaped but never recused himself from.
All Eyez on Me is brilliant, frustrating, bloated, important, prophetic, silly, and scattershot. These are the reasons it is not a perfect album, and they’re the reasons 2Pac was a perfect rapper. And somehow all of these things have become ancillary to the point. The context is now far more important than the music itself.
As for the music itself? “Ambitionz Az A Ridah” and “2 Of Amerikaz Most Wanted” are timeless anthems that will be sent to extraterrestrial surfaces in space capsules. “How Do You Want It” and “California Love” are delectable ‘90s pop singles. “All About U,” “Heartz Of Men,” “Life Goes On,” and “Picture Me Rollin’” are each brilliant compositions in their way. “Only God Can Judge Me,” “Thug Passion,” and “Can’t C Me” are undersold. The rest is superfluous and also entirely compelling. Taken together it’s fantastic, but it can’t be digested in a single sitting.
All Eyez on Me is the conclusive statement of a genius whose life and art had throttled irreversibly out of control. It isn’t rap’s holy grail, but what matters is that it’s the rap revisionist’s holy grail.