Remember when actor/rapper Tupac Shakur headed off to Riker's Island on a rape conviction, spoke of giving up his "Thug Life" persona and turning over a new leaf? Remember all the talk about how raps like "Dear Mama" were the only ones that truly reflected his mind-set? Remember how he wanted us to think he was a good guy at heart?
Well, if the new 2Pac album, "All Eyez on Me" (Death
Row/Interscope 314 524 204, arriving in stores today), is any indication, reports of his reform have been greatly exaggerated.
To call the album "hard-core" would be an understatement. From the bad-boy braggadocio of his Snoop Doggy Dogg duet, "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted," to the uncensored sex talk fleshing out "What'z Ya Phone #," the sprawling double album celebrates almost everything conservatives hate about gangsta rap: sex, violence, drugs, mindless materialism and petty crime.
About the only thing that isn't extolled to excess is weaponry -- there are no sound-effect laden shoot-'em-ups, and relatively few references to glocks and gunplay. But then, considering that Shakur was shot five times in an ambush a couple of years ago, he may be a little sensitive on the subject.
It's probably the only thing the former Baltimore High School for the Arts student is sensitive about, though, because the album is otherwise unblushing in its willingness to offend. It's almost as if it has been designed to offend the likes of anti-gangsta rap crusader C. DeLores Tucker (who is name-checked twice on the album). As closing narration in "No More Pain" puts it, "Prison ain't changed me It made me worse."
But let's be honest about it -- that's part of the appeal. Bad guys have always held a fascination for us as a culture, embodying the dark, selfish, anti-social urges average citizens feel but diligently repress.
What lends 2Pac and other gangsta rappers added impact is that their version of the bad guy plays off of a second, specifically American wrinkle: the Fear of Blackness. American pop culture is full of stories about ferocious black bad guys, from Stack-o-Lee to Superfly. Gangsta rap is in many ways just the latest and most self-conscious variation on the theme, coolly turning a profit on calculatedly shocking tales of unfettered sex and remorseless violence.
That 2Pac trades heavily on this tradition goes without saying. He avidly embraces the N-word, boasting at the beginning of "Rather Be Ya Nigga" that "I don't want to be your man, I want to be your nigga." He's forever going on about his willingness to beat down anyone fool enough to challenge him, and despite his jail time served, claims in "Ambitionz Az a Ridah" that the cops "Can't do nuthin' to a G."
Is there a moral to all this? You've got to be kidding. The closest 2Pac comes to socially redeeming content is on "Wonda Why They Call U Bitch," wherein he complains about women who use sex as a way of getting ahead in the world. "Got your legs up,
trying to get rich," he raps. "I love you like a sister, but you need to switch."
Needless to say, 2Pac is without similarly harsh words for the men who take advantage of such women.
What the album lacks in lyrical uplift is more than made up in hooks, though. "California Love" is in itself worth the price of admission, a sizzling slice of slow-thumping funk that ranks among the best things producer Dr. Dre has ever recorded. Between the multi-layered synth lines and Roger Troutman's vocoder counterpoint, its perfect fusion of '70s funk and '90s attitude pushes 2Pac's rap along with irresistible momentum. Never has the rap's West Coast sound been so appealing.
That's hardly the only highlight, however. "Can't C Me," with a guest vocal by George Clinton, is pure, bass-driven bliss, while the DJ Pooh-produced "When We Ride" moves between eerie atmospherics and hard-driving funk with awesome ease. As is typically the case with Death Row's productions, even the marginal tracks manage to be rhythmically compelling at least.
Is that enough, though? It depends on how you take the album. If you're looking for hope or anything resembling moral uplift, "All Eyez on Me" will no doubt seem a cesspool of depravity and despair. If, on the other hand, what you want is the aural equivalent of stylish gangster flicks like "Heat" or "King of New York," then 2Pac is your ticket.
To hear excerpts from the new 2Pac release, "All Eyez on Me," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6134. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.