Tupac Shakur contained multitudes. He was a brilliant poet, a highly trained and skilled actor, advocate and free-thinker. He's also the man who championed THUG LIFE (later explained as the backcronym The Hate U Give Little Infants F---s Everybody"), wrote songs about the disposability of women, and openly wished violence upon his enemies.
One of these does not cancel out the other -- 2Pac has done things worth glorifying and others worth condemning. But his words have outlived him, and many are just as relevant now as they were while he was still breathing. In the wake of an election that saw a man elected on a platform of discrimination and white supremacy, we looked for meaning in 2Pac's back catalog, searching for some of his most positive and socially conscious lyrics, in the hopes that 2Pac at his most woke can provide some levity for anyone confused or in pain.
"Brenda's Got a Baby"
From the jump, 2Pac's rhymes were imbued with complex narratives, humanizing the downtrodden with equal parts empathy and rage. This famous story of a 12 year old girl molested by her family, impregnated, turned out and strung out in the street is one of his darkest and most poignant. Pac lays out the story in a single verse, with strong active language that paints a vivid picture free of florid detail. It's been referenced by countless rappers, though not always so tactfully; Rick Ross once bragged on "Tupac's Back" that "Brenda's havin' my baby." Hmmm.
"Now the baby's in the trash heap balling
Momma can't help her, but it hurts to hear her calling
Brenda wants to run away
Momma say, you makin' me lose pay
The social workers here everyday
Now Brenda's gotta make her own way
Can't go to her family, they won't let her stay
No money no babysitter, she couldn't keep a job
She tried to sell crack, but end up getting robbed
So now what's next, there ain't nothing left to sell
So she sees sex as a way of leaving hell
It's paying the rent, so she really can't complain
Prostitute, found slain, and Brenda's her name, she's got a baby"
One of the more disturbing developments of the ubiquity of "trap" music is its divorce from its origin -- to call a neighborhood "The Trap" is quite literally referencing the systemic oppression that prevents its residents from climbing out of poverty. Here Pac delineates some of the Catch 22s of the Trap.
"You know they got me trapped in this prison of seclusion
Happiness, living on the streets is a delusion
Even a smooth criminal one day must get caught
Shot up or shot down with the bullet that he bought
Nine millimeter kickin' thinkin' about what the streets do to me
Cause they never talk peace in the black community"
"Holla if Ya Hear Me"
One of the things that made 2Pac so difficult for mainstream America to comprehend was the mere plurality of his existence. On tracks like "Holla If You Hear Me," he terrified pearl-clutching suburbanites with his THUG LIFE tales and his tacit approval of the life of crime. But with bars like these, he captures the anger and frustration of millions who feel trapped.
"Pump ya fists if ya feel me, holla if ya hear me
Learn to survive in the nine-tre'
I make rhyme pay, others make crime pay
Whatever it takes to live and stand
Cause nobody else'll give a damn
So we live like caged beasts
Waitin for the day to let the rage free
Still me, till they kill me
I love it when they fear me"
"Keep Your Head Up"
Quite possibly the most woke 2Pac song of all time, Pac celebrates blackness, women, and black women, promoting hope and positivity amidst tragic circumstances. The fact that it's so disparate from his most thugged out material is likely its greatest strength; if he can get the hardest, toughest gangsters to consider the strength and beauty of black women, maybe the rest of us can, too.
"Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice
I say the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots
I give a holla to my sisters on welfare
2Pac cares if don't nobody else care
And I know they like to beat you down a lot
When you come around the block, brothers clown a lot
But please don't cry, dry your eyes, never let up
Forgive, but don't forget, girl, keep your head up
And when he tells you you ain't nothing, don't believe him
And if he can't learn to love you, you should leave him
'Cause, sister, you don't need him"
Most every thug loves his mama.
"I shed tears with my baby sister, over the years
We was poorer than the other little kids
And even though we had different daddies, the same drama
When things went wrong we'd blame Mama
I reminisce on the stress I caused, it was hell
Huggin' on my mama from a jail cell
And who'd think in elementary, hey
I'd see the penitentiary one day?
