Rapper's album lives up to his promise Review: 'Greatest Hits' shows just how good Tupac Shakur was when he was being so bad.

November 24, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

It's easy to be cynical about the ways in which an untimely demise can alter an artist's reputation. "Death is a great career move," is an old recording industry joke, but it's true -- many mediocre musicians have earned lasting fame merely by virtue of having died too young.

Hip-hop has been particularly vulnerable to the gone-too-soon syndrome. After the violent and unexpected deaths of Tupac Shakur (after a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas in 1996) and Notorious B.I.G. (after a drive-by in Los Angeles the following year), the rappers were canonized by their fans, praised both for their personal strengths and professional skills.

Naturally, there were also those who believed the posthumous outpouring of passion had more to do with the suddenness of the rappers' deaths than with the significance of their work. Fortunately, Shakur's fans now have the perfect defense: 2Pac's "Greatest Hits" (Death Row/Interscope 2 90301, arriving in stores today).

Drawing from the whole of his career, the double album goes a long way toward dispelling the notion that 2Pac (to use his rap star spelling) was just a self-destructive thug. To the contrary, the 25 tracks in this collection reveal a complicated and compassionate songwriter, as comfortable with the filial devotion "Dear Mama" as with the bad-boy bravado of "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted."

Granted, there's more than a little gangsta posturing on the album, as 2Pac brags about his toughness, his ferocity and his appetite for money and women. This wasn't just a matter of writing words to suit some story he was telling; clearly, 2Pac reveled in the "Thug Life" persona he created for himself.

"Hit 'Em Up" is particularly vile, as 2Pac openly disrespects B.I.G. and the whole Bad Boy Records posse. There's no PTC mistaking the hatred in his voice as he insults these perceived rivals, or the bloodlust that fuels the dancehall-style chorus: "Grab your Glocks when you see 2Pac/Call the cops when you see 2Pac." Hearing it now makes the real-life bloodshed that engulfed the two rappers seem all the more senseless.

But if 2Pac's raps weren't entirely admirable, neither were they wholly reprehensible. For instance, even though he makes no bones about the lust he feels in "Temptations," he knows it's wrong to be such a dog. "I want to be an honest man," he raps. "But temptation's calling."

Likewise, there's an unmistakable sense of tragedy beneath raps like "To Live & Die in L.A." and "So Many Tears." True, those tracks find 2Pac talking gangsta violence in terrifying detail, but there's no sense of glory to what he's saying. Instead, the underlying message in such tracks has to do with how sad it is that so many young black men feel as though they've been condemned to such violent lives.

Above all, 2Pac's "Greatest Hits" reminds us just how musical he could be. It isn't just the way his limber, elastic flow made the most of funk built into such tracks as "California Love" and "Keep Your Head Up"; 2Pac also had a great sense of melody and phrased his raps with the taste and finesse of a singer (a trick Master P emulates to this day).

In all, 2Pac's "Greatest Hits" is a real joy. It's just a pity that we won't ever be seeing a "Vol. II."

2Pac

"Greatest Hits" (Death Row/Interscope 2 90301)

Sun score: *** 1/2

Sundial: To hear excerpts from 2Pac's new release, "Greatest Hits," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6224. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2B.

Pub Date: 11/24/98

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