Tupac's continuing career: A matter of grave importance

Despite his death, Shakur keeps climbing charts

Material World

December 12, 2004|By John Jurgensen | John Jurgensen,HARTFORD COURANT

Despite lingering rumors to the contrary, it's safe to say that Tupac Shakur is dead.

So why does he keep putting out records?

The rapper's latest posthumous release, Loyal to the Game, shows up in stores this week in time for the holidays. It's the seventh 2Pac record (not including greatest-hits and remix collections) to emerge since he was shot down in Las Vegas eight years ago.

Shakur's output in death can be explained by how prolific he was in life. The man who helped canonize the West Coast gangsta sound committed loads of unreleased material to tape before his unsolved murder. The demand for those songs is understandable. When Shakur was gunned down - at the age of 25 - he was one of America's most famous musicians.

But by dying young and famous, he joined a much more exclusive club. Like Elvis, Marilyn, Jimi and John, Shakur became one of those celebrities whose career continues to flourish and even diversify in death.

In 2002, Shakur entered Forbes' list of top-earning deceased celebrities at No. 10. His rank dwindled slightly on the latest list, published in October, but he still came in with a respectable $5 million in 2004, edging out Frank Sinatra at No. 20.

People have bought more than 30 million of his records since he died in 1996 - several times more than he sold as a living artist. And that tally will grow with this latest release, thanks in part to the participation of Eminem, who produced the album and also raps on it, along with 50 Cent and other word-slingers who weren't even a twinkle in Tupac's eye.

Could the dead rapper owe part of this posthumous glory to Elvis Presley?

When the King died in 1977, death was still a career killer. Within a few years, however, the Elvis estate (directed by his ex-wife, Priscilla) began to strategically cash in on his legacy. By promoting and licensing Elvis' image and work - while fiercely defending it from infringement - Elvis Presley Enterprises can still haul in $40 million a year. Needless to say, Elvis consistently tops the Forbes chart.

Mark Roesler helped gild the King's retirement from life. In 1981, he became the licensing agent for the Elvis Presley estate and went on to shape the industry with his own company. As head of CMG Worldwide, he manages the market presence of some of the biggest late stars in the business, including Princess Diana, Malcolm X, Babe Ruth and Buddy Holly. He helped the heirs of such celebrities to lay claim in court to their famous legacies.

A violent death stemming from the thug life he endorsed took Tupac Shakur out at the top of his game, but his icon status is sealed by his music, which hardcore fans interpret as scripture. What's also important - and puts the rapper in league with his contemporary, Kurt Cobain - is the timing of his rise and fall.

"Tupac was American royalty at a time when hip-hop was making that transition from underground culture to mainstream pop culture. Even though before him and possibly after him there were better artists, he continues to benefit from that in a way that other artists don't," says Bakari Kitwana, a former editor of The Source magazine and author of the forthcoming book Why White Kids Love Hip Hop.

Successful lawsuits and a deal with the record label that puts out Shakur's music gave his mother, Afeni Shakur, a former Black Panther, control over his unreleased work and the lucrative merchandising of his image. She is a co-producer of the new album, and her savvy business moves have led the estate into other ventures, including fashion.

But not everybody is happy with the way the Tupac "movement" is unfolding.

"I think they're just taking the legacy in the wrong direction," says R.J. Riddle, who writes for rap news sites on the Web under the name Robert. He also runs a site dedicated to Shakur called ThugLifeArmy.com.

Riddle is especially upset about the way Eminem has manipulated the words Shakur recorded in a different decade.

"They're twisting it to sound like Tupac is saying things that he wasn't saying, and that's wrong," Riddle says.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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