And running from the police, that's right
Mama catch me, put a whoopin' to my backside
And even as a crack fiend, Mama
You always was a black queen, Mama
I finally understand
For a woman it ain't easy trying to raise a man
You always was committed
A poor single mother on welfare, tell me how you did it
There's no way I can pay you back, but the plan
Is to show you that I understand; you are appreciated"
"To Live and Die in LA"
This Pac anthem to his adopted hometown of Los Angeles (Shakur was originally from the east coast) is a love letter to a complicated town. He speaks of gangs and police drama on equal terms with women and marijuana, and even calls out the Governor. But our favorite lyric is the start to the third verse, his hat tip to brown pride, and a commonality with segregated communities.
"It wouldn't be L.A. without Mexicans
Black love, brown pride, and the sets again
Pete Wilson tryin' to see us all broke
I'm on some bullshit out for everything they owe"
"White Manz World"
An anthem that feels as urgent in late 2016 as it did in 1996. What does it feel like to be black in a world where white is right? When half the voting public wants to be led by racists?
"Eatin' Jack-Mack, Starin' at the walls of silence
Inside this cage where they captured all my rage and violence
In time I learned a few lessons, never fall for riches
Apologizes to my true sisters, far from bitches
Help me raise my Black nation, reparations are due
It's true, caught up in this world I took advantage of you
So tell the babies how I love them, precious boys and girls
Born black in this white man's world"
It's hard to say what Pac would have thought of this posthumous Elton John collaboration, but despite the relatively cheesy production values, his verses are as thoughtful and carefully considered as ever. Verses of wizened reflection like these, released after his death, are part of why so many were so reluctant to accept that he was gone.
"If I could recollect before my hood days
I sit and reminisce, thinking of bliss and the good days
I stop and stare at the younger
My heart goes to 'em, they tested with stress that they under
And nowadays things change
Everyone's ashamed of the youth
'cause the truth look strange
And for me it's reversed
We left 'em a world that's cursed and it hurts
'Cause any day they'll push the button, and all good men like Malcolm X or Bobby Hutton died for nothin'
Don't it make you get teary? The world looks dreary
When you wipe your eyes see it clearly
There's no need for you to fear me
If you take your time and hear me
Maybe you can learn to cheer me
It ain't about black or white, 'cause we human
I hope we see the light before it's ruined; my ghetto gospel"
Nothin' more gangsta than a Bruce Hornsby sample, eh? The lead single from his posthumous Greatest Hits collection, chances are this was the first time your grandma heard Pac's bars, when the DJ threw it on at your homeboy's bar mitzvah. Post-Obama, people loved to quote and sample "We ain't ready to see a Black President," but Post-Trump, 'Pac's words appear more prescient than ever.
"I see no changes, all I see is racist faces
Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races
We under, I wonder what it takes to make this
One better place, let's erase the wasted
Take the evil out the people, they'll be acting right
'Cause both Black and White are smoking crack tonight
And the only time we chill is when we kill each other
It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other
And although it seems heaven-sent
We ain't ready to see a black president
It ain't a secret, don't conceal the fact:
The penitentiary's packed, and it's filled with blacks
But some things will never change
Try to show another way, but you staying in the dope game
Now tell me, what's a mother to do?
Being real don't appeal to the brother in you
You gotta operate the easy way
"I made a G today," but you made it in a sleazy way
Selling crack to the kids
"I gotta get paid!", well hey, but that's the way it is""
"Can U C the Pride in the Panther"
The voice may be Yasiin Bey's (fka Mos Def), but the words are all Mr. Shakur's. Taken from a collection of his poems that contemporary artists reinterpreted ("The Rose That Grew from Concrete"), this first part of a two part interpretation of Pac's Panther metaphor is given some old-school spelling flair on Mos' interpretation. The original poem, below, quite directly evokes the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, of which his mother, Afeni Shakur, who was a member.
"Can You See the Pride In the Panther
As he grows in splendor and grace
Toppling obstacles placed in the way,
of the progression of his race.
Can You See the Pride In the Panther
as she nurtures her young all alone
The seed must grow regardless
of the fact that it is planted in stone.
Can You See the Pride In the Panthers
as they unify as one.
The flower blooms with brilliance,
and outshines the rays of the sun."